By Sekou Smith, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 14 2011 7:41PM
How in the name of Naismith does a 57-win team with a top-three seed, one of the game's greatest players, ridiculous depth, a top-flight coach and a raucous home court advantage become the team everyone wants a piece of in the NBA playoffs? When you are the Dallas Mavericks, owners of a somewhat spotty recent postseason history, this is your life. You play the role of underdog, regardless of the circumstances.
A straw poll of players (headed by Lakers reserve swingman Matt Barnes) and coaches (Nuggets head man George Karl comes to mind) had the Mavericks running away with the election for the team everyone wanted to get their hands on in the first round of the playoffs. "A lot of teams want to play us," Mavericks guard Jason Terry said, "and they are going to get their chance, one by one."
The Portland Trail Blazers get the first crack at Dirk Nowitzki and his mates. They don't fear the Mavericks either. "I think it's a good matchup for us," said Blazers swingman Nicolas Batum. "We split the series this year at 2-2 and we lost two close games at their place."
While the Mavericks fancy themselves one of the league's true contenders this season and one of the elite teams on either side of the conference bracket, they are clearly not held in high esteem everywhere.
1. Will Caron Butler return to the Mavericks lineup in time to make an impact in this series? Butler made it clear during a recent chat on the Hang Time Podcast that he planned to make his return from January knee surgery in time to work in the playoffs. There is no reason to assume that has changed.
2. Is LaMarcus Aldridge really going to come all the way back home to Dallas and try and break the heart of the hometown fans? You better believe it. The Seagoville High product has had his way with the Mavericks in four games during the regular season series, averaging 27.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and shooting better than 51 percent from the floor.
3. DeShawn Stevenson in the starting lineup in place of (an injured) Roddy Beaubois, the right move or wrong move? Not only is it the right move for the Mavericks, it's the best move. Until Roddy B. gets healthy again, Stevenson will have to be the answer in the starting lineup.
4. How crucial is it for both teams to play well on their home floor? It is imperative for two teams that split the season series, with both teams winning their two home games by the slimmest of margins. The Mavericks won their two games in Dallas by a combined eight points and the Blazers their two games in Portland by a combined 11 points.
5. Can the Mavs count on Tyson Chandler to change their playoff persona from a finesse team to a rugged, defensive-minded crew? Sure they can. Chandler helped deliver them of that status during the regular season and can do the same in the postseason. He has to if the Mavs plan on playing deep into May and possibly June.
A veteran NBA advanced scout gave us his breakdown of the two teams, and these are teams that he swears bear a striking resemblance to one another in that they have perimeter big men as their offensive anchors and crafty veteran point guards running the show. "The Mavericks definitely will play up and down more than any of Rick Carlisle's teams in Indiana and even Detroit did in the past," he said. "Rick has definitely loosened the reigns since then. He's still a guy that has a lot of sets and runs a lot of things. He lets [Jason] Kidd call his own plays and really lets them go. They run a lot more stuff in early offense. His Indiana teams he would slow them down and call plays, but not with this team. He really does let Kidd do his thing. And with [J.J.] Barea out there with Kidd, you have two ball handlers in the game, if the ball comes out to Barea, they'll get into their transition game just as easily." But Kidd is the key to orchestrating everything.
The Mavericks love to strike early, our scout said, "probing the defense early looking for easy opportunities early in the shot clock. And if they do have to go into the offense, deep into their sets, they look to Dirk Nowitzki at the end of those possessions and also to Jason Terry spotting up or on the dribble-drive, when he is in the game." There is no secret to where they are going, they make it a point to "out-execute" you.
This used to be Brandon Roy's team, our scout said, and everyone knew they would bleed the shot clock down and let him work in an isolation situation. But the injuries to his knees this season shifted the offensive burden to LaMarcus Aldridge, who has surprised a lot of people with how physical he can be since he's not considered a classic, low-post big man. "It's Aldridge's team, make no mistake," the advance scout said. "What he wants to do is face and shoot, he's a perimeter oriented big without a doubt, not unlike a Chris Bosh in that they can score in the post against basically anyone, but they are more comfortable in a face and shoot situation."
McMillan doesn't have a reputation of coaching a particularly up-tempo style, but this team thrives in transition due mostly to the work of a veteran point guard of their own in Andre Miller. "I wouldn't call them a half court team, but Nate is not unlike Carlisle," our scout said. "If they have something in transition, he will encourage them to take it. Nate's a guy that's always been pretty adaptable. His teams have always run good sets, whoever his point guard has been, and like Carlisle he has some of the best ATO (after timeout) plays and they always have a good balance of half court and transition stuff they can run. It's no-frills stuff that they run and they just find a way to do it better than you can defend, for the most part."
The Mavericks prefer to play a two-man game with Kidd (or Terry) and Nowitzki working together to find the best shot in the closing seconds of the shot clock in crunch time. But they also have other options when Butler is on the floor, giving them a stronger presence off the dribble with a swingman bigger than Terry or Kidd but a much different threat than Nowitzki, who likes to take advantage of mismatches from the wing and in.
The Trail Blazers are much more varied in how they operate in clutch situations, because they can go with Miller creating off the dribble or feeding Aldridge and letting him go to work in an iso set. But they also have the versatile Batum, who is good in transition and is an excellent finisher, as an offensive weapon capable of making plays slashing and above the rim, if need be.
If the Mavericks do get Butler back things change automatically, because they would add his toughness and leadership back to their mix and take some of that pressure off of Nowitzki, Kidd and Terry. But it all depends on how his knee has responded to weeks of intense rehabilitation.
When the Trail Blazers acquired Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline it was unclear how he would fit in with an already tight-knit team that was pretty comfortable in its rotation and how everyone fit into that rotation. Wallace eased any concerns by doing what he always does, outworking the opposition from one end of the floor to the other. He showed, particularly against the Los Angeles Lakers' Ron Artest, that he will not back down from any challenges, physical or otherwise, and that he can thrive without any sets specifically designed to get him the ball on the offensive end. He's averaging 16 points and eight rebounds in 38 minutes a game sine the trade. "That's phenomenal," our scout said, "when you realize that they're working with that smaller lineup across the front with he and Batum at the forward spots and Aldridge at the five [center position]."
For all of the folks that wanted a piece of the Mavericks in the playoffs, the Trail Blazers seem to be the one team all of the higher seeds would have liked to avoid. If the Mavericks take their eyes off of them for even a second, to peak ahead at what might be in the next round, they could find themselves in that familiar playoff position of wondering where they went wrong. "They can't afford to split those first two at home, if for no other reason than their history," our scout said. No one with home court advantage wants to split those first two. Dallas in Six.
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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