The Blazers make the 274-mile trek from San Antonio to Dallas tonight to square off against the Mavericks in the American Airlines Center.
The media and fans in Dallas are beginning to call out the Mavs for their "basketball IQ," or lack thereof, to be more specific. ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon even went so far as to refer to the Mavs' recent late-game execution as "stupidity." Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a team stocked with veterans, including forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, both 35, and the soon-to-be 37-year-old Vince Carter.
All criticism considered, Dallas has still gone on to win four of its last five games, including a three-point squeaker last night against the Suns in Phoenix when the Mavericks' late-game execution -- Carter's, in particular -- gave the Suns a last-second opportunity to send the game into overtime following a botched inbounds pass by Dallas under Phoenix' hoop. Fortunately for the Mavs, they were able to escape with the victory after P.J. Tucker's three-point heave came up short.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has his team passing the ball well this year, and they've come up with some high-percentage shots en route to a respectable jump-shooting attack. Guard Monta Ellis is having a career-year, blossoming into a reliable shooter -- he's hitting over 48 percent of his shots right now, drawing almost eight fouls a night and pouring in a relatively efficient 20 points per game. Ellis' three-point stroke is still nonexistent, but he's not launching as many deep-shots as he previously had over the course of his eight-year career, which is probably a pleasant surprise for Mavs fans considering his 31.7 career percentage from downtown. Another solid development for Ellis -- probably with credit due to Carlisle -- is his passing ability, which has been even more solid lately as he's produced seven assists a night.
Nowitzki is having yet another monster year, hitting about half of his field-goals and three-point attempts. Recently he's been pouring in over 25 points a contest, with over six attempts coming from both the free-throw line and behind the arc. In fact, Nowitzki might have the most impressive shot chart in the entire NBA, at least when considering he attempts over 17 shots a game.
Marion is also playing some of his best basketball of the season, at least offensively, hitting almost three-quarters of his three-pointers and two-thirds of his overall field-goals for 15 points and 6.5 rebounds every night his last few games.
Frontcourt players Samuel Dalembert, Brandan Wright and DeJaun Blair are all shooting exceptionally well from the floor right now, though their shot attempts are admittedly pretty limited. Still, they're all opportune scorers when Nowitzki and Ellis pass up their own shots.
Carter's playing decently, but he's lost a step or two (or three) in recent years and only occasionally shows the flashes of brilliance that earned him the "Vinsanity" nickname back in the early-2000s. He's more of a jump-shooter these days, and his outside shot is pretty reliable.
The main problem for the Mavs right now? They only have one healthy point guard on the roster -- rookie Shane Larkin, good for 12 minutes a night so far on the season. Lately, though, he's been shooting much better in limited minutes. Last night Larkin actually went off on the Suns for 18 points off the bench on 2-3 shooting from outside. If point guard Jose Calderon's knee-contusion from last night's game in Phoenix keeps him out against Portland, the Mavs' most reliable outside shooter will be in street clothes and Larkin will likely play upward of 30 minutes tonight.
Dallas is a terrible rebounding team. The aforementioned frontcourt trio of Dalembert, Wright and Blair is composed of the only good individual rebounders on the Mavericks. Conversely, Portland features above-average rebounders -- for their positions -- at spots 1-5 and big men Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland bring quite a bit of intensity on the boards off the bench for Portland coach Terry Stotts. When the two teams met the last time in early December, the Blazers pounded the Mavs on the boards 50-36, and don't be surprised to see another dominant performance on the glass from Portland as they continue improving their rebounding, particularly on the offensive end.
Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge continues his dominant stretch of play, hitting half his field-goals, pulling down more than 12 rebounds a night and dropping 28 points per contest on opponents in his last fives games. Point guard Damian Lillard is right behind him, hitting over 42-percent of his three-pointers and contributing 23 points a game in the same stretch. Portland's top-two players are combining for over 50 points every night together, which opens the court up for teammates. Last night, you saw the Spurs try to double Aldridge late in the game. You can probably guess what happened next...Aldridge found the open man, the ball was swung across the court, and an open three-pointer was drained. Lillard and Aldridge not only contribute almost half of Portland's points, but they clearly make the game easier for teammates with the attention they receive from opposing defenses.
Guards Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams are both so-so from the field right now, but both are potent outside shooters, as Matthews has seen his outside-shooting percentage creep up to the low-to-mid-40s recently and Williams has hung around 37 percent from downtown. Forward Nicolas Batum is still trying to pull his outside-shot out of the tank, slowly increasing his recent shooting percentage from deep to about 35 percent. Batum has been able to contribute in many other ways this year, especially lately, as he's been contributing about 8 assists and 9 rebounds a game lately -- excellent involvement in the offense from the small forward position.
Rookie guard C.J. McCollum has shown a confidence with the ball and an ability to score in the mid-range, hitting almost half his shots from inside the arc. His accuracy from deep isn't quite there yet, and he probably needs a little more seasoning on the court to be the effective ballhandler he was in college, but you have to like what you've seen from the rookie out of a small school, coming off a pretty serious injury, right?
Both teams give up a lot of points, but the Blazers typically concede points in areas of their choice -- from the mid-range and from inside, locking down the three-point line. The Mavs allow high-percentage shots from across the entire floor and do not prevent solid ball-movement, a signature trait of Portland's offense this year. Dallas also fouls a lot, a huge advantage for the Blazers because they're the best free-throw shooting team in the league, proven by a 19-20 performance at the line last night in the win in San Antonio.
The Mavericks and Portland both played games last night, so neither team has an advantage with extra rest. Dallas won the last match-up in Portland on a last-second shot from Ellis, so there's likely a bitter taste in the mouths of the Blazers as they lost a very winnable game the last time the two teams met. Also consider that Aldridge hails from Dallas, and he seemingly always plays well there in front of friends and family.
If you're a fan of jump-shooting, tonight's definitely the game for you, because Stotts spent several years as an assistant under Carlisle and runs what many would consider a similar offense to his. Nowitzki and Aldridge are also both high-volume jump-shooters from frontcourt positions. Expect to see a lot of offensive fireworks tonight, as both teams score well over 100 points per game on average.
Can the Blazers kick off this difficult four-game road trip with two straight wins? It doesn't sound unlikely -- especially after the Blazers handed the Spurs just their sixth home loss of the season last night -- but be prepared to see a shootout either way, as the two teams combined for 235 points the last time they met up in a 119-116 win for the Mavericks.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter