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Western Conference Quarterfinals Game 5 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Dallas Mavericks

Game Time  5:30 p.m. Pacific   TV:  NBA TV nationally, KGW(?) locally

The door is open for the Blazers tonight.  It's not open wide, but it's open.  Scroll down the main page and you will see posts about the Mavericks talking about themselves and posts about the Mavericks talking about Blazer fans and everything but the Mavericks talking about the Mavericks winning this game.  If Dallas' doubts and distractions could get higher, I can't imagine how.  They'll overcome them but they can also be played tonight in a way unimaginable after Game 2.  Worry now rides shotgun, tapping on the shoulders of all of those shooters, riding the wave of whistles, lurking on the scoreboard in the space between the Home and Visitor score no matter what the numbers in those two boxes say.  If Dallas wants an easy, carefree win they better go up by 30 in the first period.  Short of that, they're going to have a game on their hands...or at least feel they have a game on their hands, which is half the battle if you're the road time looking to steal a win. 

Portland has an opportunity tonight to turn this series in a way it could not be turned before, even in the first brace of games in Dallas.  For the first time the Blazers have the chance to say, "You need this and we just took it from you."  The Blazers have the chance to be the big bully, the dominant team.  Even in their home wins the Blazers never looked overwhelming.  They were the ones looking over their shoulders at the Mavs when ahead.  They were the ones worrying if each enemy basket would provide the final, insurmountable point total when chasing the Mavericks from behind.   The Blazers can stick Dallas in those shoes tonight and never look back.

The Blazers have a chance tonight.  Will they seize it?  This team has always been better when backed into a corner than when faced with the opportunity to succeed.  That's their profile in the New Era:  scrappy, can never take them for granted, will come up with the most unexpected and outrageous win, but can be handled by good teams because they run away from, rather than claw and scratch tooth and nail for, success.  The Blazers were bullied by the Rockets two years ago.  The Blazers were outsmarted by the Suns last year.  Will the Blazers be outworked, out-hustled, and out-determined by the Mavericks now in a series that is proving more even than either of those other two?  They don't have to be outplayed but they will be unless they realize what they have in their hands and fight to keep it until that final buzzer sounds.  You know Dallas will fight for it.  They've shown that already.

This game is going to be about will.  If you don't come in 100% sure you're going to impose yours and 100% ready to do anything necessary to do so, you lose.  The Mavericks understand what that is like.  Their self-doubt may provide an opening but that same history is no doubt convincing them that they don't want to go down again, not without a hell of a fight.  Maybe they overplay.  Maybe they lose focus.  But even so, the Blazers are going to have to endure their barrage in order to come out the other side intact.  The Blazers will have to stay in control while at the same time taking control.  It does no good for the Mavericks to fracture if Portland can't provide the hammer to turn those cracks into fatal flaws.

That's not to say X's and O's will be totally absent.  I'm going to invoke a paragraph from the Game 4 Preview, one that (much to my shock) did not come to pass:

When in doubt, go to Dirk.  Nowitzki has already had plenty of touches, but I expect his presence to be near-overwhelming in this game, particularly in the fourth period again.  The Blazers need to be prepared for this.  LaMarcus Aldridge could be a huge key for more reasons than one.  First, as predicted, the foul situation isn't as dire in Portland as it was in Dallas so you can risk guarding Dirk with LMA more...a decent matchup as far as the Blazers are concerned.  Second, LaMarcus has to produce on the offensive end in turn, not only keeping pace with Nowitzki in points but keeping similar pressure on Dallas' defense, sapping the concentration and energy they'd prefer to employ on the offensive end.  The best remedy for potential Dirk brilliance is Aldridge's own brilliance.

The Mavericks got cute in Game 4, going through Shawn Marion, letting DeShawn Stevenson do stuff, relying on Jason Kidd and Jason Terry to pull the game out of the fire when Portland made their run.  It almost worked, but it didn't work.  It also resulted in 82 points for a team more comfortable at 100.  If I'm the Mavericks' superstar--having endured multiple early exits from the post-season, having just blown a 23-point lead, knowing the team is fragile, knowing that a loss tonight puts the series in serious jeopardy--I'm having a conversation with my head coach on the plane ride home.  I'm saying, "You give the orders and outline the strategic plan, but when the mission starts there's only one guy in control of this ship and that's Captain Dirk."  Win or lose, the Mavs can't come with anything less than their best tonight.  Nowitzki not only scores, he sets up everything for this team.  The Mavericks have probably been coming with him too late.  If they don't make him the focal point early and consistently in this game it's a huge blessing, and probably advantage, for the Blazers.

Portland has to realize they'll be judged solely on how they deal with Dirk.  If Kidd or Terry or Marion beat them, so be it.  That's a good team in blue.  But if Nowitzki beats you and you didn't move heaven and earth to stop him, you're not smart.  This isn't the time for misdirection.  They're going to come right down the middle and you better be ready.

The Aldridge part of that analysis holds true as well.  This is a huge opportunity for LaMarcus.  Stopping Nowitzki would be a bonus but matching him score for score would be just as big of a help.  People are going to say, "Brandon Roy = Points!" here but Roy has done it for two games, Aldridge has done it all year.  The Mavericks will have an eye on Roy, creating even more of an opportunity for Aldridge to make a dent.  This is his time, his game to shine.  This is his chance to load this team on his back and carry them to a place they've not been since they re-emerged in the playoffs:  on the brink of actually winning a series.  (Not putting in a nice effort.  Not being "the team nobody wanted to face in the first round".   Winning...a...series.)  The Blazers will need their A-game every bit as much as the Mavericks do, and Aldridge is the man.  His performance tonight will speak of his maturity, readiness, and ability to be the guy on whom this team relies not only in the next game but in years to come.  If there's to be a coming out party, there's no better time for it to begin.

You know the rest:  turnovers and run-outs, pressure and rebounding, assault the lane and then hit open jumpers, play strong in and through the fourth period, never give up and never surrender.  That's Portland's game.  They can match the Mavericks on a good night.  Can they overcome them on what Dallas is hoping will be their best night?

They'll have to beat a capable, talented, veteran team to do it.  They'll have to re-write their own history as well.  But the door is open.

Mavs Moneyball will have another side to the story.  Check out our conversation with them in the post right below this one.

Jersey Contest is on the fritz.  If we get it fixed before noon I'll update this post with the form link.  Playoff participants, check in at noon Pacific.  [Update:  I got to the form after the noon deadline so in the interest of fairness there will be no Jersey Contest for this game.]

--Dave (