After two games of passive defense, the Portland Trail Blazers needed to increase their activity level to keep themselves from getting swept away by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. Give the Blazers credit, then, for doing just that—challenging passes, pressuring dribbles, and simply playing harder than the Mavs en route to a 97-92 victory.
This difference in activity level was clearly actualized in the first few minutes of the game.
- Gerald Wallace fought through a cross-screen and deflected an entry pass into Shawn Marion.
- A kick-out pass by DeShawn Stevenson was thrown directly at Wallace for a steal.
- Marcus Camby tapped out a loose ball in traffic for an offensive rebound.
- With Wesley Mathews hounding Jason Kidd bringing the ball up and Andre Miller pressuring Stevenson at mid-court, a Kidd pass to Stevenson sailed out of bounds.
- Camby rotated nicely from the weak side to block a Marion layup attempt.
- LaMarcus Aldridge and Matthews trapped a Kidd wing screen/roll and deflected Kidd’s pass for a steal.
- Matthews swiped at a Jason Terry dribble from behind for another deflection.
- Matthews again knocked away a Kidd pass, and poked a dribble from him on the same possession leading to a steal.
After forcing only six Mavs turnovers in Game Two, the Blazers were able to create three steals, force four turnovers, block a shot, grab an offensive board, generate four deflections, and make "energy" plays on eight defensive or loose ball possessions—all within the first six minutes of the game.
These deflections fueled Portland’s previously absent transition game and allowed Matthews to get going in transition where he sank his first four threes and his first six overall shots while his teammates eased into the game.
Of course the Mavericks would rebound behind a splendid offensive showing by Jason Terry—10-13 FG, 5-7 3FG, 4-5 FT, 7 AST, 2 TO, 29 PTS, but the ability for the Blazers to create turnovers allowed them to run more effectively than they had previously and put the Mavs on their heels.
Why else did the Blazers win?
- They ran a steady diet of post ups throughout the game designed to attack either the small statures of Dallas’ guards, disadvantageous switches, or to allow LaMarcus Aldridge to operate close to the basket.
- More specifically, the Blazers ran a total of 29 post ups. They shot 10-20 as a result of these post ups and scored 27 points on 29 possessions, a strong ratio.
- These post ups often work because of the inverted nature of Portland’s offense. Because Dallas’ best shot blocker in Tyson Chandler had to stay attached to LaMarcus Aldridge on the perimeter, he was less able to drop down and provide help defense at the rim. Also, since guards were doing the posting, they were better able to make correct passes the few times Dallas doubled.
- Here is the points-per-possession ratio of Blazers post ups: Aldridge—10 post ups, seven points produced. Wallace—four post ups, two points produced. Nicolas Batum—two post ups, no points produced. Rudy Fernandez—one post up, zero points produced. Brandon Roy—four post ups, seven points produced. Miller—six post ups, seven points produced. Matthews—two post ups, four points produced.
- And the points per possession involving the Mavs: Kidd—four times posted, zero points allowed. Nowitzki—three times posted, zero points allowed. J.J. Barea—nine times posted, 12 points allowed. Terry—four times posted, six points allowed. Marion—two times posted, two points allowed. Brendan Haywood—four times posted, four points allowed. Tyson Chandler—three times posted, three points allowed.
- Roy had more elevation on his jumper and was therefore able to hit three pull-up jumpers off the dribble, something that was absent from his games in Dallas.
- With Matthews leading the way, the Blazers shot 8-14 from downtown. Even Miller sank a flat-footed triple.
- Aldridge owned his matchup with Chandler. He posted him three times for three baskets, and more importantly, saddled Chandler with foul trouble for most of the game.
- Aldridge also scored eight points in seven assorted catch-and-shoot possessions.
- The Blazers largely played off of Kidd in the belief that he wouldn’t repeat his successful shooting from earlier in the series. Their hypothesis was correct as Kidd only shot 2-8 from the outlands.
- Miler scored in the paint, made good decisions, and was his usual steady self—16 PTS, 7 AST, 3 TO.
- Chris Johnson gave the Blazers some shot blocking during a nice stretch in the second half.
- Barea fought hard but was simply overmatched on defense. Terry didn’t battle quite as much, and was similarly torched.
- Haywood doesn’t give the Mavs as much activity on the offensive glass as Chandler does. With Chandler on the bench, Mavs possessions were largely one-and-done.
- Nowitzki’s help defense was often too slow to be effective.
- Instead of driving to the hoop, Dirk’s gameplan was to back his defenders down more in Game Three. Against Portland’s bigs (Aldridge, Batum, Wallace, and Camby), Dirk only generated five points on eight post possessions.
- Portland’s proclivity to switch on defense and not help off Dirk prevented Dallas’ tertiary players from going off.
- Peja Stojakovic once again had an ignominious second half in a road playoff game. His most egregious blunder was a botched inbounds pass on a Jason Terry curl. The ball ended up nowhere near Terry and bounced off Dirk's hip as Dirk was finishing setting the screen.
- Stevenson gave the Mavs less than nothing.
This being said, there were many reasons why the Mavs had a chance to win.
- Terry at least made up for his bad defense with a superb offensive effort.
- The Blazers still haven’t found a way to corral Dirk facing the basket and driving or in two-man games. Some strong screens, combined with a switching philosophy, afforded Dirk multiple opportunities to back down smaller defenders. He created 14 points on 14 post possessions—but nine came on four possessions against Roy and Matthews. Dirk had unsuccessful possessions posting Miller and Fernandez.
- On various forms of catch-and-shoots, screen/rolls, screen/fades, and curl/fades, Dirk created 13 points on nine possessions. He was particularly deadly in tandem with Terry, where he created seven points on three possessions.
- The Mavs frequently attacked Miller’s porous defense and got into the paint, especially with Terry and Barea.
- Haywood’s post defense on Aldridge has been stellar, while Dirk was effective in Game Three in his individual efforts defending Aldridge.
- Thanks to sturdy post defense on LA, Aldridge only shot two free throw attempts.
- Gerald Wallace had another quiet game, while Rudy Fernandez is nowhere to be found.
Give the Blazers credit then for stepping up their activity level in Game Three and riding the posting up of their guards to success. No doubt Rick Carlisle will tweak his defense to allow more help to protect his guards in the box.
Likewise, give the Blazers credit for playing harder than the Mavs, something that can’t be guaranteed won’t happen again in Game Four.
On the flip side, the Blazers haven’t been able to contain dribble penetration all series long, while Aldridge has been unable to overpower Haywood and get to the line.
Whoever makes the right adjustments to correct these shortcomings in Game Four—or whichever unlikely player steps up with a big performance they way Roy did in Game Three—could determine the series.
Given the ease with which Dirk and Terry have operated, the Blazers still have the longer way to go to duplicate their result in Game Three.