Time is running out on the bottom half of the Western Conference to make a final push for playoff position as the season begins to come to a close. With only a handful games separating seeds five through nine, and only five Dallas games left to play, every game from here on out will be labeled ‘the biggest game of the season’ for the Mavs, starting with their arch rivals, the Houston Rockets.
“We’ve been playing one-game-elimination games for a month, so this is another one of those, really, just in terms of mentality,'' Mavs coach Rick Carlisle says. "There’s no need to overstate the importance of it for both teams.''
Here are "Five Quick Facts,'' along with all the storylines and links you'll need leading up to the 8:30 p.m. start at the AAC.
- The Mavs have won four straight, and it’s because of defense
The Mavs (39-38 and for the moment alone in the No. 7 slot) had been average at best on defense for the overwhelming majority of the season, and had been really struggling since an early March road loss to the Denver Nuggets. Flash forward to today, and the Mavs have won four straight, thanks in large part to a renewed energy on the defensive end with the insertion of Justin Anderson to the starting lineup. In fact, since giving up 261 points in regulation in two games towards the end of March, Dallas has had its best defensive stretch of the entire season. In those four games, the Mavs have given up and average of 86 points, and are allowing opponents to shoot around 42 percent from the floor, and 30 percent from three. Fish points out that a lot of Dallas' success is due to a purposely slower pace. But in any event ... It becomes much easier to win games when your opponents are scoring south of 120 points per game, doesn’t it?
Now just imagine if Dirk Nowitzki breaks from a skid in which during Dallas' 4-0 run he's shooting just 21-of-76 from the floor?
- The Rockets are one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the NBA right now
Since last year's embarrassing Western Conference Finals, the Houston Rockets have been out of sorts, and are in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. In just one year after making a deep playoff push, the Rockets began the season with three consecutive 20-point losses, fired their head coach, and their best player starting dating a Kardashian. Needless to say, the 38-39 Rockets (in ninth place) are performing well below expectations, so far below expectations that even their interim head coach has labelled them as “a broken team.”
In fairness, Houston seemed fairly broken last year at this time, too, only to prove that the then-Rondo-led Mavs were suffering through their own form of dysfunction.
But Dallas has some "Basketball Soul'' now with J.J. Barea playing big minutes and big-time (especially with Deron Williams expected to sit again tonight.) JJB is the Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging 23.5 points and 6.8 assists (and one born baby) during this streak.
“It’s fun,'' says The Pinball Protagonist. "Every game is important. Every quarter. (This) is going to be a huge one.”
- The Rockets’ defense is way down from a year ago
Last season, the Rockets held opponents to 100.5 points per game, 44.3 percent-shooting from the field, as well as 32.2-percent from beyond the arc. This season, Houston is surrendering 106.7 points (fifth worst in the league), and allowing 46-percent from the field and 36.3-percent from three-point range. Something is wrong in ‘Clutch City’. Maybe it was the front office trying to fuse the personalities of Dwight Howard, James Harden, Ty Lawson, Michael Beasley and Josh Smith together? Maybe it was the departure of Kevin McHale? Whatever it is, it’s clear that defense has been a major struggle for the Rockets this year, and that it’s resulted in a substandard season at best.
- The Rockets’ offense is actually better than it was a year ago
Last season, the Rockets averaged 103.9 points, while shooting 44 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three. They also averaged 15.9 turnovers to 22.2 assists, as well as 11.9 offensive rebounds per game. Flash forward to this season, and Houston is throwing up 106 points per (fourth best in the league), while shooting 45 percent from the field, 34.4 percent from three, and pulling down and average of 11.8 offensive boards. They are even being more efficient with the basketball, turning the ball over 15.2 times to 21.9 assists per game.
So, while it’s clear that defense is a big problem, the Rockets are just as dangerous as ever on the offensive end of the floor.
Says Rick: "They’re talented, they’re good, and they give us problems.”
- Dating back to the beginning of last season, the Rockets are 9-3 against the Mavs, including the playoffs, and it’s because of James Harden
To put it simply, the Rockets have owned the Mavs over the last two years, winning nine of 12 over that span. In those 12 match-ups, James Harden has only been held below 23 points one time (he scored 17). As a matter of fact, Harden has scored 26 points per and handed out 7.6 assists, while shooting an average of 9-of-10 from the free throw line. Suffice it to say, Harden loves playing against the Mavs right now. He especially loves playing them in Dallas, where he averages 28.2 points a game, as opposed to 24.7 points in front of his home crowd in Houston.
Harden was big on Sunday, too, against OKC. Thunder coach Billy Donovan was asked "what happened late'' in that game.
"James Harden is what happened late," Donovan said.
Harden scored 15 of his 41 points in the final quarter and had nine assists overall to help the Rockets jump-start their playoff chances with a 118-110 win Sunday. So now both teams are rested ... and we are ready, for you to follow us on Twitter at @MattGalatzan and at @FishSports, for you to get caught up on all the latest Mavs news in the DB.com Archives, and for you to play in the Mavs-Rockets GameThread on DB.com Boards!