Despite the dismantling of their championship squad, the Mavs still nurture hopes of defending their title. For now, they are languishing in the lower-seeded playoff bracket but are only one game away from earning the third seed in the West. They also anticipate that their corps of veterans will have their respective A-games honed when the money season commences.
For the Suns, competing in the playoffs is both a distant memory and an unimaginable future. While Phoenix is still a moderately competitive team, two of their stalwarts — Grant Hill and Steve Nash — are learning that the older they get the faster they get old. Is it time, then, for management to utter the “R” word — Rebuilding?
HOW THE MAVERICKS CAN WIN
Unless he’s double-teamed, Dirk Nowitzki’s dreadnaught arsenal of off-balance, step-back, wrong-footed shot-releases can seldom be deterred. Plus, he’s a dead-eye shooter with 3-point range, is virtually unstoppable when driving left, and has the most convincing shot-fakes in the NBA. Nowitzki has certainly recovered from his early-season slump, yet he remains somewhat erratic — especially before the halftime intermission. However, Nowitzki usually has long arms whenever a game is up for grabs. Even though Jared Dudley is Phoenix’s best defender, Nowitzki will still have to be two-timed — which will create opportunities for Nowitzki’s timely passes to generate open shots for his teammates.
• Jason Kidd has to make his available treys, avoid the turnovers that have increasingly plagued him and keep the ball moving. If J-Kidd is no longer able to play lock-down defense against fleet-footed opposing point guards, Nash has slowed sufficiently to be hampered by Kidd’s savvy, strength, and still-quick hands.
• Shawn Marion continues to hustle like a rookie, but his unorthodox offense is not nearly as effective as it once was. However, he remains a stalwart defender who could easily put Channing Frye in a box.
• Vince Carter is now three-quarters man and only one-quarter amazing. Occasionally he can explode for twenty-plus points on a variety of spectacular shots, but these days he looks for the pass before the shot. Even so, VC has to take advantage of his several post-up opportunities and good looks from the perimeter to keep the Suns defense from ganging up on Nowitzki. On defense, Carter has to be on top of Hill’s veteran moves, and also to spend some time chasing Shannon Brown.
• Ian Mahinmi is a diamond in the rough. A wondrous athlete, he can bury mid-range jumpers, sky for rebounds and is Dallas’ primary shot-blocker. Too bad he has a young ‘un’s penchant for committing silly fouls. If, in the absence of the injured Brendan Haywood, Mahinmi can stay on the floor for close to thirty minutes, the Mavs defense can be much more aggressive. However, if Phoenix changes its usual game plan and grants the underrated Marcin Gortat multiple touches in the pivot, then Mahinmi’s fouls will swiftly accumulate and his daylight will be limited.
• Besides Nowitzki, the visitor’s other go-to scorer is Jason Terry. His accuracy when he can dribble right and pull is legendary. Even though he’s given some time running the show behind Kidd, Terry has to put points on the board for the Mavs to succeed. Since the Suns’ defense is not especially potent, this should be no problem. At the other end of the court, Terry has to prevent either Hill or Brown from embarrassing him.
• Lamar Odom is Dallas’ mystery man. He feels betrayed by the Lakers and pines for the days when Phil Jackson could soothe and encourage him. In addition to his own emotional distress, Odom is not being used properly. For LO to shine, he needs to carry the ball over the time-line and create offense for himself or his teammates — and also to have iso-space cleared for him along the right baseline. One of these games, Odom will recapture the rapture. Maybe tonight.
• The Mavs X-factor is Rodrigue Beaubois, who’s as quick with the ball as anybody. Moreover, he can routinely bag treys, and on defense can pressure high screen-rolls. Although he often plays the point, Beaubois is a scorer who cannot run an offense. However, his up-tempo energy off the bench could turn a close game into a rout.
• There are several gaping holes in Phoenix’s game plan. Neither Frye nor Nash can guard their own shadows. Hill still has quick hands and plays adequate position defense, but his lateral movement is severely diminished. If Gortat provides timely off-the-ball help on penetration, there’s rarely satisfactory rotation behind him. But Gortat fails in that he rarely offers help on pin-down screens and curls—plus he’s a poor passer. Brown is habitually out of control whether on the run or playing station-to-station offense. Robin Lopez is a slow-footed liability of defense. Rookie Markieff Morris has hit the wall. Sebastian Telfair is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. And the ghost of Michael Redd doesn’t scare anybody.
• The Mavs must also take advantage of the Suns’ iffy transition defense with selective running, keep Nash out of the middle, get plus-offense from Terry and Beaubois, and maintain their discipline, for a win to be assured.
HOW THE SUNS CAN WIN
If Nash has lost a step, he’s still very tricky and also reliable in the clutch. Although he’s reluctant to unloose too many jumpers from the outskirts, Nash has to take and make more of these than he wants to. At 38, he remains his team’s go-to difference-maker. The equally aged legs of J-Kidd should not deter Nash from taking the ball wherever he wishes.
• Gortat runs like a small forward, can knock down mid-range jumpers, is an active rebounder, and makes aggressive shows on high screen/rolls. He has to get Mahinmi in early foul trouble, then overpower Odom in the low-post.
• Hill must out-fox the subpar defense of Carter and Terry. On defense, he has to push Carter’s handle to help spots and sit on Terry’s right hand.
• Dudley has to hold his ground when Nowitzki goes into his convincing fakes, force him right, and do his best to throw a hand at his fallback shots. Always a high-energy guy, Dudley must also make Nowitzki pay dearly for his habit of turning his head when playing off-the-ball defense by converting his 3-ball attempts.
• Frye is the team’s main post-up player but, even though he’s essentially a finesse guy, he insists on creating contact down there. Since there’s now way he can bully Marion, Frye has to do what he does best—shoot bull’s-eyes from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, as of late he’s been shooting mostly blanks from the great beyond.
• Brown has to find the proper balance between running amok and being too cautious. But making good decisions with the ball has never been his forte.
• Telfair has to take his eyes off the rim, curtail his tendency to over-handle and instead be a total facilitator.
• Overall, their interior defensive rotation has to be precise. They must run all-out in transitioning from offense to defense.
• Dallas has flaws that can be exploited. There’s the poor defense of Terry and Beaubois. Their normal procedure of switching in defense of screen/rolls often creates mismatches that must be taken advantage of, too. When Kidd is resting, there’s very little weak-side movement on offense — this can make doubling Nowitzski more profitable. Dallas is frequently sloppy with the ball and also subject to extended periods of minimal offense. Odom can be permitted to hoist his line-drive jumpers until his left arm gets weary. With Mahinmi nursing foul trouble on the bench, the middle is unprotected.
• Having the discipline and game-preparation to trump every one of the Mavs weaknesses can put Phoenix over the top. But Nash must absolutely have a flashback-to-greatness-type game.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- Who will win the battle of the point-guard geezers?
- Will Odom make a complete recovery from his season-long coma?
- Can Mahinmi avoid foul trouble?
- Which team’s second unit—Beaubois, Terry, and Odom versus Telfair, Brown, and Lopez—will dominate?
- Last Monday, the home-standing Oklahoma Thunder shot 33 free throws to the Mavs ten in posting a 95-91 victory. After the game, Rick Carlisle was properly aghast at this differential, claiming that the refs show his team no respect. Will the three blind mice react by making Dallas the recipient of most every questionable call? Or will they retaliate by giving Phoenix the edge?
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.