Following Game 4 I sat down with LJRotter and tcat75 from Mavs Moneyball to get their impressions of the series so far, where we are, and how things might transpire from here. The discussion:
Dave: Right off the bat the main story is that this series is knotted 2-2, starting again from the beginning. But the subtexts threaten to overwhelm the plot. How is Mavericks Fan doing after Game 4? What's going through the collective psyche of Dallas and what were your guys' impressions of that game?
LJRotter: I don't think any of us really expected this series to be a sweep in either direction, but I also don't think Mavs fans thought that Dallas would have such a hard time winning in Portland. Yes, they couldn't win there in the regular season, but the team was coming off two wins at home in the playoffs- that momentum should have counted for something, no? Game three was a loss that we as fans had an easier time swallowing, if only because we knew the Blazers HAD to win it. But game four was one of those games (and there have been many) that the average Dallas fan will be tortured by for an unreasonable amount of time.
The entire playoff experience is overshadowed by the tragedy of 2006, and now that the series is starting to resemble the finals that year, every person who ISN'T a Mavericks fan can't help but bring up what the rest of us have desperately been trying to forget- the Mavericks are entirely capable of blowing a 2-0 series lead. What's worse is that we had game four. Give credit where credit is due- Brandon Roy had an absolutely career-defining game and the Blazers climbed back into that game inch by inch as the Mavericks faded away into the background. I'm sure it's easy to try and blame the referees for a few momentum-halting calls, but the fact of the matter is, Dallas beat themselves by 1) getting comfortable with their 23 point lead and 2) underestimating Roy's ability to change a game. The team isn't practicing on Easter Sunday, perhaps because they need a mental break or perhaps because they don't want to face the media (or each other) after such a massive blow. Whatever the reason, we all hope that this loss inspires them to come out swinging at home.
This series has shown how important the crowd and home court are for teams during the playoffs. Were Blazers fans confident, even though they were down two games to start the series, that they would take their home games and even the series? And do you guys think they can steal a game on the road to advance?
Click through for Dave's assertions about the refs, the biggest surprises in the series, game plans for Games 5-7, and more!
Dave: If we want to talk about momentum-killing refs, we need go back no farther than Game 1 and Dirk Nowitzki's, what was it...13 free throws in the fourth quarter? 2 field goals made for 18 points, something like that? But here's what I said to Blazers folks after that: winning is the only currency that matters in the playoffs. Even if the refs beat you--which I don't believe happened in Game 1 or Game 4--it's your job to overcome anything and everything in your way including bogus calls. Every team in the universe, including the Lakers, complains about calls having shifted a game. Regardless of the officials in question, the background of the game, and the specifics of the calls all of those complaints have one thing in common: they're made by the team who lost. In the end you can either complain or win.
To your statement...if underestimating Brandon Roy's ability to change a game this year was a crime, all of Portland would be in jail. I'm not sure even Brandon knows where that came from. It was one of those insane things that happens in sports. I'm not sure he could do it twice.
A ton of Portland fans were worried about Game 4 because of a simple lesson the Blazers have taught us about themselves: put their backs to the wall and they're going to win, but give them a chance to take control of a situation and truly excel--to make things easy on themselves, as it were--and they will lose. The first 35 minutes of that game seemed to prove the maxim. Game 3 must-win? No problem. Game 4 to get even? Here comes the self-inflicted pain. Did Game 4 cure the team's long-standing neurosis? I doubt it.
The bigger hope for Portland fans is that this will throw so much doubt into Dallas' heads that they start wavering in those situations wherein they appeared supremely confident in the first two games. Looking over your shoulder makes it harder to hit threes. But my call before Game 3 was that Games 4 and 5 would be split no matter what happened. I actually had the column predicting a Game 5 victory written halfway through that third quarter. Obviously the premise changed! But if tradition holds true, Dallas will win Game 5 now as Portland is trying to forge ahead instead of just staying alive. The new leaf has yet to be turned and the Blazers will have to prove they're turning it before I'll believe it.
Assuming the Blazers do lose Game 5, it sets up a fascinating situation for Games 6 and 7. Game 6 has terrified me for a while now. Portland comes home down 2-3 and everybody is expecting the home-away pattern to hold and for the Blazers to force a Game 7. The Blazers are complacent even though technically their backs are against the wall here. Dallas knows they don't want to risk a seventh contest. Dallas' experience and determination teaches Portland a last, cruel lesson. However assuming Portland could force a Game 7 in that situation I give them a fair chance to win it, as emotions will undoubtedly be high enough to spur them to their best effort. This team feeds on turnovers, rebounds, alley-oops, momentum. They'd be amped for those things even before a Game 7 started.
Does Portland win Game 5? Not likely. They'd be showing a new side of themselves if they did. Either that or Dallas would be falling apart before our eyes. If Portland does win Game 5 all bets are off. The series might be theirs.
Does Portland win Game 6, assuming they lose Game 5? Danger! Not as likely as Portland fans would like to think.
Does Portland win Game 7? If they get there, yes...they have a decent chance.
It may seem confusing a little, but the Blazers are a confusing team emotionally. They can, for instance, play like a clueless junior varsity team for three quarters, fall back by 23, and then steamroll their way to a victory.
How do you think the Mavericks approach Game 5? Do they still know they're a better team or do they look in the mirror and see the team that keeps bowing out early year after year? Also, having lost Game 3 I figured they'd go with heavy doses of Nowitzki in Game 4, back to their bread and butter so to speak. Instead they looked like they were trying to get guys like Marion and Stevenson more involved. Do they alter the plan now and make the offense Dirk-centric again, as if the whole game were the fourth quarter?
LJRotter: I don't know that the mentality of the team is that they're "better"... they know as well as anyone that there are too many factors that go into a game to decide if one team is straight up better than the other. This season has had several examples of the Mavs losing to "inferior" teams, so one would hope that they approach this game not with the idea that they are better, but that they want it more. It's hard to say if the players are affected by the past like the fans are- this is their job. In theory, they should have no memory of the early exits and they should approach every game like they are capable of winning it. That being said, these guys are human beings. I'd be surprised if they didn't let the past disappointments creep in every now and again. Not to mention, the world REFUSES to let them forget.
As for the personnel issue, your guess is as good as mine. If you scroll through the MMB comments on the various articles after Saturday's game, you'll see several questions as to why the ball did not end up in Dirk or Marion's hands. Yes, I included Marion because he was hot early and somehow, at the end of the game was not involved in the offense. I have no qualms with getting the Matrix involved because he was our most consistent player as the regular season ended, and he's been due to contribute more in the post-season. DeShawn Stevenson is purely a role player, and there's no reason he should have plays designed for him when Dirk or Marion or even Terry are hitting their shots. As for why Dirk wasn't singlehandedly winning the game as he is so apt to do, I don't have an answer. Sometimes Carlisle baffles us with his lineups and play calling. In fact, why games are ever NOT Dirk-centric is beyond me. The guy IS the Mavericks and our best chance to advance.
Both fan bases are obviously frustrated with their own teams, and I must say we've both been doing a decent job of not attacking each other (no one likes a post-loss troll). The players, however, seem to be losing their patience with their opponents, as evidenced by a few hard fouls and mini shoving matches. These are two physical teams who obviously match up well with each other. Do you see things escalating as this series continues?
Dave: That's a great observation. During the TNT broadcast of Game 4 Kevin McHale described the shoving, reminding us that by the time you've played the same team 4-5 times in a row you hate everybody on the other side...and that's a good thing! I tend to agree. Part of the problem with the regular season is that it's not as intense and thus doesn't feel as important or worthy of emotional investment. This series is getting intense.
Jason Terry and to some degree Jason Kidd have gotten it from the beginning. Terry has been fouling hard since Game 1, whenever needed. Huge respect to the Dallas guards, not because they're nasty or dirty but because they know what time it is. Portland is just starting to figure out what time it is and how much you have to want the win in order to succeed. That's one of the crucial missing ingredients from Portland's psychological makeup. They're talented but they're also fairly polite...chemistry guys rather than jerks. I can't think of a squad I'd more like to have over for a really great dinner party. But this is no dinner party. Approach it like a soiree and your dinner guests are going to stick a fork in your liver and make off with the cake, the punchbowl, and most of the silverware. The Blazers need some nasty in order to succeed.
TNT also reported that Coach McMillan was a little frustrated with the chippy play, preferring his guys to stay calm and in control. I agree that you can't lose your cool entirely, especially when you're talking LaMarcus Aldridge against Tyson Chandler. Double ejections would be a bad exchange for Portland there. Or worse, how long would it take Dallas to figure out Aldridge was on edge and send Brendan Haywood after him instead? But you also have to do whatever is necessary to win. If that means standing up for yourself, you do it. If that means 6'2" Terry wraps his arms around the 6'8", muscle-sculpted Gerald Wallace and knocks him to the ground, you do it. Portland has to know Dallas will go there and the Blazers have to be willing to go there themselves.
So yeah, I think you'll see more. Though different in style the teams are closely enough matched in talent that neither one will dominate based on paper matchups alone. Will and willingness may decide this and the key plays in that department may not happen through conventional means.
I'll admit it's surprised me how physical Dallas can get (not exactly their reputation) and in some ways how Portland has failed to respond. I'm also mildly surprised that Tyson Chandler has been playing as well as he has, as he's usually a basket case versus the Blazers. What has surprised you about the series so far?
tcat75: You want to talk about physicality? Yeah, its not what the Mavericks are known for, and honestly, it's a relatively recent thing. The Mavericks can play physical when prompted to, though its still not their go-to style. The trade with Washington really got us some players who won't take anything. DeShawn Stevenson and injured Caron Butler are both tough dudes. I'm not sure I'd call them thugs, but they are certainly very physical, and some of that mentality has rubbed off onto the other Maverick players. Chandler is just as important, too, protecting the rim and being an enforcer. I'll be honest, I never really knew the Chandler-Portland story until just recently, and so I'm not the best one to address that. However, I'd absolutely say that Chandler has matured a lot from his time with New Orleans and Charlotte. He still lets his emotions get the best of him from time to time, but so do a lot of centers. That's just the nature of the position: you have to be tough, you can't back down, and sometimes you have to play dirty. Along with Terry, Chandler is the emotion leader of this team.
Now to your question. The biggest surprise for this series is not even debatable from the Mavericks side: Jason Kidd. His shooting is one thing -- he bricked basically all season but he had games, and occasionally stretches, where he drained everything. It might just a lucky hot streak (though the TNT guys are right; his release, and the arc on his shot in particular, is looking both different and better), like the ones we saw during the season. However, those shots he hit in Games 1 and 2...who knew Jason Kidd had a mid range game? Wait, trick question! He didn't! Not this year, anyway. His "mid range game" was when he accidentally put his foot on the line and his three was really only a long 2.
Other than that? Well, I expected Marion to have a bigger impact. His Game 4 offense was something that he had been doing nightly, plus some, in the regular season. He needs to be a focus in this three game series that the Mavs and Blazers are about to play. Jason Terry actually playing well in Game 3? Sadly surprising. And, of course, Dirk. The surprise here is two-fold, so let's start with the good side (for Dallas, anyway): Nowitzki's defense has been much better than usual. He's an underrated man defender, and has been for several years now, so his adequate (or maybe even above average) one on one defense on Aldridge isn't terribly shocking. His rotations and weak side help, though, are much improved. He's still had some notable errors, but its better. The bad side? He's missing too many shots that he normally makes. The Portland defense has effected him more than I expected, but he's missed more wide open jumpers in this series than he does in shootaround before a game. If you're a Portland fan, I'd say that its the defense. As a Maverick fan, it just means to me that he's about to go off.
What about you guys? The most obvious surprise has to be Brandon Roy, without any doubt. I know he looked fantastic, but do you honestly think he's just suddenly turned back into superstar Roy, or this just a bit of an anomaly that the Mavericks just happened to run into back-to-back nights?
Dave: If he's just turned into Superstar Roy and is really "back" I want to know what happened the rest of the half-season he's been back and scoring, like, 3.5 ppg. Where has this been when the Blazers needed it? Heck, I want to know where he was in Games 1 and 2. So Superstar Roy is too much to hope for. I'd settle for "Helps Blazers Win a Couple More" Roy with maybe 10 points or so? Or anything that's not "Limp Noodle" Roy, for that matter. If you're worried about who might beat you, I think it's still up to Aldridge, Wallace, Batum.
OK...so I spilled earlier how I thought the series would go. Portland could win it but right now it's still Dallas until the Blazers prove different. How does it look from the Dallas side? Three games left. Who goes to the second round?
LJRotter: I think it all depends on how Monday's game turns out. If the Mavericks come out like wounded animals, still recovering from their two losses, then they don't stand a chance. If they come out intent on protecting home court, then I say Dallas can take this series, probably in seven games. I just don't see the Mavericks winning in Portland, so tomorrow's win is, in my eyes, the deciding game.
tcat75: Monday's game is the big game. The Mavericks have been known to tuck in their tails and go into the fetal positions at times. This is exactly the type of game that Dirk often takes over in. He's got a track record. If the Mavericks can come up big in front of their home crowd to take a 3-2, I wouldn't put it past them winning Game 6 on Thursday. I've respected the Portland crowd more and more as this series has progressed, but the Mavericks were the NBA's best road team this season (tied with Miami). This team is full of veterans who aren't phased in the least by a raucous crowd, and so if they do their part to prevent the Blazers from being energized by it, it won't be a significant issue. I have seriously doubts whether the Mavericks have it in them to come back if they lose three in a row, however. Few teams have such a mentality, and this is definitely not one of them. They need success, and honestly, probably early success. The first quarter of Game 5 may indicate the results very early. Either way, Game 5 is the biggest game either team has played all year. But since one team must lose, let's just hope it is not our own team which lets us down.
Thanks to LJ and TC from Mavs Moneyball for their insight. Don't forget the sites have a standing bet: loser of the series has to compose a poem extolling the virtues of the winner. It'll be interesting to see who has to pay off!