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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Dallas Mavericks Preview

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The Portland Trail Blazers head to Dallas for a 1 p.m. meeting today with the Mavericks in the final game of a four-game road trip.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (36-34) vs Dallas Mavericks (34-35)
Sunday, March 20
American Airlines Center | 1 p.m. PDT | Local TV/Radio: CSN; 620 AM
Portland injury report
:  Meyers Leonard (Out - Shoulder) | Dallas injury report: Jeremy Evans (Out - Shoulder), Chandler Parsons (Doubtful)
SBN Affiliate: Mavs Moneyball

Ok Blazer fans, this is a big game. To be fair, at this point in the season, they're all big games, but tonight's game against the Mavericks, along with the rematch in the Moda Center on Wednesday, have loomed large on the calendar for some time now.

The Mavs are one of four teams vying for the final three playoff spots in the Western Conference, along with the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, and Portland. Only 2.5 games separate sixth place from missing the post season altogether, and with Dallas sitting in the eighth and final spot only 1.5 games back of the Blazers, these two matchups matter.

It's been a tale of two seasons for the Mavericks. After a 19-13 start, Dallas has regressed, going 15-22 since Jan 1.  So what has gone wrong in 2016? The easy explanation is that Dallas simply overachieved to start the season. After the DeAndre Jordan debacle in the offseason, the Mavericks patchwork lineup may simply be showing its true capabilities.

Center Zaza Pachulia's production has mirrored the Mavericks' play. Through Dec 30, Pachulia put up 10.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game on 49 percent shooting. Since Jan 1, Pachulia is averaging 8.1 points and 9.7 boards. Not bad, however Pachulia is only shooting 44 percent during that 36-game stretch. Defenders have started to help off of Zaza heavily, and he has failed to make them pay as the season wears on and his minutes continue to exceed last season's total.

One player Mavs coach Rick Carlisle can always count on is Dirk Nowitzki. While not the dominant force that he was 5-10 years ago, Dirk is a very cerebral player who can stretch a defense with one of the prettiest jump shots in the league. Nowitzki takes nearly 60 percent of his shots from outside of 16 feet, and connects at high rate, including 38 percent from beyond the 3-point line. At this point in his career, Nowitzki is less likely to create for himself, but remains very dangerous in the pick-and-pop.

Where Nowitzki has suffered the most in the twilight of his career is on the defensive end. Never an elite defender, Dirk struggles to cover ground. Though he clearly possesses length, which is always useful, quicker players can easily beat him in isolation. Nowitzki also has difficulty stepping out and guarding the pick-and-roll. With Tyson Chandler leaving for Phoenix last summer, Dallas is having a difficult time covering up for his defensive shortcomings.

Mevericks forward Chandler Parsons has been playing well of late as he recovers from his serious knee injury. Over the last 25 games, Parsons is averaging 19.2 points and six rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field. Parsons has been particularly hot from beyond the arc, shooting a scorching 47 percent on more than five attempts per game from the 3-point line during this span.

Point guard Deron Williams, seemingly a lifetime removed from being in the conversation with Chris Paul for the title of "Best Point Guard in the NBA," has seen his effectiveness increase in Dallas, even if the raw numbers don't entirely reflect it.

Williams is still effective in the pick-and-roll, and he and Nowitzki form a still solid two-man combo in this regard. Williams is still not a great shooter, but has increased his field goal percentage from the abysmal 38 percent he shot with Brooklyn last season.

Shooting guard/small forward Wesley Matthews is predictably struggling some this season. This is not to take away from his monumental achievement just getting back into the starting lineup on opening night and only missing four games all season. Players who most successfully return from an Achilles rupture tend to take a full year before regaining most (though not all) of their lateral quickness and athletic ability.

Since Matthews' game is not predicated on athleticism, he has managed to play consistent minutes, averaging a full 33 per game, nearly identical to his last two seasons in Portland. Matthews is struggling from the perimeter, shooting a career-low 34 percent from the 3-point line. Matthews' historical struggles around the rim, seemingly resolved in his last two seasons, have returned, where he shoots below 50 percent from within three feet, and less than 37 percent from within 10 feet (for contrast, Matthews shot 60 percent and 57 percent, respectively, from these zones last season).

Carlisle has been playing a three-guard lineup off the bench for much of the season, sliding Matthews to the three, but lately has been using it more and more in an effort to match the small ball lineups that are becoming prevalent across the league, including sliding Dirk to center and starting Raymond Felton alongside Matthews and Williams for the last two games. This gives the Mavs another ball handler whose strength is in the pick-and-roll while putting Dirk on opposing centers helps to minimize his lack of quickness on the defensive end.

Though Dallas has had bench struggles this season, newly acquired power forward David Lee has been fantastic in his 11 games as a Maverick, averaging 11.5 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting a scorching 65 percent from the floor. Even if Lee is not a good defender, to put it kindly, his presence allows Carlisle to stop using Parsons as the de facto power forward as often, and allows the aforementioned three-guard lineups to function without losing too much in the way of rebounding.

Keys to the game

Take advantage of superior athleticism: Portland is going to need to be in attack mode tonight. Dallas is older and plays a slower pick-and-roll/pop-centric offense. The Blazers will need to use their athleticism and make the Mavs work on both sides of the court. With no Meyers Leonard, the Blazers already are likely thinking about going small, so if Carlisle continues his trend of a three-guard lineup with Parsons at the four, expect to see Al-Farouq Aminu matched up against him, with stretches of Gerald Henderson and even Maurice Harkless at the three.

Mason Plumlee will likely have his hands full with Dirk tonight, but against he and the fading Pachulia, this is a game where Plumlee's constant activity and lack of overwhelming size may work to his advantage, at least against Pachulia.  Not to say that Dirk can be shut down, even at this stage of his career, but the more you make the big man work for his points, the better. Dirk has made a career of punishing big men on the perimeter, however -- especially those prone to foul trouble.

Exploit the extra guards: Nothing against Ray Felton, J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris...Well, nothing against Devin Harris, but that is a poor trio of perimeter defenders. If Matthews is effectively playing small forward tonight, that's a whole lot of porous defense lined up against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

As long as the Blazers play their game and demonstrate some semblance of defense, a rare feat these days, they should be able to walk out with a win against a Mavericks team in free fall.