Friday, April 15, 2011

Portland Trailer Blazers vs Dallas Mavericks First Round Preview: Banishing the Demons

It's a curse that blackens the soul and cripples any joy in life. That's what it is: a basketball curse. Since 2006 the curse has damaged any playoff hopes the Mavericks have had. It's a cruel and unforgiving curse: blow a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals, waste an opportunity to win a title, and you will have no more success in any playoff series.

At least, I hope it's a curse, because that's what I keep telling myself at the end of every April since the ill-fated series with the Heat. It's the only way to hide the tears (unfortunately not the holes in the walls). But this series is something different than first round follies of the past. Since 2006, the Mavericks have been usually the favorite. Against Golden State, New Orleans and both San Antonio series, the Mavs had a good amount of backing from the fans, media and blogosphere (I understand Dallas was the seventh seed in 2008, but most people felt Dallas matched up well with a young Hornets team that never had been to the playoffs. Silly me.)

This time, Dallas is matched up with Portland -- a team that is seemingly just like Dallas but theoretically better or younger/more athletic at every spot. You have Andre Miller, a wise, crafty, veteran point guard who sets up teammates AND can create offense for himself at the rim. You have Wesley Matthews, a young up and coming two guard who can shoot and defend his position...consistently. There's Gerald Wallace, a slashing, attacking, defending, rebounding wing AND can create for himself from the perimeter. And then LaMarcus Aldridge. A floor-spreading power forward who can knock down a midrange shots AND score just as easily around the basket and in the paint. It's why I feel a majority of pundits (even if it's a slight majority) are picking the Blazers to win. Heck, given the last two games the teams have played against each other, you can't blame anyone for picking Portland.

Which is why I'm picking Dallas to win in six games. Call me crazy, call me a lunatic, but give me a chance to explain, please? Thank you.

If you judge Portland by what they do solely against the Mavericks (and especially those last two games) you would think they are an offensive juggernaut. Yes, they are a top 10 team in the league in offensive efficiency, but not for typical reasons -- they aren't exactly a great shooting team. So how is this possible? I'm glad you asked, kind sir/madame: offensive rebounds and turnovers. The Blazers play at the league's slowest pace, making every possession more crucial. Portland obviously understands how important these fewer possessions are, because they are one of the best in the league at not handing the ball over to the other team. They also grab offensive rebounds at the third best rate in the league. Unfortunately this feeds into the Mavericks two biggest weaknesses -- turning the ball over and allowing offensive rebounds.

So if the Blazers strengths are what cripples the Mavericks, how do they have a chance? For one, I'm a big believer in home court being a huge factor in this series. Portland is 18-23 away from the Rose Garden and while the AAC doesn't have the same rowdiness it had five to six years ago, I don't trust Portland being consistently as good as they were against the Mavs this season in Dallas. Unfortunately, this applies to Dallas too, as Portland has in my mind, the best home court in the NBA. I understand that can be hard to grasp for casual basketball fans who would normally just associate Boston, Los Angeles or even Oklahoma City for home court dominance. But watch this week, you'll see how intense the Blazer crowd gets. This is the same home crowd that treats a Tuesday evening stint with the Kings as a playoff game. They love their Blazer basketball, and especially this group, with so many good-natured players after the infamous "Jail Blazers" era. Luckily, Dallas has proven itself to almost play better on the road than at home, the last two Blazer games notwithstanding.

Another point that needs to be taken into consideration is playoff experience. I understand this is a weak crutch to fall on but the Blazers have only won four playoff series since 1992. That's four series wins in 14 years. And you thought the Mavs had it rough lately? Given that some of the current Blazers were in elementary school at that time, Portland hasn't won a playoff series since 2000, with this current crop losing the last two first round series. This Portland team hasn't proven itself to win in the playoffs anymore than the Dallas Mavericks, and I feel that could come into play during any perilous moments in the coming games.

Speaking of perilous moments, Dirk Nowitzki raises his game unlike any current NBA superstar when the playoff lights shine at their brightest. Dirk's career playoff averages of 25 points and 10 rebounds puts him into an elite crop of basketball legends. Also, I hinted earlier in the year that Dirk is taking more catch and shoot jumpers as to save his body from the wear and tear and be fresh for the playoffs. I'd like to think that still holds up. If the Mavericks are to make good on my prediction Dirk is going to have to be the efficient, low post, pump faking, free throw making machine we all know he is capable of being. Don't be surprised if Dirk's free throw attempts per game spike up between 9-10 in the playoffs. Dirk has to be the best player in this series, not Aldridge.

And for as much grief we give the Dallas backcourt and bench inconsistencies, Portland's is just as fallible. For a moment, take away the visions of Rudy Fernandez raining jumpers and Brandon Roy looking like his All-Star self. Both are shells of what they are against the Mavs, with Roy limping into the playoffs shooting under 40 percent in nine of the 11 games since his 21 point "explosion" against Dallas in March. He also has only scored in double figures twice in that stretch with two 11 point games. Roy should not be a factor, but if the Mavs let him, the series could get out of hand. Fernandez is also shooting 37 percent for the year and has been mainly a non-factor in Portland's season. These two shouldn't be making Maverick fans curse, but if they do, then God help us all.

The only way this backcourt could take advantage is if Portland decides to post up Miller, Roy or Fernandez in the precious moments of the game when J.J. Barea and Jason Terry are sharing the backcourt. Both were extremely over matched on the low block letting Roy and Fernandez operate without much resistance at all. As much as it pains me to say it, the bench might has to run the zone more than I would like in an NBA playoff game.

Lastly, if the team is to have any chance of a first round win, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry have to make shots, pure and simple. Kidd shot 30.4 percent last year against the Spurs in round one, while Terry wasn't much better at 37.7 percent. Quite simply, the Mavericks offense will be a miserable, ugly mess if these numbers correlate over. When Dirk gets double teamed (and triple teamed) Kidd and Terry are the main benefactors. What worries me more is the possibility of Beaubois losing time in the playoffs. Despite the up and down play, the turnovers and the bad defense, the Mavs must have Beaubois in the game to see what he's going to give them. He's torched Portland so far this year, averaging 17 points per game and 60 percent shooting in two games against the Blazers. I understand the problems playing him might entail, but Rick Carlisle has to at least throw him out there to see what he can contribute. The Dallas offense is at its best when Dirk establishes dominance in the first quarter, which leads to more open looks for Kidd, Terry and even Chandler underneath the basket.

Chandler will HAVE to score as well, given the lack of another wing scorer with Roddy Beaubois falling to the wayside. Chandler's regular season average of 10.1 points per game this season is three points more than the combined points per game Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood scored in the playoffs in 2010.

Well, that's about all I have. Check back here for individual game recaps (I know I'm not a fan of doing them myself, but it's the playoffs!) and maybe a playoff preview podcast dropping tomorrow afternoon. Like always, check Twitter for my in-game thoughts and if you need to dial the Bedford Police Department.

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1 comment:

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