This series is going to be a treat. The Spurs series was an unexpected letdown in terms of competitive value, but Mavs-Nuggets will surely do more than wet your playoff palate.
Photo by Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images.
The Mavs’ 0-4 record against the Nuggets in the regular season is well-documented, but those games couldn’t possibly mean less. Josh Howard returning from injury (and his renaissance) are akin to a major trade: it significantly changed the way that the Mavs approach the game, the way they execute on both ends, and the way Carlisle manages the rotations. The five games’ worth of Playoff Mavs has been shocking not only in quality of play, but also just how this team has evolved since their regular season dog days. The regular season irrelevancy goes double for the Nuggets. Denver was a good regular season team, good enough to secure the number 2 seed in the West. But the way that the Nuggets completely erased Chris Paul and the Hornets at large was a remarkable feat that the regular season Nuggets just weren’t capable of. At this point, no one can accuse either the Nuggets or the Mavs of not approaching the playoffs with the appropriate level of focus.
These teams match up exquisitely, and provide a bit of yin and yang at every matchup. Chauncey Billups’ function is to set up his teammates as a function of his scoring, while Jason Kidd’s function is to score as a function of getting his teammates going. Dirk Nowitzki and Kenyon Martin will face off at power forward, but couldn’t have more contrasting styles. Josh Howard, a player who broke into the league with his defense and developed more consistent offensive skills, will do his best to stick with Carmelo Anthony, a phenom with a wide offensive range who has only recently begun to groom his defense. And yet, despite these very glaring differences, each of these players provides functionally similar contributions (Billups’ and Kidd’s leadership, Dirk’s offensive impact and Kenyon’s defensive one, and Josh and Carmelo’s versatility). The defensive pieces seem physically able to counter the other team’s offensive weapons, but offensive talent will undoubtedly prevail. Essentially, you’ve got two teams doing very different things and producing the exact same results.
However, both teams have found great success by breaking down iso-heavy play into a team-oriented approach. Finding consistency with the role players is again going to decide a series for the Mavs. J.J. Barea, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Hollins appear to be up to the challenge, but success against the decidedly mortal Spurs may not be indicative of future success. Unfortunately, Denver has a huge leg up with the way their reserves have been executing on defense. The Nuggets won’t be able to enact the same strategies that worked against Chris Paul and the Hornets, but the fact that as a team the Nuggs were able to execute to near-perfection on the defensive end is a bit concerning. Chris Andersen and Anthony Carter are natural defenders off the bench, but even those considered suspect on that end (J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza) have stepped up their game and helped the Nuggets to thrive on D. If the Nuggets are able to repeat their defensive performance, the impact of players like Barea and Bass could be rendered irrelevant.
But with players like Smith and Kleiza, if you can break their concentration by denying them the instant dividends of stops, you can potentially turn them into defensive liabilities. Dallas will need to work the mismatch game and continue to move the ball if they’re going to have that kind of early success, because despite what skill set and physique will tell you about the Kenyon Martin, he can’t guard Dirk one-on-one. This season, Dirk has averaged 30 points (44% shooting), 11.3 rebounds, and just 1.5 turnovers against Denver. Over their entire careers, Kenyon has been able to “hold” Dirk to 27.8 PPG (48.5% FG) and 10.1 RPG. Martin has become a talented, physical defender that can give a lot of players trouble. I just don’t believe Dirk to be one of them. Dirk has the range to pull him to uncomfortable spots on the perimeter, he has the pet moves to put Martin in foul trouble, and even if Dirk doesn’t have position or an angle, he has the height to shoot over him. Even the league’s best defenders aren’t ideal for guarding just anybody, and Martin is no exception.
The later George Karl realizes that, the better. But the Mavs need to be prepared for the impending defensive pressure. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some of the same double-teaming strategies employed by San Antonio, with the Nuggets betting they can outlast the Mavs’ supporting cast. Dirk’s passing ability will definitely come into play once again, as his ability to find open perimeter shooters and slashers down the lane will greatly affect the flow of the Dallas’ offense. That means that the other players on the floor need to create and work in space and be ready to answer the call. In the last series, that was Josh Howard, J.J. Barea, Erick Dampier, and Brandon Bass. But with Antoine Wright poised for a more prominent role this time around, things could get a little trickier. Wright is indispensible in his ability to spell Josh Howard as a defender for Carmelo Anthony, but his shooting is a bit suspect. His ability to either finish his looks, swing the ball after drawing the rotated defender, or use that space to drive to the basket will be crucial.
“Guarding Carmelo Anthony” has been a prominent theme here, and figures to be one throughout the series. He looked completely unstoppable in the regular season, and Carlisle will have his hands full coming up with ways to slow him down. James Singleton is a rugged, physical rebounder and defender, but he lacks the technique and speed to keep up with a player of Anthony’s caliber. Antoine Wright will certainly have a go, but Anthony’s versatility will give him trouble, as well as Wright’s offensive limitations. Enter Josh Howard, the Mavs’ most promising defender at small forward. Howard didn’t have to guard an elite wing last series, but still played very impressive defense with a variety of on and off the ball tactics. And, most importantly, he was very focused and very active, a welcome to contrast to the sometimes lackadaisical Josh we’ve seen in the past. But everything won’t come up roses for Howard. He’s still a little wobbly on that bad ankle, and trying to protect against the drive while predicting Melo’s pull-up jumper won’t help in the least bit. Anthony’s got a killer first step and a vast repertoire, two factors that go heavily in his favor. It’s up to Josh to show that he’s ready for the challenge, and that whether he’s guarding Ime Udoka or Carmelo Anthony, he’s a top-notch defender in this league.
Personally, I wouldn’t take any chances. The more Josh is able to rest the better, because Anthony can be tired out just like Tony Parker was. If you give Carmelo a variety of looks and coverages to keep him on his toes, he may be worn down enough to be visibly impacted. Equally important is Josh’s offense, which can assist greatly in wearing down Anthony. Provided he’s making Carmelo work around screens and stay in front of him on the way to the basket, Josh can play a huge role in limiting Anthony’s minutes/effectiveness due to foul trouble and fatigue. Of course that’s only the beginning. Antoine Wright and James Singleton need to turn into the Mavs’ own version of the Nuggets’ Dahntay Jones, bullying and pushing on Carmelo every step of the way. That kind of beating can both wear down and test the patience of any player.
Speaking of Dahntay Jones, the Mavs defenders need to be fully aware of what he can (not a lot) and can’t do (quite a bit) offensively. I’m of the opinion that Jones’ defender should bring a strong double on either Chauncey Billups or Carmelo Anthony, forcing Jones to either make a play or make a shot. He doesn’t have much of a midrange touch and is reluctant to camp on the perimeter, which means that the Mavs’ frontline has to simply rotate to protect the basket should Jones opt to drive. Jones isn’t on the floor for his offense, so it’s up to the Mavs to take advantage of that by bothering Denver’s two best offensive options instead of Jones. Even that solution isn’t a cure-all, but the Mavs have to make the best of what they have defensively. It’s going to come down to so much more than K-Mart vs. Dirk or Chauncey vs. Kidd, because those are both going to be group efforts. Team defense is what it takes to stop teams as balanced as the Mavs and the Nuggets, and so the ability of Antoine Wright to stop J.R. Smith, while completely relevant, is really only the beginning of the discussion.
Photo from friends.mavs.com
It’s not that I don’t have great respect for Denver’s defense, but for the Mavs it really is as simple as “Do how we do, baby.” Jason Terry will face some tough defenders in Jones and Anthony Carter, but hopefully it’s nothing he won’t be able to overcome in transition and playing the two man game with Dirk. Essentially, Terry is the one spot where Denver can really take something significant away from a major Maverick producer. If Chauncey “takes away” Kidd’s offensive production, at best he’s taking away a spot-up shooter and bothering Kidd’s dribble. I have too much faith in Kidd’s court vision and ball-handling abilities to fret about that. If the Nuggets play Dirk one-on-one he’ll get his, and if not you’d hope that the role players are able to make up for the scoring with their suddenly easier looks. Howard has off-games, but he also provides a very different kind of player than anything the Nuggets had to face with the Hornets. Though Denver is a very different team than San Antonio, the series comes down to the same basic premise: rely on offensive efficiency while limiting the Nuggets enough to win. The Mavs simply don’t have the personnel to rely on defensive prowess to win, so their ability to execute against Denver’s D will determine their fate.
This series is a very winnable one for the Mavs. They have enough offensive firepower to overcome even the staunch Nuggets’ defense, and they have just enough to limit the Nuggets’ production offensively. Both of those rely on a million other factors, but the Mavs have have the players and the fight in them to advance. That said, I’m picking the Nuggets to win in seven. It’s going to take incredible strategic prowess to eliminate Dirk’s impact, but it would take a damn near miracle to eliminate Carmelo Anthony’s. Historically, he’s had his way with the Mavs, and though Carlisle has been nothing short of excellent thus far, I’m just not sure that the team can totally withstand an attack that centers around Anthony, but is by no means reliant on him. If Anthony (or Billups, or a combination of the two) can exploit the Mavs like Tony Parker was able to, Denver’s role players will finisht the job in a way the Spurs’ never could.
Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.
The Mavs’ playoff date with the Nuggets is creeping up on us, so I again enlisted some help to make sense of it all. Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com and Zac Crain of Inside Corner and D Magazine reprise their roles as roundtablers, and this time around they’re joined by Tim MacMahon from the Dallas Morning News’ Mavs Blog, David Lord of DallasBasketball.com, and Eric Celeste of Inside Corner/D.
Rob Mahoney: The good news: no more Tony Parker. The bad news: plenty of Chauncey Billups. Billups was brilliant against the Hornets in the first round, but he plays a completely different style than Parker. Does Chauncey have you shaking in your boots?
Tim MacMahon, Dallas Morning News Blog: He doesn’t scare me at all. Of course, I don’t have to play against him.
Will he have Jason Kidd shaking in his Chinese sneakers? Doubt that, but Billups does present quite a challenge for Kidd.
Kidd is still capable of putting his stamp on a playoff series because of his smarts, savvy, strength and tendency to step up in crunchtime. Billups ranks right up there with Kidd in all of those categories.
The Mavs were 18-4 in close games (decided by five points or fewer) that Kidd played in this season. Two of those losses came against Billups’ Nuggets. Coincidence? We might find out over the next few weeks.
Eric Celeste, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Not at all. Kidd is big enough to muscle with him, and Billups, while still crafty, isn’t so quick he can go around Kidd without help from screens. He averaged less than 18 points a game against Kidd this year. (Kidd didn’t play in the last game.) It’s the small quick guards that give the Mavericks so many problems. C-Bill is a great floor leader and a solid defender, but Kidd still was one assist away from a triple double when they played in November. I worry a lot more about J.R. Smith and Melo, because I don’t like counting on Anthony Wright to guard the former and I know Josh Howard *can’t* guard the latter.
Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: Kidd vs. Chauncey is as favorable a matchup as the Mavs can ask for here – and that’s no diss of Billups. Heck, maybe the Nuggets feel the same way about J-Kidd! The beauty of both of these players is that in their 30’s, they have moved to new teams and played “Extreme Makeover: Hoops Edition’’ with two franchises that were lacking. Kidd took over a team considered to be “Soft White Boyz’’ and a team that had a low BBIQ. And now? The BBIQ is Einsteinesque (maybe even MarcSteinesque!) and nobody messes with the Mavs physically because Kidd’s sheer presence commands such respect.
The fact that Chauncey has become Nicholson in the Denver Cuckoo’s Nest is equally impressive.
We know that when Kidd is on the floor in the final minutes of close games (five points or fewer), his Mavs are 18-4. What should shake some Dallas boots is that three of the close games the Mavs didn’t win this year were against. … Billups’ Nuggets.
David Lord, DallasBasketball.com: Individually, Chauncey isn’t scary to me. But his ability to harness and therefore maximize the super-athletic brigade in Denver that in past playoffs has often veered into knuckleheadedness is a concern. It’s much more challenging to get the Nuggets off track these days with Billups controlling the action, and it takes way more sustained focus to find a way to beat them now because they don’t beat themselves.
Zac Crain, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Not as much as Parker did, at least on an individual basis. He does elevate the team, though, and that worries me. Before, you could count on Nuggets playing out of control, or George Karl shooting the wheels off somehow. With Chauncey around, that’s not happening. Or, not as often.
RM: Denver has put together arguably the most complete team performance in these playoffs…although I’m sure the Mavs’ reserves would have something to say about that. How do you envision the battle of the benches unfolding?
Tim MacMahon, Dallas Morning News Blog: J.R. Smith and Jason Terry probably come close to canceling each other out. Unless Smith gets suspended for a game or two, which is a possibility considering the bad blood that he has with Antoine Wright.
J.J. Barea doesn’t match up well with the long, athletic Nuggets, but he’s on a nice roll, so you can’t count on him making an impact this series. He’s probably a push with Anthony Carter, the Nuggets’ best defensive guard.
I’ll take Brandon Bass over Linas Kleiza.
The big question about the benches is whether the Mavs can match Chris “Birdman” Anderson’s energy. That crazy guy, as Rick Carlisle referred to him earlier this season, killed the Mavs in their last trip to the Pepsi Center. Maybe fellow high-flying 7-footer Ryan Hollins is the Mavs’ answer. Hollins only played in one of the four games against Denver, but he had nine points, eight rebounds and four blocks in a Kidd-and-Josh-less Mavs’ two-point loss to the Nuggets.
Eric Celeste, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Now THIS concerns me. The Spurs’ bench couldn’t find any consistency and therefore didn’t take advantage of the Mavs’ suspect help defense. The Nugs will not have that problem. I really see a guy like Chris Anderson being a key for them. Damp hates guarding athletic guys like he and Nene. They’ve each had huge games against the Mavs this year.
Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: Funny thing. J.R. Smith goes for 20 and it’s the lead story on “SportsCenter.’’ Jet goes for 20 and. … oh, wait. That’s his average. He ALWAYS goes for 20.
All the parts fit for each team. Dallas is the club that figures to shift the biggest gear from Round 1 to Round 2, though, with JJB playing a lesser role here while Antoine Wright resumes his work as a wing/perimeter defender against any Nug who is long, quick and offensive-minded – and there are a lot of those Nugs from which to choose. There are also some Nugs who come off that bench who have a penchant for mental instability. Are they really prepared for this largo stage?
David Lord, DallasBasketball.com: Denver could have an advantage with their size at the guards, with the relatively smaller size of Jason Terry and JJ Barea making it difficult for them to match up (especially with JR Smith) on both ends of the floor. For Dallas, the bench key might be finding a way to exploit Brandon Bass’s raw strength to add easy interior shots in bunches.
Zac Crain, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Chaotically. The Nuggets don’t have anyone to keep up with J.J. (if he doesn’t start), but he also doesn’t have anyone to guard. J.R. Smith can shoot the Nuggets into and out of games, and often the same game. Both backup centers try to dunk every ball on offense and block every shot on defense. There’s a lot of canceling out in there. I think Brandon Bass is a difference maker for the Mavs.
RM: Which Mav is most likely to make Carmelo Anthony’s life difficult?
Tim MacMahon, Dallas Morning News Blog: It won’t be James Singleton. We saw during Melo’s 43-point night in the last Mavs-Nuggets game that Singleton simply can’t handle him.
Antoine Wright will probably start each game guarding Melo. But the bulk of this job should fall on Josh Howard’s shoulders. It has to if the Mavs plan to give Jason Terry his regular minutes at the two.
Is it asking too much for a hobbled Howard to defend one of the league’s most explosive scorers? Probably, but Rick Carlisle doesn’t have much choice.
Eric Celeste, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Rick Carlisle. This is when he has to earn his money. Dallas does not a have a perimeter defender who can stay with Melo. Carlisle will have to develop some defensive schemes that at least make him work for his shot. And I think he will: the thing people aren’t talking enough about in this series is the coaching match-up. George Karl teams have struggled in the playoffs relative to their talent, and Rick Carlisle teams have often overachieved. I could see that playing out here.
Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: Anybody who doesn’t think ‘Melo vs. J-Ho has a chance of being a “Mountain Duel’’ (I’m trademarking that, so don’t steal it, Rob) hasn’t been paying attention to the difference Howard makes in Dallas’ won-loss record in huge down-the-stretch games. ‘Melo spent the year getting his boys into the No. 2 spot, an impressive accomplishment. J-Ho spent two-thirds of a year helping his boys into the No. 6 spot – with a bullet up from having to worry about being ninth.
How close J-Ho can come to making this a push will tell us everything about how close underdog Dallas can come to making this a series.
David Lord, DallasBasketball.com: ‘Melo should have an offensive advantage against any Mav who guards him, so the key will be wearing him down with multiple defenders and making him expend energy on the defensive end as well. That means Josh Howard’s OFFENSIVE performance, especially in slashing to the hoop, might prove to be the Mavs’ best weapon here.
Zac Crain, Inside Corner/D Magazine: I’ll throw this out with no real backing other than a gut feeling: James Singleton. I think he’s strong/fast enough to frustrate Melo — at least a little bit. I’d rather see Josh play Dahntay Jones, kicking ass on offense and on weakside help, rather than burning fouls trying to keep up with Melo. Start Antoine Wright on him, then Singleton, with maybe Josh for short stretches. Melo is going to get his. I just don’t want his to include “all of Josh’s fouls.”
RM: Agree or disagree: Denver’s great defensive hope, Kenyon Martin, won’t be much of a problem for the offensive talents of Dirk Nowitzki.
Tim MacMahon, Dallas Morning News Blog: Disagree. Not saying that Dirk won’t have a big game or two or three – he did put up 44 in his last visit to the Pepsi Center – but Martin is the kind of nasty, athletic defender that is a pain in Dirk’s posterior. Dirk will get his points, but he’ll have to work hard for them.
Eric Celeste, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Agree. According to my steel-trap memory, Dirk averaged 87 points and 21 boards against the Nuggets this year. Or something like that. He will get his. The question for me is will Josh make Melo work on the defensive end or continue his evolution into the black Dan Majerle (a former driving force who settles for 3 pointers). I actually think Jason Terry will be the difference-maker, positive or negative, in this series.
Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: My man Michael Irvin was on the radio the other day talking about the “intimidation factor’’ when it comes to K-Mart vs. Dirk. I think labeling this Denver team the “Thuggets’’ is funny and all. But K-Mart has a tattoo of big pink lips on his neck and just bought a mansion in Arlington.
How ghetto can he be?
I hate to break this to Dirk Detractors, but Nowitzki averaged 30 ppg against Denver this year.
You people get off The UberMan’s back. He’s gonna be busy trying to use that back to carry his team to the Western Conference Finals.
David Lord, DallasBasketball.com: Agree. If the Nuggets don’t give KMart lots of help from the outset, he’ll eat them alive. But I look for them to add double-teams and junk defenses very early in the series to try to keep Dirk at bay.
Zac Crain, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Agree. Kenyon Martin used to be the kind of defender that would have killed Dirk. He’s solved that problem, and I don’t think Carlisle would put him in situations where it still is a problem. He’ll get his looks. And I think he knocks down more than he doesn’t.
RM: Describe this series in one word.
Tim MacMahon, Dallas Morning News Blog: Heated.
Eric Celeste, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Crisitunity (Only because “tattoo-y” isn’t a word.)
Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: I gave you “Thuggets’’ and “Mountain Duel’’ and in my back pocket I got me some “We Aren’t Chicken, Nuggets!’’ What do you want from me?
David Lord, DallasBasketball.com: Intriguing.
Zac Crain, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Dirk’s.
6. Prediction time: who ya got?
Tim MacMahon, Dallas Morning News Blog: Nuggets in seven.
Eric Celeste, Inside Corner/D Magazine: The shocks continue: Mavs in 6.
Mike Fisher, DallasBasketball.com: I haven’t missed on a Mavs postseason series prediction all year. Mavs. Again. Or not. I dunno.
David Lord, DallasBasketball.com: I keep coming up with a tie in my initial analysis. It’s that close.
In particular, I give the Mavs big plus points for Dirk and JHo, while I give the Nuggets big plus points for Melo and JR Smith. Behind that I see PG-C-other starter as a combined wash, and the other bench players (primarily Birdman and JET) as unpredictable wild cards that are probably also going to be a wash. To me that leaves the outcome teetering on whether Denver’s home court and altitude matters more than the fact that the Mavs seem to be morphing into the deadly 67-win capable team of two years ago, combined with the headiness of Kidd to keeping them focused and confident.
Ultimately? I think experience matters the most in the playoffs – and despite their recent failures, this Mavs team also has a whole team of guys who have experienced playoff success in the not-too-distant past. Meanwhile, virtually this entire Nuggets’ core other than Billups is already farther than they’ve ever been before. (If you recall the Mavs in Miami, didn’t they unravel once they reached unprecedented heights?)
In addition, the Mavs beating the Spurs didn’t surprise me, but the way they virtually controlled that series against a set of wily accomplished playoff winners did. Going into SA and winning an elimination game against the Spurs on their home floor, while leading wire-to-wire and managing that lead where it was never really close in the 4th quarter, is a statement being made that I think few noticed. As a result, I’m taking the Mavs here, because I think they’ve grown up enough with Kidd’s leadership where they make things happen. Even in adversity, they are finding ways to fight through it – and that’s not your same ole Mavs. It’s a new and improved version – of something that not so long ago was really really good.
Give me Dallas in 6.
Zac Crain, Inside Corner/D Magazine: Mavs in 6.
A hearty thanks to the whole gang for their contributions, and you can expect a full preview post from me in the near future.