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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Dallas Mavericks Preview

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Wesley Matthews returns to the Moda Center court for the first time since rupturing his Achilles last spring when the Portland Trail Blazers host the Dallas Mavericks tonight.

Vincent Laforet/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers (7-11) vs Dallas Mavericks (10-8)
Tuesday, December 1
Moda Center | 7:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
:
Chris Kaman (Questionable - Ankle), Damian Lillard (Questionable - Illness) | Dallas injury report: J.J. Barea (Out – Ankle)

SBN Affiliate: Mavs Moneyball
| Blazer's Edge Night 2016

For a rebuilding team, the outcome of any random game holds less gravitas than it might for a playoff contender. Instead of nervously watching the standings, fans focus on long-term player development, talent evaluation, and highlights that can liven up the long season. As such, tonight's game is less about beating the Dallas Mavericks, and more about welcoming back Wesley Matthews.

Tonight will be Matthews' first game in the Moda Center since he signed with the Mavericks last summer. Matthews played five seasons in Portland and left as the franchise's all-time leader in 3-point field goals. Portland fans loved Matthews for the chip on his shoulder which kept him working harder than anyone else in the league. He galvanized the Moda Center crowds with heart, hustle, and a never say die attitude. Matthews was one of the rare players who literally left it all on the floor, finishing his Blazer career lying on the court as a heart-breaking injury symbolically ended the team's season.

But Matthews was more for the Blazers than just a hustle guy who relied on determination to make up for a dearth of skills; Wes was one of Portland's best perimeter defenders, one of the leading 3-point shooters in the league, and a threat on the low block. When his underdog story, work ethic, on-court achievement, and 3-point celebration flourishes were combined, it became impossible for Portland fans not to fall in love with the undrafted sensation.

Matthews also understood the fans of Portland. LaMarcus Aldridge faced criticism when he left the Blazers for failing to connect with the city of Portland, but Matthews never had that problem. He was always careful to thank the fans, even as he criticized the team for failing to offer him a contract. Matthews continues to show his respect for Blazers fans since departing, opting to forgo his bow and arrow celebration while in Portland.

The end result will be a hero's welcome when Matthews checks in to the game tonight. Those in attendance may not remember the outcome of this random Tuesday night game, but they will certainly remember the standing ovation for Iron Man.

As for the actual game, the Mavericks have been regarded as one of the surprising teams of the NBA this season. Most pundits expected them to struggle to secure a playoff berth after a tough off-season, but they're currently tied for fourth in the West with a 10-8 record.

That said, the Mavericks have stumbled lately, losing four of their last five. They played last night in Sacramento and were shredded down low by DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 31 points as the Kings cruised to a 112-98 win.

The loss to Sacramento, however, was not for a lack of effort. The Mavs clearly wanted to beat the Kings, resorting to Hack-a-Rondo and desperate 5-guard lineups (yes, seriously) while down double figures with less than three minutes to go. If last night is any indication, they are going to be hungry for a win tonight against the Blazers.

Surprisingly, the Mavericks have relied on defense this season. They are holding teams to 43 percent shooting from the field and 31 percent shooting from three, and are sitting tenth in defensive rating. Last season the Mavericks had a historically good offense before acquiring Rajon Rondo, but were never particularly good at stopping opponents.

Much of the team's defensive turnaround has been credited to Matthews and the winning attitude that he brought to Dallas. Matthews has drawn the toughest defensive assignments all season for the Mavericks and acquitted himself well. He recently held the Nuggets Danilo Gallinari scoreless in the second half, spurring the Mavericks to a 92-81 win. However, offense has been a struggle for Matthews; he is averaging 11 points per game on 35 percent shooting from the floor and often looks like he is still feeling the effects of his ruptured Achilles tendon.

Dallas' has also gotten an unexpected boost from starting center Zaza Pachulia. He has more than adequately filled in for the departed Tyson Chandler and has been touted as contributing in ways that cannot be seen on a box score. After the victory over Denver, Mavs Moneyball's Bailey Rogers described Pachulia's impact on the team:

Anyone who has been watching knows that Zaza Pachulia has been one of the unexpectedly fantastic parts of this Mavs season. Tonight was the sort of game that really emphasized that. He had __ points and __ rebounds, and the stats don't really tell the whole story, as usual. This guy just plays his heart out for this team, and I love it.

My favorite point in this game was midway through the 4th quarter, when Zaza tossed an absolutely gorgeous pass to Devin cutting to the basket for an easy layup. Dallas was easily in control at this point, but it just showed the sort of chemistry and teamwork that has this team promising to be something better than any of us expected. Zaza and Devin were just on the same page on that play. And through Dallas's surprising run so far this year, that has been a common theme.

On offense, the Mavericks rely on Dirk Nowitzki and heach coach Rick Carlisle to guide the team. They run a flow offense, which Portland coach Terry Stotts has adopted for the Blazers, and have traditionally been very effective on that end.

Nowitzki has stayed remarkably effective as the Mavs' offensive anchor, averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds in his 17th(!) season. He is flanked by Deron Williams, who is experiencing something of a career revival, serving as an effective drive and dish playmaker for the Mavs. Devin Harris and Raymond Felton have also played key offensive roles. Chandler Parsons, on the other hand, has been a disappointment as he recovers from injury. He is shooting under 30 percent from three for the season; Dallas will need more production from their "Swiss Army Knife" if they hope to make noise in the post-season.

Keys to the game

Make it ugly: The Mavericks play an offensive style very similar to Portland's. If the Blazers try to use their standard gameplan they run the risk of being outclassed at their own game by a superior opponent. Instead Portland can make it ugly - hound the ball when the Mavs penetrate and prevent easy baskets with physicality. Dallas has no physically intimidating low post threat and is susceptible to rough play. The Mavericks have also shot very poorly from deep recently (less than 30 percent for the last three games). If that trend continues and Portland can play aggressive defense close to the hoop the Mavs may struggle to score.

Get Lillard whatever he needs to feel better: Lillard was ill with a stomach bug last night and could barely play. If he doesn't recover by tonight, the Blazers have little chance. To put it simply, this is Lillard's team and he is absolutely essential to the offense.

Guard defense: Dallas relies heavily on several point guards in their rotation (Williams, Felton, Harris, and J.J. Barea) and their most common 5-man lineup has Williams, Felton, and Matthews on the court together. The Blazers need to stay in front of those players and prevent penetration from Williams, especially. Portland has shown improvement in that area in recent weeks and that will need to continue tonight.

Demand that Carlisle never sub Matthews and Felton into the game at the same time: The confusion about whether to cheer or boo would probably cause some kind of vortex to form inside the Moda Center and swallow the whole court.