Yesterday we took a look at the statistical battle between the Trail Blazers and Mavericks. Today we're going to delve into particular players and the problems they pose. As many of you know I am not a big fan of the "PF: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Dirk Nowitzki" style of analysis. Dirk Nowitzki will will physically matched up with LaMarcus Aldridge AND Nicolas Batum AND Marcus Camby AND Gerald Wallace and regularly might face a different player on either end of the floor. Instead we're going to approach this from the individual point of view: What does each player bring to the table and how might the other team look to combat or mute those strengths?
Dirk Nowitzki 23 ppg, 7rpg, 52% shooting
Nowitzki is the key to this series for both the Mavericks and Blazers. Let Dirk go unchecked and Portland will have a hard time winning, not just because of his offensive prowess but because he's good at spotting open teammates created by defensive attention to him. Contain Dirk and the Mavericks will have a difficult time generating enough offense to take the series.
Dallas may be a half man short on offense because of Tyson Chandler's limitation but Nowitzki pretty much makes up for that missing half. He's a fantastic shooter, too tall to get his shot blocked. He's almost freakishly poised. It's like the bad-shot-against-the-clock fairy landed on his shoulder and said, "Oh Dirkie, I will bless you with magical charms so that horrible shots for everyone else in the league become swishes from your hands." His lean-back jumper is just plain sick. If he shoots with 1 second left on the timer it's going in.
The Blazers' first line of defense will be denial. They're going to try and keep the ball out of Dirk's hands and take their chances with everyone else. Failing that they'll try to bother him if he puts the ball on the floor, poking hands into the 7-footer's dribble. Nicolas Batum is probably the best guy for either task. Batum doesn't have a prayer of bothering the jumper but who does?
Another tactic will be to work Dirk on the other end. The Mavs might try to switch him away from the action, perhaps watching Marcus Camby instead of Aldridge. This is where I'd expect to see a smaller, scoring-heavy frontcourt, making him choose between Aldridge and Gerald Wallace. The Blazers should give the ball to whoever he guards. Let them try to go around him, out-muscle him, and especially draw fouls.
Click through for the rundown on the rest of the Mavericks and the Blazer lineup as well.
Jason Terry 16 ppg, 4 apg
Terry has slowed down as he's aged. He's no longer a threat to drop 30 on you or even 20 most nights. He topped 25 only three times this year. He's Dallas' second most prolific three-point shooter behind Jason Kidd, though his average is lower than any of their volume trey takers. In short, his game has become jumper-oriented and, for the most part, average. Portland's defenders, now populating the second unit as well as the first, should eat him up. The Blazers also possess a significant height advantage against Terry and should look to abuse him thereby.
Shawn Marion 12.5 ppg, 7 rpg, 52% shooting
Marion is as efficient in this year's offense as he's ever been in his career. At 10.4 attempts per game he's just not gotten the opportunities he used to. His three-point shot, never a thing of beauty but formerly deadly, has gone to pot. He's still great on the break but he doesn't have the horses to run with him. He brings unique athleticism to Dallas' attack but it's sometimes wasted. Fortunately he's reinvented himself by finding seams and looking great on his shorter jump shots. If there's a breakout possibility for the Mavs in this series it's Marion. And make no mistake, Marion could potentially send the Blazers packing. He won't win the series by himself but he could deliver the knockout punch while Nowitzki holds the Blazers' arms behind their backs. Portland will need to keep Marion outside, playing him for the drive first. Despite his explosive potential the Blazers might also be content with keeping the ball in his hands as he's not an avid passer and his offense tends to suffer when he stalls and dribbles. They'll need to watch him on the offensive glass. Best guess: the Blazers are fully aware of Marion but aren't going to be afraid of him until he proves he can hurt them.
Jason Kidd 8 ppg, 8 apg, 1.7 spg
Jason Kidd used to be an "everything but the three-pointer" kind of player. Now he's a three-point specialist. I kidd you not. 5 of his 7.5 shot attempts per game are from distance. He shoots 34% from the arc, 36% overall. He's not getting to the bucket, he's not getting open and converting on picks, he's shooting the long ball. That says volumes about his speed and explosiveness at this stage of his career. He is as savvy as he ever was, though. He'll trick you with the pass and the steal. He's got a mind for offense like nobody else on this team. His brain remains his greatest defensive asset as well and, unlike the other Mavericks guards, he has size to make up for his fading maneuverability. Kidd won't turn the series for the Mavs but he's unlikely to lose it for them either. The Blazers want to keep him moving. They'll also counter with a pretty smart point guard of their own.
Tyson Chandler 10 ppg, 9.5 rpg
Chandler is the only Maverick of size likely to cause the Blazers trouble and that trouble comes almost exclusively in the rebounding department. He has the ability to clean up the boards and thus keep the Blazers from their possession-oriented gameplan. The best solution has always been to take it right at him, occupying his mind with other things besides glass cleaning. He's a good defender but a mediocre shot blocker. If you drive it right into his body he'll not stop you and will probably pick up a foul. If you get nose to nose with him for rebounds he'll likely freak out. He's like a big, tough-looking dog that shuffles off when actual fights come around. If the Blazers refuse to be intimidated by him they should be OK. Even better, Chandler presents the Mavericks with a serious quandary on the defensive end if the Blazers run a Wallace-Aldridge frontcourt. Which one of those does Chandler watch? Either way he has to get outside of the lane, lessening his rebounding ability and allowing those all-important offensive rebounds for the Blazers. He's not going to burn either smaller defender on the offensive end either. He hits every shot he takes but he only takes 5.5 per game because if it's not a layup it's not in his comfort zone. Dallas' best plan in such an eventuality would be to sit Chandler but he's literally all the muscle they have outside of the mercurial Marion. They'll not rebound or play strong without him. Portland should look to exploit the big guy at every opportunity and watch Dallas try to compensate.
The Rest: Jose Juan Barea, Peja Stojakovic, Rodrigue Beaubois, DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Corey Brewer
There's some promise in this group, a little history, but not much explosive or dependable. Barea can shoot but Portland also demonstrated in their last game against Dallas that they're more than willing to post him up every time down the floor, breaking the Dallas defense. Stojakovic hasn't been scary for four years. Beaubois holds most of the promise, occasionally piping up with a stellar game. The Blazers will live with one of those in this series and won't worry unless he shows he can beat them every game. Haywood has been anemic this year, Stevenson has been anemic forever, and the next time Corey Brewer wins a game for his team will be the first. They've got skills, athleticism, and size mixed into this group but those attributes are spread too thinly among its various members. Each guy should have moment to shine but the Blazers should be able to counter whichever player gets thrown out there. Let's put it this way...if the Blazers can handle Nowitzki none of these guys are going to make a difference. If they can't handle Dirk he's going to make all of these guys look their best.
LaMarcus Aldridge 22ppg, 9rpg, 50% shooting
Aldridge's offense has leaped forward this year, becoming as scary as Nowitzki's in many ways, if not as varied. Mixing in the pick and pop with a little post play has created a flood of opportunities on the strong side of the floor, which in turn has led to more opportunities for Portland's weak-side shooters. The Mavs will try to key on Aldridge the same way the Blazers are keying on Dirk. LaMarcus will be tested with double teams, having to prove his ability to attack with the pass. The alley-oop will be scouted, the pick and pop closed on, the post moves swarmed as soon as he puts the ball on the floor. Aldridge is tall and quick enough that some of this will be in vain. He needs to score in this series and understand that his aggression is Portland's best hope for winning, maybe their only hope in that his offense creates everyone else's open looks. If he plays like a mouse the Blazers will be trapped and disposed of. Portland needs its lion to roar. But Aldridge also has to find and trust his teammates...a quality which led to plenty of late-season wins for the Blazers. If the offense gets bogged down to LMA only Portland won't generate enough pressure on Dallas' defense to tire them or rotate them out of position to create easy looks, fouls, and rebounding opportunities. It's a tricky balance and Portland must find it early in the series.
Gerald Wallace 16 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.0 spg, 50% shooting (as a Blazer)
Mr. Do-Everything is going to be a handful for the Mavericks, especially since most of the defensive attention will be devoted to Aldridge. We said Shawn Marion had explosive, break-the-game potential. Wallace breaks everything he touches. He's not always on but when he is Portland becomes hard to defend. His combination of distance shooting, driving, passing, and strength makes him a tough cover. His will to defend and rebound plus his propensity for steals makes him equally dangerous on the other end. The best guess is that the Mavs will play against the drive, making Wallace show multiple times that his sterling shooting during his Portland tenure is for real. They also have some hope on the other end, depending on Marion's athleticism and Nowitzki's height to counter the famed GW defense. The Mavs have to get a great showing out of Marion if they're going to make this series easy. The danger for them is that showing being matched by Wallace and thus rendered neutral at best. In that sense Wallace is Portland's king-maker behind Aldridge's throne.
Andre Miller 13 ppg, 7 apg
Miller is Portland's veteran point guard countering Jason Kidd. Neither player is what they once were but Miller is probably closer. He's got scoring ability, passing acumen, and enough bulk and strength to not be intimidated by his counterpart. His great intangibles are his unflappability and timing. He's not in the position of winning games for the Blazers but he subtly saves them with a timely shot or incisive pass. He knows just when to execute each. His defense is his weak point and should the Blazers match him up against Terry the Mavs should take a run at him. Forcing him outside is desirable and Kidd is capable of that. Miller has been an advantage for the Blazers in most games this year but just as Wallace does with Marion, Kidd may nullify Portland's Miller edge.
Wesley Matthews 16 ppg, 41% 3pt shooting
Matthews is Portland's second-leading scorer on the season. He's good at getting his jumper off. He's an able defender, particularly against quick players. His main fault is inconsistency. The Blazers badly need his shooting and his points. He's intermittent in delivering. When he's on he's fantastic. When he's off it's like he doesn't exist. He doesn't fill up the stat line in other ways either...it's mostly feast or famine. Matthews will be called upon to contain any Dallas guard who gets hot regardless of size or position. The Mavericks, in return, should simply keep a hand in his face and invite him to take the ball inside. He drives like a Britney Spears divorce. Everybody sees it coming. If Dallas can take Matthews out of the equation the Blazers are suddenly unstable on offense, scrambling to find a substitute for those points. All of their backup plans lack defense, so Dallas ends up ahead. This may be the place at which the Blazers are the most vulnerable.
Nicolas Batum 12.5 ppg, 4,5 rpg
Batum will likely draw plenty of time on Nowitzki in this series. He'll also be asked to drive on and shoot over any defender Dallas puts in his way besides Shawn Marion. (If Marion is watching Batum then Wallace will be set loose.) If Aldridge is the key and Matthews the vulnerable point, Batum is the wildcard. He'll not lose the series with a bad performance but a great one could push Portland over the top, finally breaking the dam that Aldridge and Wallace will hammer at. If Dirk manages to get Batum in foul trouble, though, the Blazers may be thin on substitutes. Even if they don't, Batum has been prone to vacillations as wide as Matthews'. The Blazers cannot afford 8 point, 4 rebound nights from Nicolas no matter who he's guarding. Portland will have to be great to win this series and they're not great when Batum becomes invisible. Dallas would be well-advised to try and foul Batum to the bench, particularly if he's guarding Nowitzki. If he's guarding Marion then Shawn should try to overpower him. Denying Batum the ball on the offensive end may encourage him to fade. He still doesn't perform well under serious defensive pressure in any case. He needs openings in order to be effective and he doesn't create them as much as take advantage of them. Dallas will probably keep a wary eye on him.
The Rest: Brandon Roy, Marcus Camby, Rudy Fernandez, Patty Mills
On the surface these names look plenty good. In reality this group is thin and shaky. Roy has an awesome reserve of talent but still looks like a shell of the player he once was. Yet finding his way among roles and teammates, he looks and plays lost. Dallas should make him prove he can score with authority before even considering double teaming him. They should also drive right at him when he defends. Camby gives Portland those all-important rebounds but hasn't come back fully from injury and doesn't give the Blazers a ton of minutes. Fernandez is a wandering desert punctuated by the occasional blessed oasis. He plays energetically and can spark a game but his once-lauded three-point shot is completely erratic now and he still doesn't bring enough on defense to bother a good team like Dallas, save perhaps on those occasions when he goes bonkers with steals. Mills provides instant offense for both teams. All in all this is probably a better bench group than Dallas fields but it isn't as deep and isn't anywhere near dependable enough to lean on as a series-changer. The Mavericks will probably be happy to get to these guys.
These teams are intriguing. It's not just a matter of who they've got. This series is too close to call on talent. It will be decided by how that talent plays. This is where Dallas' experience level comes into play. They already know how to do what they're attempting. The Blazers will have to figure it out on the fly. With series routinely tipping on one game, Portland will need to find direction and consistency quickly. It's not a matter of who can win but who has the focus and will to win.
P.S. The Jersey Contest form is now available for playoff participants. If you're not on the playoff participant list please do not enter. It just confuses things for no good reason. You cannot win unless you are on the list!