Before the season started I projected that Denver and Dallas would be fighting each other late in the season. Of course, I thought it would be a battle for the eighth playoff spot, not a spot in the Western Conference Finals.
Forget the Regular Season
Just as with the New Orleans series the regular season results between these two teams are meaningless. New Orleans played the Nuggets incredibly tough and split the four regular season games and it ended up not meaning one darned thing because the Hornets were not playing well. With Dallas it is true the Nuggets swept the four game series, but anyone who expects the Nuggets to dominate this matchup based on those games will be surprised at what is about to take place.
Three of the four matchups occurred in the first half of the season when the Mavs were struggling. In the fourth meeting Dallas was without Jason Kidd and Josh Howard (plus Denver was missing Nene). Howard only played in two of the four games, but in one of those two games it was his first game back from injury and he played 14 ineffective minutes. At this point Howard is near full strength and playing very well.
After considering all of those variables here is one more thing to keep in mind. Three of the four meetings between the two squads came down to the final possession. If any number of little things go differently in those three games, we are talking about how Dallas handled Denver in the regular season 3-1.
If you still think the regular season games were meaningful I give up. Go your merry way pilgrim. Now on to the hard hitting analysis.
Don’t Jump on the Kidd Bandwagon
First of all I am going to tackle a notion that I have heard from several outlets and that is that Chauncey Billups is a great matchup for Jason Kidd. Most observers are only looking at one side of that coin. Yes, Chauncey is nowhere near as quick as Tony Parker and that is good news for Kidd. Of course Chauncey is not going to abuse Kidd like Parker did.
What those analysts seem to be ignoring is that Kidd is an even better matchup for Chauncey. While Kidd has generally held Chauncey below his averages Chauncey has done that and more against Kidd. Over the previous three seasons when facing Chauncey Kidd has averaged 9.6 points, 8.4 assists, 7.1 rebounds and he only shot 33.3% from the floor. The good news for Dallas is they do not require big numbers from Kidd in order to win. He is primarily a facilitator and spot up shooter. Against the Spurs Kidd only posted 10.0 points, 5.6 assists and 6.0 rebounds. However, he shot 10-23 from behind the arc good for 43.5%. Even though Denver probably needs Chancey to post better numbers more than Dallas needs Kidd to put up big stats I like this matchup for the Nuggets.
Can Kenyon David West-ify Dirk?
On the flip side a matchup that most people may be giving the Nuggets a little bit too much credit for is the battle between Dirk Nowitzki and Kenyon Martin. I do believe Kenyon can make things tough on Dirk, but this assignment is far more difficult than the task of crushing David West in the first round. Dirk is far more talented and capable than West is.
Still, Kenyon has the strength to keep Dirk from getting too deep on his many postups and the physical play that has been allowed so far in the postseason will work in Kenyon’s favor. This season with Kenyon playing in all four games against Dirk Denver has held Nowitzki to 43.9% shooting, a full four percent below his season average. Kenyon’s biggest issue when guarding Dirk is something he can do nothing about and that is the length advantage Dirk has. While West was not able to bump into Kenyon and create space to get his shot off, Dirk will be able to shoot over Kenyon whenever he wants and he is amazingly adept at hitting the awkward jumper. Offensively Kenyon has the quickness and athletic advantage on Dirk to make him work on defense. Look for Kenyon to drive at Nowitzki, spin and toss up that little push shot from in close.
I fully expect Dirk to play more minutes than Kenyon and when Martin is out of the game Denver will have to scramble to cover the big German. Nene has had some success against Dirk when he was younger, but I am not sure he has the lateral quickness at this point to provide the kind of resistance that Kenyon can. I am afraid Dirk can take a dribble and pull up on Nene with room to spare. However, if Nene is successful in avoiding foul trouble he is a decent option to spend a few minutes on Dirk. Chris Andersen is an interesting matchup for Dirk as he has the length to bother Nowitzki’s jumper, but I am not sure he has the strength and balance to absorb a shot to the chest and be able to challenge the shot and a one or two dribble pull up provides similar issues for Birdman as it does for Nene.
Even with each player’s short comings, Denver is as well equipped to handle Dirk as anyone. It would also be interesting to see what Renaldo Balkman could do against Dirk, but I seriously doubt we will get the chance.
The Other Guards
There are some more interesting matchups lead by the other backcourt players. Jason Terry and JJ Barea make for a dynamic backcourt while Dahntay Jones and Anthony Carter seem to be a nice defensive matchup for both. I think we see a little less of Jones this series and more AC. Terry is deceptively quick and the fact you have to respect his shot forces you to play him tighter than is comfortable. Ultimately I believe Carter is a better option to slow him down than Dahntay. Jones did a great job hounding Chris Paul and fighting around screens, but the Mavs will be running Terry around screen after screen and Carter is better suited to chase and challenge in that situation than Jones is. However, Jones is playing out of his mind right now on defense and with his length and athleticism he very well could effectively harass Terry.
Barea is the real potential nightmare due to his quickness. He has shown he can get in the lane against any defender Denver will throw at him so it is vital that they have a plan to help and recover when he is in the game. He is also a streaky shooter and when he is on he adds an entirely new dimension to the Mavs offense. Defensively if the Mavs are playing man to man, Denver can take advantage of his stature and do a variety of things from post up to pick and roll him or flat out shoot over top of him. I think Barea is a player many fans are not very familiar with who could swing the series one way or another with his play.
Meat You in the Paint (sorry, but it is almost 2:00 AM)
Moving to the paint Dallas has some serious beef in the middle with Erick Dampier who does a good job of taking up space and he is an excellent offensive rebounder. He put up nice numbers against the Spurs averaging 8.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in 30 minutes a game which is seven minutes over his season average. A motivated Dampier is not easy to deal with and Nene will have his work cut out for him. A big key will be if either one of the starting centers will be able to get the other in early foul trouble. I give Nene the nod in that category as he has the quickness to drive by Dampier and draw a whistle.
How Will Howard Perform?
I am not entirely sure how to analyze Josh Howard. He only played one real game against the Nuggets and it was almost six months ago. He put up very impressive numbers against the Spurs, but I am assuming he was guarded by Michael Finley who was in his prime a decade ago. The way Melo played defense in round one I fully expect Howard to have a more difficult time scoring. Even so he can drive, post or spot up and he will provide a more complex skill set than Peja Stojakovic did.
On the other end of the floor there is no player in the league save for Kobe or LeBron who can hope to shut Melo down one on one. Howard is going to need help against the bigger Anthony. I expect Melo to be able to post up, shoot over and drive to the rim on Howard and that means watch out for the double team. Once again I expect Melo to make quick decisions and either attack the doubling player or make the right decision with the pass. The Anthony/Howard matchup is a vital one. If Melo gets lit up or if Howard is rendered ineffective in slowing Melo it will be a big boost to one team or the other.
Do Not Forget About This Young Man
One player I have not mentioned is J.R. Smith. J.R. had two very good to great games against Dallas, one solid outing and one atrocious meeting. In the atrocious game he shot 1-14, but still managed to dish out seven assists and pull five boards and surprisingly led the Nuggets in plus/minus with a plus seven. Even though he could not hit a shot I guess he still played a nice overall game. Dallas has no one who can stay with J.R. and if he can continue his hot shooting and look to get in the paint early and often Dallas will struggle to contain the Nuggets. In addition to that his perimeter shooting can potentially force the Mavs out of a zone defense. Also, Marc Cuban has it in for Smith after J.R. threw an elbow at Antoine Wright and then allegedly taunted Wright after missing a game tying shot later in the season. We could see some fireworks there.
X’s and O’s
From a tactical standpoint the Mavericks provide a much more complex scheme and greater depth of talent than the Hornets did. Dallas will not run the pick and roll over and over simply hoping to get someone freed up. Dallas will work both sides of the court and attempt to dislodge the defense with ball movement and plenty of screening.
Denver still will have to defend many ball screens as Dallas does run a lot of high screens with Dirk and how the Nuggets choose to defend it is vital. If you try to trap the ball handler you leave Dirk open for an easy pass back for a jumper or a drive. If you switch Dirk is matched up against a player who will be at least eight inches shorter than he is which is bad news for the defense although with Dahntay, AC and Chauncey Denver has a solid group of guards who will acquit themselves rather well should they find themselves in that position. Denver did make an adjustment in the final matchup of the season as they trapped the ball handler and brought help from the baseline to take away the jumper on the pass back. It was then vital for the big who trapped to either recover back to Dirk quickly or cover the other Dallas center/forward who was left on the block.
In addition to the high screen the Mavs will be setting picks for Jason Terry or sending Kidd to spot up for a chance to shoot an open three. As I pointed out earlier, they play a much more complicated brand of offense than the Hornets did and even if Denver plays great defense they will be made to look silly from time to time.
When the Nuggets have the ball you can count on seeing a good amount of zone from Dallas, especially if Barea is in the game. In the final matchup of the season between the two teams the Nuggets held a third quarter lead until Dallas slapped the zone on them and it was only a hot shooting night from Carmelo that saved them. Despite Melo’s hot hand had Rick Carlisle not switched back to man to man later in the fourth I fully expect the Nuggets to have lost that game.
Another area to watch out for is Dallas will do a better job of exploiting the Nuggets shaky transition defense than New Orleans did. Kidd, Terry and Barea will push the ball up the floor and all three will gladly pull up and hit a 15 footer if no one steps out to stop them.
What About the Coaches?
The head coaching matchup is a tasty one too. Both George Karl and Carlisle have been accused of being coaches who can win in the regular season, but cannot quite get the job done when it really matters. I am not sure either team has an advantage here, but based on some comments in the Simmons/Stein podcast I reference in the next paragraph it sounds like Karl may be more popular than his players than Carlisle is, but that is pure third or fourth hand speculation so I probably should not have written it.
Hang In There, Almost Done (I Cannot Believe You Are Still Reading)
Heading into the playoffs I was hoping Denver could face Dallas because, well, I wildly overrated New Orleans. Dallas is not going to be an easy team to take down, but as long as Denver plays with the passion on defense and we continue to see the Carmelo who transformed himself into more than a scorer from round one I fully expect Denver to pull this series out. Surprisingly enough, so do all the analysts who picked the series on the ESPN series page. So far the only staunch Mavs proponent is Bill Simmons who in a very interesting podcast with Marc Stein is already planning on an interesting WCF matchup between Dallas and Los Angeles.
In the next couple of days leading up to the game look for some Nuggets roundtable action over at Pickaxe and Roll and you can look forward to another pre-series chat session between myself and Rob Mahoney of the ESPN/TrueHoop Network Mavericks blog, The Two Man Game, on Saturday at 4:00 PM Mountain time on Saturday.
I am not planning on posting any original video before the series, but by chance I did look at how Denver defended the Mavericks earlier in the season and you can check it out in the big video box below.
Also, do not forget Birdman’s long range heave against the Mavs earlier this season. By the way, didn’t that game end up being a Nuggets two point victory? Thanks Bird!