Sonics (16-24) vs. Dallas (32-10)
Thursday, January 26, 7:30 p.m.
KeyArena TV: TNT Radio: KJR AM 950 Buy Tickets:
Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM
The opportunity is there for the Dallas Mavericks. When the Mavericks last visited Seattle a little more than a month ago, there was lamenting for the fact that, despite the second-best record in the Western Conference, the Mavericks were likely doomed to finish second in the Midwest Division and thus with no better than the fourth seed in the Western Conference, meaning a semifinals showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. That issue of the two best teams in the conference playing in the same division works both ways, however, and with Manu Ginobili sidelined by a couple of injuries and Tim Duncan limited by plantar fasciitis, the Mavericks have nearly caught San Antonio. As of this morning, Dallas sits just a half-game back of the Spurs for home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. San Antonio boasts a slightly better point differential (+6.7) than the Mavericks (+6.1), but Dallas has played 23 of its first 42 games on the road while the Spurs have had a slightly more favorable travel schedule.
The Mavericks have done it with balance, thanks to the development of youngsters Devin Harris and Marquis Daniels. While Dirk Nowitzki is far and away the team's leading scorer at 25.4 points per game and could become a legitimate MVP candidate if Dallas wins the West, six Mavericks players are averaging at least 11 points per game. Seven are pulling down at least four rebounds per game and five average at least 2.5 assists, making up for Dallas' lack of a dominant force in either category.
Because the Mavericks are ninth in the NBA in points allowed, a far cry from their run-and-gun days, there's been much discussion of a renewed defensive focus in Dallas under Coach Avery Johnson, once a backup point guard for the Sonics. This line of thinking, however, is a year behind. Last year, Dallas - with Johnson serving as pseudo-defensive coordinator for the first half of the season and taking over as head coach later on - improved to ninth in the NBA in Defensive Rating. This year, that mark is actually slightly down, with the Mavericks ranking 11th. (Their rank in points allowed has improved because Johnson has slowed the pace as compared to predecessor Don Nelson.) Either way, the Dallas defense has been plenty good enough to win games with an offense that ranks second in the league by scoring 113.1 points per 100 possessions.
Though the Mavericks come into this game on a roll, having won six in a row and nine of their last 10, their offense might not be quite as potent as usual this evening because of injuries. Starting guard Daniels has missed the last 10 games with a sprained neck. He was close to returning from that injury before leaving the team for personal reasons, which will leave him out tonight. During last night's 102-93 win over the Golden State Warriors, sixth man Harris strained his right shoulder, which will likely sideline him tonight. But the Mavericks have benefited from the return of veteran guard Jerry Stackhouse (who made his season debut in Seattle last month); Stackhouse has led the team in scoring each of the last two games.
The Seattle SuperSonics come into tonight's nationally-televised game on their best roll of the Bob Hill era. Yesterday, the Sonics were able to sustain the momentum of their 152-149 double-OT win in Phoenix Sunday by blowing out the Jazz in Utah by 19 points. The Sonics got an excellent performance from their bench, which combined for 46 points and 17 rebounds. Seattle's offensive surge has propelled the team into third in the NBA in Offensive Rating (right behind the Mavericks), averaging 112.2 points per 100 possessions.
G U A R D S
Seattle native Jason Terry never had particularly special games against the Sonics when he was in Atlanta, but that changed when he was traded to the Mavericks before last season. Actually, Terry hasn't played tremendously well overall in three visits to Seattle since then, averaging 13.3 points and 6.3 assists on 14-for-33 shooting. But in all three games, he's hit a key shot late in a Dallas victory. The message to Sonics defenders should be clear: Stay on Terry late in the game if it's close. Terry is a good scorer throughout the country, of course; he's the Mavericks second-leading scorer at 16.4 points per game and is hitting 41.5% of his 3s. Despite getting stitches after taking a shot above his eye during last night's game, Luke Ridnour extended his streak of double-figures scoring to four games and six of his last seven as he continues to score well.
Adrian Griffin did not sign with the Mavericks until Nov. 28, after off-season addition Doug Christie was forced into retirement by injuries, but he's already started 22 games because of injuries to Daniels and Josh Howard. Griffin, who spent 2001-02 and 2002-03 with the Mavericks, is a good defender who has done a good job on the glass this season (7.7 rebounds per 40 minutes) and is shooting 49.1% from the field, though he's the Mavericks last option offensively. Dallas has done a good job of defending All-Star Ray Allen the lat two seasons. Allen was limited to 18 points per game and 37% shooting last year, and had 19 while shooting 1-for-7 from downtown against the Mavericks in December.
F O R W A R D S
A solid contributor to a veteran Dallas team two years ago as a rookie, Howard has continued to develop since then. He's averaging career highs of 15.6 points and 7.0 rebounds this year. Howard is a very good defender who also is a well-rounded contributor on offense and on the glass. Howard had 20 points against the Sonics earlier this season. Early foul trouble and the success of the Sonics bench limited Rashard Lewis to 21 minutes of action last night, in which he scored 16 points. The relatively easy evening should leave Lewis well-rested for tonight's game. Though he pulled down a season-high 12 boards against the Mavericks, Lewis was limited to 16 points.
It's been another brilliant season for Nowitzki, the NBA's seventh-leading scorer (and tops amongst big men). For the most part, his numbers are indistinguishable from seasons past, but Nowitzki has been even more deadly from downtown (hitting a career-high 43.1% of his 3-pointers). He's also fallen off on the glass; his 8.4 rebounds per game are his lowest mark since his second NBA season. Nowitzki is the key to an offense that has been one of the NBA's best in recent seasons, an almost impossible defensive matchup as a 7-0 sharpshooter. Who will get that assignment for the Sonics remains up in the air after Vladimir Radmanovic sprained his right foot during the win over the Jazz. If he's unable to play, Nick Collison would likely move into the starting lineup.
C E N T E R
Signed by the Mavericks this summer as a free agent after four unproductive seasons in Cleveland, DeSagana Diop has been a revelation and moved into the starting lineup earlier this month. Diop is Dallas' second-best regular in terms of adjusted plus-minus, trailing only Nowitzki. Diop is a non-factor on offense, averaging a paltry 4.3 points per 40 minutes, but he's a solid per-minute rebounder (10.6 per 40 minutes) and an outstanding shot-blocker (4.4 per 40 minutes, third in the league). Sonics center Robert Swift continues to play tremendous basketball. In his second start, Swift pulled down a career-high 12 rebounds and had a couple of impressive dunks.
B E N C H
Stackhouse (right) gives the Mavericks a top-tier scorer off the bench. Thus far this season, he's averaging 12.9 points (and 22.1 per 40 minutes). Stackhouse is shooting 45.4% from the field, which would easily be a career high if he could sustain it. Where he is most dangerous is getting to the free-throw line with his aggressive drives to the hoop. Erick Dampier has actually been slightly more productive since being bumped to the bench by Diop, averaging 5.8 points and 8.7 rebounds in six games. He is an superb rebounder who hasn't contributed much on offense since coming to Dallas as a free agent. Keith Van Horn returned last night from a sprained ankle and was rusty, finishing with two points in 16 minutes. Still, he helps the Mavericks play a similar style even when Nowitzki is on the bench. Darrell Armstrong becomes the backup point guard if Harris can't go, and provided the Mavericks a big lift with his defense against the Sonics. Ronald "Flip" Murray (left) scored 15 points against the Mavericks, but it took him 15 shots to get there. Murray has been more efficient with his offense in recent games. Forward Damien Wilkins is looking to build off consecutive double-figure scoring efforts where he has been very aggressive and made good decisions with the basketball. Johan Petro has played well behind Swift as a reserve the last two games.
USELESS STAT OF THE DAY
The Sonics are undefeated when Swift starts (2-0).
The Mavericks visited KeyArena on Dec. 23. The game was tight throughout, with Dallas leading by no more than six points (the Sonics led by 12 at one point). It was 95-94 Sonics with possession with 52.9 seconds left when Ridnour turned the ball over in backcourt, leading to a Nowitzki dunk. Ridnour missed on the Sonics possession, forcing the Sonics to get a stop. They couldn't, with Terry hitting a 3-pointer to make it a four-point game the Mavericks eventually won 101-98. Nowitzki had games highs of 34 points and 13 rebounds, while Lewis had 16 and 12 for the Sonics and Radmanovic came off the bench for 20 points and nine boards.
For more analysis before tonight's game, listen to David Locke on the Sonics Pregame Show starting at 6:50 on KJR 950 AM and 7:00 on Sonics Radio Network stations. After the game, Jack Sikma will join Locke on the Postgame Show.