Game Time: 7:30 PM Pacific TV: TNT (which means actual game time...9:00 PM, finish...2:30 AM)
The Mavericks come to town with a 47-24 record, good for 2nd in the West, exactly ½ game ahead of Denver and Utah. They recently concluded a 13-game winning streak with an embarrassing home loss to the New York Knicks. Since that point they've gone 2-2, winning against Chicago and the Clippers, losing to the Celtics and Hornets. They've had five different players lead them in scoring this month: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, and Caron Butler. Throw in Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier at center plus a little bit of Jose Juan Barea at point guard and you have the meat of their rotation.
Of their two mid-season acquisitions Butler has played the best. He's routinely given the Mavs double-digit games, though his scoring has faltered in the last week. Haywood has been up and down in scoring, rebounding, and minutes. He alternates between stretches of looking All-World and Lost In Space. But with Dirk Nowitzki in the fold the Mavericks can absorb a little inconsistency from the new guys. Dirk is good for mid-20's scoring or above most games and the Mavs feed him heavily to make sure he gets there. It hasn't hurt that Jason Terry has bracketed an injury with some phenomenal scoring performances. Shawn Marion has been scoring incredibly efficiently this month as well. This isn't a new story with the Mavericks. Their roster goes up and down like waves. On a given night they get more up than down and that's how they win. Sometimes they all sink together. On the nights they all rise together they're among the most difficult teams in the league to beat.
Once upon a time you'd talk about the Mavericks mostly in terms of their offense. They still win plenty of games by blasting past 100. But they can also win quite comfortably in the 90's nowadays. They're 10th in the league in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency...a nice balance. Their offense is more deliberate than it used to be but that's to their advantage with multiple matchups to exploit on a given night. They're very good percentage shooters from most everywhere and impeccable from the foul line. Part of that high percentage comes from them knowing how to get good shots against your defense. Outside of the obligatory Nowitzki shots they don't really care who scores as long as the looks are good. A guy like Jason Terry is more than capable of delivering the fatal blow while you're preoccupied trying to compensate for Dirk. Dallas likes to score on the fastbreak but is weak in the paint otherwise. They're more opportunistic than percentage defenders. They do force a lot of turnovers. If you can establish yourself in the paint you can have some success against them. If they have a consistent weakness it's probably rebounding. They have guys who can grab them in droves but they don't get production on the boards every night.
The intriguing thing about this game is that for once the shoe is on the other foot in terms of needing both a win and sending a message. The Blazers, of course, would love the victory. It would be a feather in their caps, another notch for the standings, and the loss might stick in the Mavericks' minds should the two teams meet in the playoffs, particularly since Portland has already beaten the Mavs twice in Dallas this year. At some point one might expect Portland has their number. But Dallas needs this win to stay ahead in their ultra-tight race and to rip said number firmly out of Portland's grasp. If the Blazers lose people are going to shrug. If the Mavericks lose people are going to start to whisper. Should they follow that up with a loss in the fourth game of the series those whispers will become shouts and fans on both sides will begin to watch the playoff pairings closely. Having clear designs on the #2 seed in the West the Mavericks won't want to mess with any of that. They'll want to shut Portland down early and make them walk away with bloodied noses at the end of the night.
The Blazers are catching Dallas in a relatively unstable swing. On the other hand Portland hasn't been playing their best basketball either. The team that finds its confidence first could have a huge edge tonight. One of the keys for Portland will be to attack early and often. Don't worry about the Mavs wanting to run, just run it back at them and attack the lane whether on the break or in the halfcourt. You won't have any better chance of winning a halfcourt duel with them than you will if you all-out blitz. Portland has gotten more comfortable defending Dirk Nowitzki over the years so that's not the nightmare it once was. The Blazers do need solid scoring from their own stars, though. Portland has done a good job of attacking the Dallas backcourt and that should continue tonight. On defense the Blazers have to be aware that all five guys on the opposing side can score and most of them can pass as well. They'll have to be crisp defending screens. They'll need to limit their reliance on help defense. Utilizing Marcus Camby could be a challenge against a team that's not going to drive the lane to give him blocked shots. This may be a night for a smaller lineup.
It'll be interesting to see how both teams respond to this game. Here's hoping it's a good one at least.
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