This is a complex series to assess due to both teams taking their performances to a new level at the end of the season and into the playoffs. As a result, looking at past performances is not as big an indicator as we would perhaps expect. Quite the contrary: The past performances can be misleading. The best example being that there is the undeniable perception that Denver is clearly a better team based on their final standings and the head-to-head results between them and Dallas.
Dallasbasketball.com's Mike Fisher does an excellent job of dismantling the perceptual argument over a series of columns. In this one, he notes that the average margin of victory for Denver in three of the wins was fewer than 3 points. And the fourth loss, a ten pointer in December hardly qualified as a dominant win. As to the final standings, in another article Fisher observed: "The real difference between Denver and Dallas is four games. Dallas won 50, Denver won 54. The two teams played remarkably close games (as we all know). Give Dallas a win in one or two of those. Give Dallas a healthy Josh for some of those 35-odd games missed. Give Dallas something better than a 2-7 start. Let Denver miss one of their dramatic game-winning shots... And both Denver and Dallas are damn close to being … what? … 52-win clubs?" So there is definitely more here than meets the eye.
We've already seen that the two teams played close to even during the regular season (despite the win totals) and that both teams have turned it up a notch during the final few weeks and into the playoffs. So with this in mind, let's take a look at the bigger picture trends that may shed light on how this series will go.
A simplistic way to look at this series is to say, "Who's playing better now?" and there would be a lot of relevance to this. So let's take a look, comparing how they've done during the regular season to the end of the season to the playoffs.
Over the season, the Mavs were mediocre on defense. There were short stretches where the defense did better than others, but there was no real run of games that illustrated the Mavs were anything but a second-rate defensive team. The most relevant item when discussing the team's defense during the season is that it didn't improve as the season progressed, and during the critical close out to the season, the Mavs defense continued to falter, with the Mavs winning important games on the strength of its offense.
In defensive efficiency terms, the Mavericks ended the season with an efficiency of 108.4. Of all the playoff teams, only Chicago at 108.7 had a worse defensive efficiency. Facing a dynamic offense team like Denver, this is cause for major concern.
"But what about the San Antonio series?" I hear you say. Well, the pace of that series hid the dirty secret of the Mavericks' play: Their defense wasn't very good even though they held the Spurs to around 90 points per game. During the series, the Mavs defensive efficiency was a significantly better 105.4, but you have to account for the fact that the Mavs were playing a mediocre offensive team missing one its key offensive weapons. Against an anemic offense like San Antonio's, securing a good (not great) defensive performance hardly qualifies as a positive trend on the defensive side of the ball.
So the Mavs defense is still a glaring weakness.
Denver's defense was signifiacantly stronger during the regular season than Dallas'. Their defensive efficiency of 106.8 was good for eighth in the league. It is important to note, however, that this is not the level of defense that can lock down exceptional offenses on a regular basis. But what about their domination of the Hornets? Their defensive efficiency against the Hornets was an unworldly 93.7. Again, context is important here. It may surprise some people, but the first point to understand is that the Hornets offense wasn't very good to begin with. It ended the season with the twelth best offense in the league, basically at the same level as San Antonio's. Add the limited minutes to Tyson Chandler, and the Hornets offense was even worse. Finally, the defensive stats are seriously skewed by the 58 point beat down in game 4.
In essence, the Nuggets situation is not unlike the Mavs in that they were playing an average offensive team that was even worse due to injury issues to a core player. The difference, of course, is that Denver's defense is much better, and they were able to dominate a crippled offense. The Mavs were only able to make the opposing crippled offense a little worse.
Before we assess this as a huge advantage for Denver, it is important to note that the Denver defense looked better than it is in its demolition of New Orleans. Against a world class offense like the Mavericks, Denver's defense will be over its head. This is where you start to see the difference between a great defense like Houston's and an average defense like Denver's: Houston's defense has the weapons to seriously affect even a great offense, Denver's defense does not.
So while Denver's defense is a lot better than Dallas', it is by no means strong enough to turn the series on its own.
All of the talk of the Mavs flying under the radar, sneaking into the sixth seed, or getting past San Antonio can be distilled into one simple fact: Since Josh Howard returned from injury, the Mavericks offense has been one of the best, if not the best in the entire league. This process began before Howard returned so this is not related to just one player. The Mavs offense has been getting better and better as the second half of the season has worn on.
The Mavericks ended the season with the fifth best offense in the league at an offensive efficiency of 110.5. They achieved this despite spending most of the season ranked about No. 10 on offense. Even with the slow start to the season on offense, the Mavs entered the post-season with the fourth best offense among all 16 playoff teams. Clearly, something has clicked.
Whatever clicked continued into the playoffs, where the Mavs offensive efficiency improved to 112.4, even though they were facing one of the best defenses in the post-season. The only offenses performing better in the post-season were Denver and Los Angeles, both of which faced inferior defenses.
It is entirely reasonable to state that the Mavericks offense is currently the best offense in the post-season.
Denver's offense improved dramatically when they acquired Chauncey Billups, so much like the Mavs their offense improved as the second half of the season went along. As a result, their offensive rank from the regular season is a misleading No. 7. It is clearly one of the top three offenses in the league now and one of the most dangerous amongst all the teams left in the post-season.Their performance against New Orleans has been nothing short of spectacular, with the 58 point drubbing a high point.
In fact, it may be tempting to state that the Denver offense is much better than Dallas', but I don't think that's true. Again, dominating on offense against the Spurs is much different than doing the same against the Hornets. Still, the Denver offense is powerful, make no mistake about it.
Putting it all together
It is safe to say that the Mavs offense is a little better than the Denver offense. But you need to counter that with the fact that the Denver defense is a lot better than the Dallas defense. Dallas got past San Antonio by basically using the Phoenix strategy: Don't worry about defense, just outperform them on the offensive end so much that it won't matter. I don't think that the Mavs have a prayer in this series with that approach.
David Moore from the Dallas Morning News recommends the Mavericks slow the game down against Denver due to the Nuggets' superior athleticism. That makes no sense at all, as Denver's half court offense is so much better than the Mavs' half court defense. If the Mavs get into a running game, their transition defense, which is better than their half court defense, can actually come into play. On the offensive end, I contend the Mavs would do better as well. Moore thinks that if the scores edge over 105 this game is a quick exit for the Mavs, I think the opposite: If the Mavs can get the scores over 110, they are in the driver seat.
Look at it this way, New Orleans significantly slowed down the pace against Denver, to the tune of five fewer possessions per game, and look what happened to them.
A western conference scout told the Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko: ""If Dallas can keep the game up-tempo, but under control, I don't think Denver has the depth to go with Dallas on that, Dallas will play 10 guys now. And Denver is going to play about seven or seven and a half." This is another element of keeping the game up-tempo that favors the Mavs--their depth.
The key, as the unnamed scout above states, is to keep the tempo up while remaining in control. Wild shots for wild shots' sake won't get it done. What the Mavs want to do is lure the Nuggets into a fast-paced running game where the team with the better discipline and judgment in closing out the breaks comes out on top. And when it comes to judgment and discipline, I'll take the Mavs any day of the week.
All in all, I go back and forth on picking this series. My deep concern over the Mavs defense gets balanced against my lack of respect for the Nuggets' self-control and the evolution of the Mavs' spectacular offense. In the end, I guess I'm going to go with Sefko's unnamed scout: An uptempo game will favor the team with the greater discipline and deeper depth. Both of those favor the Mavs, and as I think this series will be uptempo, I'm going to pick the Mavs. Barely.
Mavs in seven.