By David Thorpe & Anthony Macri
One of the most successful franchises of the last decade, the Dallas Mavericks enter the 2011 NBA Playoffs as the third seed. The Mavericks started the season pretty fast, going 24-5. They had another period of dominance from mid January through the end of February, a 20 game stretch in which they lost only two games. That’s 42 and 7 combined, an elite level performance. Dallas performs reasonably well on both sides of the ball, and their balance also shows in their results, as they finished the season 29-12 at home and 28-13 on the road. This team moves the ball and makes shots, as evidenced by their No. 2 ranking in assists, though they are near the bottom of the league in free throw attempts, which may indicate a less aggressive mentality when it comes to shot selection. They are led by Dirk Nowitzki, likely the best shooter who stands 7 feet tall the NBA has ever seen.
The Portland Trail Blazers started the season pretty slowly, and sat at exactly .500 overall as deep as halfway through the month of January. In their final 42 games, the Blazers are 14 games over .500, winning two-thirds of their games since mid-January. Much better at home than on the road, the Blazers truly grind through possessions, as they finished the season ranked dead last in the league in pace. They are not a particularly good shooting or rebounding team, with a shooting percentage in the bottom third of the league and rebound totals that are amongst the league’s worst. However, they make up for some of those issues by taking care of the ball – they lost the fourth fewest turnovers in the league, and they also helped themselves by stealing the ball at a good rate (5th in the league in steals). Also, as a result of a combination of poor shooting and dogged determination, Portland finished in the top five in the league in offensive rebounds. Folks may remember this team as led by Brandon Roy, but the actual man-in-charge in Portland is forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who has picked up every facet of his game this season.
These teams split their regular season meetings, with each squad winning twice. Interestingly, both of Portland’s losses to Dallas came relatively early in the season (and both were on the road), while their two wins both came on or after March 15 (both in the Rose Garden).
This series will put two teams that play in very opposite ways against each other. Whichever squad is able to take control and mold the style of play in their image will have the upper hand.
Five keys to the series
Matchup: Dirk Nowitzki vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
The marquee individual matchup in this series is the one at the power forward slot between Nowitzki and Aldridge.
Nowitzki had a strong season, though not overwhelming as compared to the rest of his 13-year career. He did shoot better from the field than ever before, however. His game is still built on mid-range post-ups and the ability shoot over the top against smaller defenders and trick bigger ones into making mistakes. Nowitzki played right around his season averages in the games against Portland, though he did not shoot the ball as well from long range as he did during the season.
Aldridge’s season, the fifth of his career was easily his best. He averaged a career high in points, rebounds, blocks, steals and assists, while shooting 50% from the field. Regarded early in his career as a face-up four who could hit jumpers but would shy from contact, Aldridge changed both his image and his game this year. Still able to hit mid-range jumpers, he added a true post game to his arsenal this year, with a go-to move (right hand hook middle) and a variety of counters. He also performed well on the offensive glass. In his games against the Mavericks, Aldridge averaged 27.8 points (an increase of 6 compared to his season average) and 9.0 rebounds while shooting 51.6% from the floor.
For both players, maybe the central key will be to do what they can to put their counterpart in foul trouble. For Aldridge, this means consistently pounding Nowitzki near the rim with back-to-the-basket post-ups and forays to the offensive glass. Nowitzki should attempt to engage Aldridge on the perimeter, keep him occupied, and use multiple ball fakes to keep him off-balance. Much like their teams, these two players truly embody two very different ways to play the power forward position in today’s NBA, and should be a joy to watch.
Without looking it up: who is Dallas’ second best player? In some ways, this is actually a trick question, because there might not be a wrong answer to the question. There are plenty of options for whom a case could be made, whether it be instant-offense off the bench (Jason Terry), Mr. Versatility (Shawn Marion), the athletic center/forward who protects Nowitzki (Tyson Chandler) , or the aging Hall-of-Fame point guard (Jason Kidd).
Over the course of this postseason, the Mavericks will need at least one of those guys to be very productive and efficient in every game. During the regular season, having a second best player by committee can work – players can step up and be effective in that role against one team, and step back into the pack the very next night. But the postseason works a little differently. Here, because Portland will be so focused on stopping Nowitzki, a secondary option will need to present itself as consistently available night in and night out. Who that player will be, however, is still unknown.
Gerald Wallace: X-Factor
Since coming over to the Blazers from the Charlotte Bobcats, swingman Gerald Wallace has served as an excellent complement to the Blazer attack. All of his shooting percentages and scoring average are up since he joined Portland a little less than fifty games in, and he is a strong defender that makes them better. With his length and versatility, he can guard a player like Jason Terry at the beginning of a possession and then switch onto Dirk Nowitzki if needed. He is also the best candidate for guarding Shawn Marion and keeping him in check.
Wallace is the perfect player to step into having a big series for the Blazers against the Mavericks. He is capable of hitting jumpers and slashing to the rim, including in transition. Because he is himself a threat, he forces whoever the Mavericks use against him to actually guard. In most cases, this would mean making Marion less involved in help defense, which helps Portland’s overall attack. If Wallace can produce at a high level during this series, he gives Portland an unexpected weapon.
Long Athleticism vs. Smooth Craftiness
These two teams are built differently to play in a wholly dissimilar manner from each other. The Blazers are built with long, rangy athletes at their wing positions. Players like Wallace, Nicolas Batum, Brandon Roy and Wesley Matthews are all very capable of pressuring passing lanes and creating turnovers with their length, which they do with regularity. This team ran more when Roy was hobbled, and they were effective. But in general, the Blazers operate more like an ice pick, jabbing, poking, and prying to get the result they are looking for. One thing to watch for ... the Blazers are the league’s best team at throwing lobs. Any overplay on one of their athlete’s has the potential to end with a lob dunk.
Dallas has a very different looking roster. With the exception of newly acquired Corey Brewer and second-year guy Roddy Beaubois, both energetic jets, their long athletes are removed from the stage where that was an effective part of their game, and instead they rely on craftiness and cunning to accomplish their goals. Catches by nearly anyone on Dallas’ roster are accompanied by a ball-fake, and rarely is a dribble taken that does not either cause penetration or improve a passing angle. The Mavericks run their offense with great exactitude, consistently finding players open through smooth perimeter passing and a solid though not overwhelming transition attack. More of a scalpel, Dallas is precise both in setting its goals and meeting them.
Because of how different the two teams operate, whichever one can impose its will on the other has a major advantage over the course of the series.
One interesting aspect of this matchup is the fact that it may come down to a simple possession war: the team that controls the ball in the manner they are most comfortable and efficient in will wind up victorious. Portland is one of the better teams in the league at not turning over the ball, and they augment that ball-control style by increasing their quantity of possessions with a lot of steals and second chances. This means that they are fundamentally better against teams that do a poor job on the defensive backboard, and ones that turn the ball over more regularly.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, the Dallas Mavericks make neither error in abundance. Dallas does a very good job rebounding by committee on the defensive end, and then springing out into attack lines coming down the floor. They run their offense well, and while they are nearly average in terms of turning over the ball, they do a good job finding each other for assists in the halfcourt setting. The Mavericks will make it exceedingly tough for Portland to operate comfortably, and since the Blazer offense is inconsistent, Dallas may be able to gain an upper hand.
Prediction: Mavericks in six