Mavs Vs. Rockets Donuts: Your Playoff Preview
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said after Friday's practice, "Whatever all the subplots are that you guys (the media) are trying to create, it's all external noise.'' OK, Coach. Basketball only. With Parsons and Devin both practicing fully and pronouncing themselves ready to roll, a handful of things to look out for in what should be a terrific first-round series, starting with Saturday's Game 1 at 8:30, Mavs at Houston:
One thing to keep an eye on in this series is Rajon Rondo’s attempts at offensive rebounds. This might seem like a little thing in a seven-game playoff series, considering it is will only happen a couple times each game, but in this matchup it is a high-risk/high-reward gamble for the Mavericks.
As much as just about any player in the NBA, Rondo has a knack for where the ball is going to end up off of a missed shot, regardless of whether he is the shooter or not. On long misses, outside the grasp of post rebounders, the ball is often Rondo’s for the taking because he reacts faster than all the other perimeter players on the court. Even when a defensive rebounder grabs the ball, Rondo will place himself at the heels of the bigger player and jump soon after the ball is secured to try to pry the rebound free. Rondo has the hands of an NBA center and is deceptively strong. Combine that with an element of surprise and it accounts for his ability to steal or tip the ball away from opposing big men.
These are huge momentum plays for Dallas. Besides the obvious fact that extra possessions are crucial in playoff games, it also allows Rondo to operate against a scrambling defense. He thrives against a defense that isn’t quite set and assuming that Nowitzki, Parsons or Villanueva is on the court, he will be looking for one of them for an open spot-up shot.
The flip side of this argument is that if Rondo fails to get the rebound he leaves Dallas vulnerable to get sliced up in transition, which has been a problem for them most of the season. Nowitzki often operates offensively near the top of the key. When Rondo runs up to get an offensive board and comes up short, it leaves Nowitzki as the last line of defense against the fast break. Ellis provides little resistance as well. Those two won’t stand a chance against Houston’s transition attack. The Rockets are arguably the most underrated fast-break team in the NBA.
Rondo’s defensive instincts will be huge for Dallas in this series. Going for offensive rebounds could leave the Mavs vulnerable. It could also be a difference-maker for them. ... and of course, if it all works, it greatly impacts Rondo's future with the Mavs in terms of salary-cap management and roster-building.
You can’t really run plays for Al-Farouq Aminu or Corey Brewer. That doesn’t mean they both won’t have their fingerprints all over their series. These two won’t really spend much time guarding each other, but they serve very similar purposes: supply versatile defense, hustle and fast-break opportunities.
Aminu could make his presence felt in a number of different ways. He could come in and provide long-armed defense on Harden. He could play power forward, especially in this series. He can also hit the offensive boards and contend with anyone not named Howard on the Rockets.
Brewer, though, will slip out in transition. He is fast and he runs in a straight line. If he continuously gets ahead of the Mavericks’ transition defense the Rockets will likely score at a rate Dallas isn’t prepared to keep up with. This will require a greater sense of defensive effort from Nowitzki than we’ve seen during the season. Brewer can also run to the corners and knock down open three-pointers.
Considering an awareness of what he is capable of and the effort to prevent it is usually enough to hold him to less than six points means 15 points from Brewer could be enough to cost Dallas a game.
The Rockets will view Aminu in a similar way. The one with the bigger impact might be playing in the second round. And a P.S. here: The Animu/Parsons pairing is Dallas' best two-man combo on the year, with a +13 this season. That duo can make some hay in this series in a way that wouldn't have occured against the Spurs, Grizzlies and others.
Teams used to bait Josh Smith into shooting threes. It seemed a waste of his skills and was in the defense’s favor. Since joining the Rockets, though, he has found his stroke from behind the line. In the flow of the Rockets’ offense he is still going to get open shots. Defensively, treating him like a spot up shooter will only leave you more vulnerable in other areas.
Since joining the Rockets, in games against the Mavericks, Smith shot 7-of-13 from three-point range. In those same games, Nowitzki shot 4-of-8. The Mavericks will be in trouble defensively if Smith is hitting his shots from deep.
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You don’t stop a player like James Harden. He’s too good. Even containing him is a farfetched task. But given the rest of the Rockets’ roster, the Mavs have to find a way to prevent him from single-handedly beating Dallas the way he is capable of.
Harden is for all intents and purposes the Houston point guard. He is the offense. He brings the ball up the court the majority of possessions so as to more quickly initiate the offense, which cannot be initiated until he touches the ball anyway. The Mavericks can exploit this by picking up Harden 80-plus feet from the basket and defending him for the entirety of the court. The goal isn’t to force turnovers in the backcourt; it’s unlikely Harden will give the ball up. The goal is to incrementally make Harden more tired and give him less time to do what he is used to doing.
It’s a similar strategy to the one implemented against LeBron James in the 2011 Finals. The Mavs picked him up early and threw numerous defenders at him, forcing him to adjust his game just a little bit. It was easier for him to assume that his teammates must be open or better suited to attack the rest of the defense. The result was an at-least-slightly passive James.
If your primary scorer brings the ball upcourt and he’s not a lightning-speed ball handler who can punish you for pressing him early, then you have to take advantage. You have to make him work harder than he normally would. Rondo is the perfect player to hound Harden all the way up the court. Another interesting gamble would be bringing Barea in for stretches and having him press Harden. Barea is excellent at this role and just avoiding an offensive foul would take extra concentration from Harden. The gamble of this would be that, once in the halfcourt, Harden would punish Barea every single play so the Mavericks might have to send a double-team once Harden passes halfcourt, or some system of switching, so that Barea can peel back to someone he could more realistically defend.
We think of Mavs-Rockets as being a rivalry, as we detail here in our stack of stories on the subject. What does Dirk think?
"It's more of a rivalry since Cuban and what's-his-face went back and forth a little bit, Morey,'' Nowitzki said. "When you only play a team once in 10 years you can't really speak of a rivalry. I mean, both teams are in Texas. Both teams want to win in the first round."
It's become a rallying cry, a hashtag, a "thing.''
"We Are One.'' Oh, how wish want this to ring as true as it sounds. Worth nothing: Fish reports from Dallas' practice on Friday that Monta was in a jovial mood, busting on teammates and telling dirty-worded jokes that had Rondo, Amimu, TY and Amare cracking up. So, yes, "We Are One'' looked right on Friday.
For most of Stoudemire’s career he has been a face-up big lacking a traditional post-up game. At one point in his tenure with the Knicks he learned how to play with his back to the basket, having taken lessons from Hakeem Olajuwon. The work paid off and Stoudemire became excellent at backing opponents down and getting high-percentage shots. It’s a rare feat for a big man late in his career and is rarely mentioned when talking about Stoudemire, probably because it coincided with the decline of his overall game due to injuries.
That post play has been the majority of what Stoudemire has showcased with the Mavericks and it’s been a pleasantly dependable way to get baskets. Once Stoudemire feels his defender doesn’t have the strength to contain him—which is often—he calls for the ball. Once he gets it, don’t expect a pass. He backs down his defender, does a couple shoulder shakes and usually finishes with some form of a baby hook.
This play won’t work against Dwight Howard. But it WILL work against virtually every other player on the Rockets. Stoudemire will often come in around the time Howard is checking out. Expect Stoudemire to be a source of easy buckets throughout this series.
I’ve joked at times this season that Nowitzki’s defense could be 15 percent better if he just tried one percent harder, because that would put him at one-percent effort.
Obviously, Nowitzki has been consciously trying to reserve energy for the playoffs and his body is not capable of keeping up with some athletes at his age, but the defensive effort — or at least defensive result — that he has shown for most of this season is not enough for Dallas to win a playoff series. He needs to get back on transition defense and at least be a body ready to rebound a fast-break miss, not just be the guy who is going to intentionally foul to avoid the easy bucket.
Keeping in front of Terrance Jones will not be easy. He is very quick, very athletic and much younger than Nowitzki. The Big German has always had very good defensive instincts. If he can pair those instincts with effort it should be enough with Chandler behind him protecting the rim.
If Terrance Jones can match Nowitzki’s offensive output each game than the series might already be over.
This isn't an issue of "Playoff Dirk'' on offense; As DB.com details here in Mavs Premium, Dirk is a 25.6 points, 10.1 boards, 2.5 assists and 46-percent shooter from the field in his 135 playoff games, and he's looked quite like that in recent weeks. But he's got to do a little something on the other end, too.
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Both of these teams are mostly being written off as title contenders. Neither team is really heralded for having that championship moxie that people tend to talk about. However, a very under-the-radar aspect of this game is all of the championship and playoff experience accumulated between the rosters of the Mavericks and Rockets.
Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks), Rajon Rondo (Celtics), Dwight Howard (Magic), James Harden (Thunder), Richard Jefferson (Nets) and Trevor Ariza (Lakers) have all made the NBA Finals, for six different franchises.
That doesn’t even include Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, Devin Harris, J.J. Barea and Corey Brewer, all of whom have also played in the NBA Finals. So that’s a total of 11 players with NBA Finals experience playing prominent roles in this series.
On top of that, Monta Ellis has made the playoffs with three different franchises. Josh Smith played 52 playoff games for the Atlanta Hawks. Raymond Felton has played in 21. And Amar’e Stoudemire has played a whopping 64.
The Mavs tout their playoff experience as a strength. But the Rockets, in a sense, can do the same.
A lot of people are down on Monta Ellis for personality reasons. (DB.com examines "The Many Moods of Monta'' here.) The guy wants to be on the court — to an almost selfish degree. But come playoff time, I can’t think of a coach who would rather have a player who didn’t want to play every minute of every game.
The formula to beating this Rockets team will have a lot to do with getting Dwight Howard off the court. For all the criticism of Howard, he is an excellent rim protector and makes it harder to expose the defensive inadequacies of the other Rockets. Ellis needs to constantly put pressure on Howard by driving to the basket and looking for contact or dropping it off to Chandler.
The Rockets will score a lot of points and they will shoot a lot of free throws. This means the Mavericks will operate in half-court sets against a set defense quite often. For most of 2015 we’ve seen the Mavericks stall out in these situations, unable to create the right movement to get an open shot. Stalling out is not an option against the Rockets. They are too efficient offensively. Someone has to create open shots for himself. The double-team will come quickly against Nowitzki. Ellis will get one-on-one and pick-and-roll opportunities and he’ll need to take advantage of them as if a better opportunity will not come along. Call it gambling on Monta/HeroBall if you want, but it might be the best gamble the Mavericks have.
The Rockets will likely choose to guard Ellis with Trevor Ariza, who has the length to stay with him on the perimeter, but he just doesn’t have the quickness to stay in front of Ellis. Despite being the Rockets’ best perimeter defender, he’s better suited for sticking with a shooter. He can fight through screens with a lot of success. He isn’t much of a match for Ellis off the dribble. Ellis’ best efforts will beat Ariza’s best efforts most days of the week as long as the shots are falling.
The Rockets will likely try to hide Harden on Parsons and so the easy assumption would be the Mavericks should force Parsons the ball to expose that matchup. That may not be a great option though. A Parsons-led offense often includes a Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll, which would involve Howard. Howard is such a good pick-and-roll defender he can compensate for Harden’s troubles assuming Harden is at least trying to fight through the pick, which he has done a better job of this season. Parsons is an excellent complementary player and he can expose Harden through that role. If Ellis gets hot, Harden will be more likely to lose Parsons for a three-point attempt or recover in time for Parsons to receive a pass, pump fake and drive to the basket. (This all presumes Parsons' decent-enough health for Game 1, of course. So far, so good, and we'll have more info from Parsons himself later today.)
Meanwhile, Ellis will be able to guard Jason Terry, which shouldn’t require too much exertion, leaving energy for him to do things like this, as he did at this time a year ago:
Harden will get his. But if the Mavericks advance to the second round of the playoffs, I say it will be because Monta Ellis ceases being the "lid'' on Dallas' potential and instead plays like this team's MVP.
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