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A Conversation with Mavs Moneyball

The good folks at Mavs Moneyball and I had a little chit-chat as we prepared for the series between the Trail Blazers and Mavericks.  We pretty much let the stream of consciousness flow.  Read on to hear what they think of Dallas' chances, what it will take for the Mavericks to win, what scares them about this series, and of course some of our reflections about the Trail Blazers as well.

Mavs Moneyball:  The general consensus in the Western Conference is that Dallas makes an ideal first-round foe, namely because we've made a few early exits in recent history. Do you guys feel fortunate that these teams are matched up or do you think this will really be a tough series?

Blazersedge:   Both, really.  Diehard fans were salivating over the prospect of getting the Mavericks.  (Memo to diehard fans of any team: this is ALWAYS a mistake.)  The size of Portland's wing players, the recent matchups between Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge, between Shawn Marion and Gerald Wallace, the fact that Tyson Chandler melts like butter inside a toaster inside a volcano every time he comes up against the Blazers...all of these things fill Portland fans with hope.  But this is going to be a tough series for the Blazers to win.  It has little to do with Dallas' recent early exits. Even with those disappointments experience is a huge advantage for the Mavericks.  Dallas has guys who have been to the Finals, for Pete's sake.  Portland's players, even the most experienced of them, have barely been off their front porch.  Dirk has probably had more post-season shower time than the Blazers have had court time.  But even that's not the biggest issue.  The huge threats to Portland are Nowitzki and Dallas' ability to pass and shoot.  No matter what's happened in the last couple of games Dirk is a load for Portland to handle.  Those crazy jumpers of his are impossible for Portland to stop when he's on.  The Blazers will have to commit extra players to him.  The problem is, he's so darn tall he just sees right over everybody, whips an easy pass to a shooter, and Portland can't recover.  There's a real chance that Nowitzki will score 28 per game in Dallas wins while his teammates feast from the three-point line.  Portland will have its work cut out trying to deny the ball to Dirk and trying to recover on those smaller scorers.  On the other hand Dallas' lack of interior scoring could allow the Blazers to play smaller at the big positions.  That's when Portland gets really dangerous...

How about you guys?  Anything you particularly fear--or, well, makes you chuckle--about the Blazers?

Click through for the response to this and much, much more!

MM:   I'm scurred of the paint. The Blazers obviously own the Mavericks inside the painted area, on both ends of the floor. The fact that we really only have one scoring threat inside makes me slightly queasy- where is Brendan Haywood when you need him? One of the problems with being a perennial jump-shooting team is that, when the shots aren't falling, there isn't much of a backup plan. As you noted in your statistical breakdown, Dallas isn't big on offensive rebounding. They kind of assume the shot will fall and half the team has already made it back to the other end by the time the ball rims out. Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler are really the only two guys you can count on to make second chance points, but since we've already decided the shots are going to go in the first time around, that's not really an area of focus. Dallas doesn't get a lot of blocked shots, and their defense in the paint is just meh. I'm worried the game will favor the Blazers if the Mavericks can't force them to take outside shots. And since our defense eroded throughout the season, there's a high rist of that happening. Nothing really makes me chuckle about the team, because I'm a jaded Mavs fan. We know just about anybody can beat us on any given day. We're all quietly hoping that somehow Nowitzki finds another gear and scores 40 points a night while carrying the entire team on his shoulders.

You mentioned Portland's strength- playing smaller. How would an ideal game go, in your mind? What lineups do you want to see against Dallas, and how do you think they will throw off the Mavericks' game?

BE:  Let's start with the crucial part:  Nicolas Batum denying the ball to Nowitzki.  This is something Batum has become quite good at.  If Dirk just plants at the elbow and catches easily Portland is toast.  The Blazers need to make him work before he touches the ball, make the Mavs have to run against the clock if they want to use him to score.  A little bit of full-court pressure will also get salted in to bleed even more clock time.  With the Mavs unable to get the ball to their superstar without expending trouble and time the offense runs through their wings, probably solo and with a lot of dribbling. At that point the generally good defense of guys like Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews comes into play.  Jump shots over extended hands turn into simple rebounds for the Blazers.  That's if a jumper even goes up.  Sometimes the Blazers just rob you and run.

If the Blazers can't get the turnover-inspired fast break they pick particular matchups to exploit.  If Portland does go smaller with an Aldridge-Wallace frontcourt combo who does Tyson Chandler guard?  He's going to have to go way outside the paint to watch either player, leaving the middle wide open for drives or cuts and passes.  Every time Jose Juan Barea takes the floor the Blazers post him up.  Could be ditto for Jason Terry depending on who he guards.  Summation:  If Chandler doesn't come out the Blazers' "bigs" stroke easy jumpers.  If he does the Blazers drive, pass, and post, scoring in the lane.  Either way Dallas is taking the ball out of the net and/or having to send extra men to secure the rebound and prevent Portland's great offensive rebounders from making them pay (particularly if Chandler is roaming).  That means no fast breaks for the Mavericks, time for Portland to press and/or set up the defense, and a cycle back into the first paragraph.  Lather, rinse, repeat...Portland snags some victories in the series.

 The obvious flaws in the plan:  What if Nowitzki becomes Super Dirk no matter what the Blazers do?  What if guys like Kidd and Marion go crazy on the boards?  What if the Blazers come up with one of those rare games when their forward/centers can't hit their jumpers?  (It's been so long since this has happened to Aldridge or Wallace I can't remember it, but still.)  Still, I like Portland's chances if the game develops this way.

What's the Dallas dream plan?

MM:  The Mavericks dream plan? It's nothing you wouldn't expect: get the ball to Dirk, let him score. If doubled, pass and hit the open shot. With Caron  injured and "extremely unlikely" to play this round, and Roddy going from the savior of basketball to the saver of the bench, there's no one else which needs to be iso'd off so he can score. Terry will get shots off pick and rolls and spotups, Kidd will take some threes, Chandler can play garbage man or finish alley oops, but all of these things will come when Dirk is given the ball and told to go do work. While I respect Batum's length and athleticism in Nowitzki, and no doubt he will cause some problems, in the end the Mavericks offense is designed to get Dirk the ball cleanly. In the regular season, its easier to let Dirk run to the corner if he's getting heavy pressure and trust the other guys to succeed going 4-on-4, but between Carlisle and Kidd I'm not worried about Batum doing anything besides pestering Dirk a few times on the catch a few times. And this is what Dirk does to pests. Of course, if that's all the Mavericks had to do, this series would be simple...but its not. I'm not worried about Dirk; he's seriously not even human. However, the other players hitting those shots when Dirk is doubled -- that's the iffy part. I don't hate Terry like many Maverick fans do, but he's got a proven track record of sucking in the postseason. Here's a fun fact for Blazer fans: the Mavericks top two three point shooters (volume wise), Jasons Kidd and Terry, are 34% and 36% respectively. Behind those two is DeShawn Stevenson, who's shooting 38% but only only 26% since the All Star Break. With all the talk of the Mavericks being good jump shooters (and they clearly are), they have struggled when they take one more step out and spot up behind the three point line. Their effectiveness hitting shots from 24 feet will  be a huge factor in this series, whether its Kidd and Terry, or JJ Barea, Peja, and Corey Brewer.

One player who is not being talked about that the Blazers should worry about, though, is Shawn Marion. He's not a sleek, fundamentally sound basketball killing machine, like that seven foot German you might have heard of, and so its easy to overlook him, but Marion has absolutely found his role in this offense and has come to life in recent weeks. In his last seven games, he's averaging 18 points a game on 59% shooting, and grabbing eight boards just to top it all off. He has an uncanny knack of knowing when and where to go within the Maverick's offensive sets and plays to find the defensive hole then score on a floater or dunk (and some sets do feature him doing this). He's also developed a very solid low post game, usually preferring to turn and shoot a jump hook, or spin by the defender and finish. Through in his not-quite-elite-anymore ability to run the floor and get behind the defense and he's someone that will make the Blazers pay if they don't pay any attention to him, and probably will even if they do.

Who is the Shawn Marion for the Blazers? Its easy to get caught up in Aldridge and Wallace and even Roy off the bench (especially since he went off for 21 points against us...still annoyed about that game), but I'm sure there's a player that Maverick fans are overlooking but who will likely make a big impact on this series. Is there someone (or someones) who fits that description?

BE:   I guess it depends on what you mean by surprise player.  If Nicolas Batum keeps up his current level of play you're going to be surprised how much he affects a game.  When Gerald Wallace came on board at small forward some of us were wondering privately if this wasn't the end of Batum's confidence.  The opposite happened.  He's 100% more aggressive and effective than he was before and he plays well on both ends.  If you're looking for a single-game, occasional surprise player Patty Mills comes in and scores in droves every once in a while.  But then there are four games in between where he gives up a ton of points so he's not a constant.  The guy that quietly stirs the drink for Portland that everybody forgets about is Andre Miller.  He's the author of most of those devastating alley-oop passes that typify the new Portland offense, of course.  He's also taken a back seat as far as his own offense this year, being more than willing to put up 5 shots in 35 minutes if it means his teammates are scoring well.  Yet he knows when it's time for a little fourth-quarter 'Dre magic as well.  If the Blazers get way off course offensively you'll see Miller take a couple possessions himself to put points on the board and calm them down.

Speaking of older point guards, share a little about how Jason Kidd is doing.  He used to be a huge threat to the Blazers and still seems scary in certain ways.  Any chance of him getting rolling and ripping out a devastating series when Portland is paying attention to everyone else?

MM:  Well, Kidd is certainly no one to sleep on. His passing goes much further than just pinpoint control; he really is the maestro of the Dallas offense, and Carlisle is completely content with sitting back and letting him make the calls each time down the floor according to what he sees. He'll make some sloppy passes at times -- I noticed an uptick in them late in the season, but he got a few games of rest and should be good to go -- but he's really vital to making this offense click. But I know what you really want to know is whether or not he'll be able to score. That's a very interesting question that no one really can judge. His three pointer has been up and down this year, although mostly down. He started off normally, quickly fell off, and his 47% shooting in the month of February was not the turning point that it looked like at the time. He's still to be respected, no doubt, with 133 made threes this year, including a game winner against the Celtics, but he's not the shooter that people feared in 2009-10 (where he hit 43% of his long balls). What will be interesting, though, is whether he will be able to use his post up game. He doesn't really pull up for mid range jumpers or try to finish at the hole on anything other than a fast break layup, but he has shown at times the willingness to use his 6'4" frame to bully smaller guards on the block. Usually, this is to draw a double and then kick to an open Dirk (why people fall for that, I don't know, but they do time and time again), but if he's close enough to the hoop he feels comfortable shooting a turnaround, going up over the defender for a bank shot, or spinning around them for an easy layup. I don't remember seeing one, but I'm sure he could pull a baby sky hook out of his pocket if he wanted to...that's the magic of Jason Kidd. At 6'2", 200 lbs, Andre Miller does not seem like the typical prey for this tactic, but it will likely happen a little bit, even if all Kidd does is kick out.

It's interesting, though. Kidd's been to back to back NBA Finals with the Nets, while many of the Blazers have barely played in the postseason. Certainly, these are teams on the opposite spectrum, the Blazers with youth, but inexperience, while the Mavericks are old, but now what they're doing. Do you think Portland's inexperience is going to hurt them, or will it really even matter?

BE:  Nobody posts up Portland's guards.  Nobody.  I guess if Kidd caught Patty Mills in there maybe but Patty would immediately be yanked in such a case.  Run one successful post play and say hello to Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum or even Gerald Wallace knocking at your door.  "Excuse me, did I see you run a post-up?  You like posting-up, eh?  You like to pick on little guys?  Why don't you try that with me?  That's what I thought."  This is the beautiful thing about the post-Wallace Blazers.  They never run out of players to throw at you.

Playoff experience won't matter a ton in terms of sets and matchups.  It'll make a difference in two places.  The first benefit is knowing how to adjust.  With days to study and prepare for the endless onslaught of games against the same opponent you can pretty much bet than any reasonably-well-matched team is going to make your life a living hell on at least a couple occasions.  They're going to continue that hell until you do something different.  Dallas, having been through multiple deep series, knows the difference between Game 2 and Game 6.  They know they'll need new tricks in their bag.  They'll have Plans C, D, E, and F at the ready.  The Blazers' coaching staff will probably have plans in their hopper as well but will the team be able to adjust and execute them?  Portland hasn't always prospered when you force them to Plan B, let alone Plan H.  The second benefit is knowing how to win no matter what the external stimulus.  The playoffs mandate a certain kind of stupidity.  You just have to be stubborn that you're going to take this game no matter what and let nothing convince you different.  Down 20 at the half?  You're going to win anyway.  Lost by 20?  You're going to win the next one.  Won the last game?   Who cares, it's the next one that counts until that magic fourth win is reached.  The Blazers are far more likely to shift on tides of emotion.  Emotion will win you Game 1 but then you give it right back in Game 2.  Emotion will also let you win Game 2 if you lost Game 1 (revenge) but it's dried up by the time you reach Game 7...provided you do.  The Blazers are going to be put through the post-season wringer and nobody knows how they will respond.  Dallas has the advantage in that way.

There's another intangible in play here, I think.  This has got to be it for this generation of Mavericks if they somehow get bounced in the first round, right?  I don't mean the whole team will be liquidated, but if the Mavs fall don't you pretty much have to admit that this lineup and the process of adopting an aging small forward and overrated center every couple years isn't going to take the team to the Promised Land?  To me this feels like the last big push for this incarnation of the Mavericks.  Your thoughts?

MM:  if the Mavericks fail this year, I have to imagine there will be some kind of overhaul. Dirk has committed to spending the rest of his career with Dallas, and for that, he deserves the best possible treatment. If that means getting rid of some fan favorites who maybe aren't living up to expectations, then so be it. Mavs fans are tired of seeing Dirk's fingers devoid of jewelry, and obviously the tweaking method hasn't been very successful. I have no idea what the field looks like for players we might be able to acquire next year, but something needs to be done if this team can't win a championship. Dirk deserves that much.

BE:  The Blazers may be in a similar boat.  They're not anywhere near the end of their life-cycle nor capable of re-booting the team so it's not a do-or-disband situation.  However the Blazers need to show well in this series.  They can't afford a 5-game loss.  Even 6 wouldn't look like much progress.  Portland players reputedly love each other and get along really well.  If they want to remain friends and co-workers they need to play plenty hard in the next two weeks.

Thanks to Lisa and Tim at Mavs Moneyball for the time and the conversation.  You can follow that link to their end as well if you want to say hello (nicely, please) to the opposing fans.

--Dave (