Let's start by paraphrasing a quote long-remembered from a guy who was a pretty good coach in his day, Dr. Jack Ramsay. He said that professional athletes depend more on execution than emotion. Everyone wants the team to come out fired up and get into each game intensely, more so when the opponent is a big name and the game is critical. Coach Ramsay said he seldom tried to get his guys riled up emotionally because it never failed that after they won the emotional game they'd come out completely flat in the next contest and give that win right back.
The Blazers just won a critical, emotional game in grand fashion...a game they had circled on the calendar. They overlooked the opponent directly before that game and almost paid for it. The book says there's a good chance they'll pay tonight. The problem is that every game is just as critical as that L*kers game at this point. One look at the 8th-place record of the Mavericks (39-25) versus Portland's 5th place mark (40-23) will tell you exactly that. Tonight you'll see if the Blazers are still just a bunch of kids who play basketball extremely well or if they're ready to take that next step and become professionals.
A Look at the Mavericks
Dallas is a good team. Dallas isn't a great team anymore.
The Mavericks have plenty of talent, led by Dirk Nowitzki as always. He remains a scoring machine at 25.3 ppg and 47.5% shooting from the floor, 38% from distance. He has few peers as a scoring forward. His main wingman, guard Jason Terry, has been a Blazer killer of late. But then at 19.7 ppg he's killed a lot of teams. He's been in a slump since his injury but he got his groove back this week against Washington (33 points) and Phoenix (25 points). The secondary wingman, Josh Howard, is out with a re-aggravated ankle. That's good news for the Blazers.
After that things get a little dicey for the Mavericks. Jason Kidd plays major minutes and racks up major assists for them. He's also discovered a semi-brilliant three-point stroke (40% from range this year). It hasn't helped him score more but it does spread the floor for his teammates. Erick Dampier is still grabbing rebounds and trying to make a living in the post. 6'7" Antoine Wright swings between shooting guard and small forward but he's happy just to get into double digits. Power forward Brandon Bass occasionally breaks out with a great game but he's spotty. Long story short, the Mavericks go 10-11 deep but everybody after Howard and Terry (and sometimes Kidd) is a role player with talent but moderate-to-deep flaws. When they click they're good. When they don't they look limp. And when they start going bad they're probably not going to get rescued.
The Mavericks are another team that gets up a lot of shots and shoots them well, which always makes for a dangerous combination. They can blow you out quickly. One of their biggest calling cards is their defensive rebounding. They do a good job keeping you off the boards, thus forcing you to hit the first time. This makes their overall defense look better than their individual defensive talents would indicate on first blush.
Dallas is effective on offense but they play a finesse-oriented game. You have to guard against their jumpers. They're not great three-point shooters and they draw few foul shots. That combination probably makes the difference between 8th and 4th place in the West for them.
Nobody will have forgotten the Christmas Day disappointment, I'm sure. The Mavs also handled Portland in Dallas in early February. This will be the last game of the season between the two. The Mavericks basically manhandled the Blazers both times. Portland will need to come with a stronger effort to avoid the same fate. The Mavs may not be physically dominant but they're tall, experienced, and they know how to exploit weaknesses. Dallas should not win this game but they absolutely can if Portland doesn't reach out and bloody their noses.
Keys to the Game
1. The standard denial of the paint doesn't work as well against Dallas as against most teams because Dallas doesn't need the paint to score. Instead you have to be ready to deal with screen plays from every direction, curls, cuts, and mid-range jumpers from forwards and guards alike. The most important facets of Portland's defensive game are going to be commitment and communication. The Blazers will have to move their feet all night and they'll have to be clear what they're doing when Dallas tries to cross them up. If you start getting mismatches on Nowitzki and Kidd they're going to pick you apart.
2. If you're going to stop one guy, stop Jason Terry. He's more annoying that devastating but he will win them games alongside of Dirk. I would almost give him the Kobe treatment, letting LaMarcus and Joel handle Nowiztki and committing my better small defenders, sometimes in tandem, to stop J.T. In Terry's absence it's unlikely Dirk can score enough to win the game for Dallas.
3. You know you're going to struggle to get offensive rebounds. That means you better make your first shot count. Plan A is to get inside. Get Dampier out of position, hoping to free up Joel for a dunk or the rebound off of the miss. If Dampier doesn't move, score on the guy you're driving on. If they help from the outside, dish for a three. Either way this game hangs on the Blazers getting penetration. If you let the Mavericks defend you one-on-one and you're shooting jumpers eventually their one-and-done tactic will work.
4. Speaking of...they want the shot attempts to be even or in their favor tonight. We'll win if we can keep them below us by a half dozen shots or more. It's not so much rushing to get shots up against them as creating extra shots through turnovers or rebounds.
5. If Nowitzki guards Aldridge then LaMarcus should take him inside boldly. LMA has actually played pretty well against the Mavs this year but we haven't relied on him enough.
6. And speaking of that...LaMarcus will probably draw Dirk defensively which means he won't be able to help much with rebounds. This is the time for the small forwards and guards to crash the boards.
The intro said it all. This game is just as important as Monday's was. The Blazers would benefit by proving something tonight.
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