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Mavs Moneyball Staff | April 16, 2015

The ultimate Mavericks Rockets playoff preview

Where were you on July 9?

This offseason, when Mark Cuban made a play for restricted free agent Chandler Parsons, the city of Dallas collectively held their breaths for four days as Houston and Daryl Morey toyed with our emotions. Would they match or would they decline? "It's more of a rivalry since Cuban and what's-his-face went back and forth a little bit," admitted Dirk.

Parsons came to the Mavericks.

Where were you on Sept. 17?

Just before the season, the Houston Rockets brought Jason Eugene "JET" Terry, beloved member of the Mavericks' 2011 championship team, into their ranks via trade. I had cheered for Terry in Boston, wished him well with the Nets, and would have been fine with him Sacramento. But Sept. 17 was the day I stopped rooting for JET.

You can't root for a division rival.

Where were you on Nov. 22?

The Mavericks and the Rockets have certainly provided some of the NBA's more entertaining match-ups in recent years. And the events of the 2014-15 offseason only intensified the drama. As early as the first matchup of the season on November 22, we had booing, a delay of game call (on Rick Carlisle for messing with JET), double technicals on Tyson and Harden.

It's a true rivalry now.

You can't help but love the Shakespearian storylines in this series. Players who were 2011 Finals Champions together are now on different sides. Players returning to fan bases who feel betrayed. The opportunity for revenge and for stars to rise. The potential for our hero, Dirk Nowitzki, to get another shot at the enemy and make fools of them all. And, of course, some pretty damn fun basketball.

So: Where will you be for Game 1?

- Rebecca Lawson

meeks(Jerome Minton/USA Today Sports)

BY THE POSITIONS

Point Guard

Houston enters the series with a disadvantage at point. In late March, starting point guard Patrick Beverley suffered a torn ligament in his left wrist and subsequent surgery to repair the injury ended his season. That leaves the Rockets shorthanded with two point guards as they enter the playoffs: Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni.

Mavs fans are familiar with Terry after the eight seasons he spent in Dallas. Now, he is starting in Houston. While Terry has lost a step (he's 37), he is still a competent ball handler and has the ability to stretch the floor with his outside shooting. Since replacing the injured Beverley, JET has averaged nine points on 46 percent shooting, including 40 percent from behind the arc in the seven shot attempts he takes a game.

As for Prigioni, he is more of a facilitator than gunner. He has averaged 3.5 assists per game since Beverley was sidelined. While that number may not seem remarkable, he is intelligent with his passes. Prigioni averaged less than one turnover during that span. It's his shooting, though, that leaves something to be desired. The career 40 percent 3-point shooter is hitting only 28 percent with the Rockets.

Dallas, it would seem, has the upper hand at point. Rajon Rondo will be Dallas' starter, as he has been since his arrival in December. While Rondo's play has at times left something to be desired, he is a far superior player to Terry.

Rondo's scoring ability has been suspect throughout his career and it's anyone's guess as to how he'll perform in the playoffs. However, he has shown the ability to rise to the occasion when the spotlight is at its brightest. But the biggest concern with Rondo is turnovers. Since arriving in Dallas, Rondo has a turnover percentage over 22 percent. Against the Rockets, a team that likes to jump passing lanes and get out on the break, that could become an issue if Houston is able to convert those turnovers into points.

Backing up Rondo is Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, and Raymond Felton. Of the three, Harris is the primary sub. He's expected to play Game 1 despite a turf toe injury in the season's second-to-last game. What will be interesting to see is who Carlisle turns to after Harris. Recently, Felton has seen his minutes increase as Harris was sidelined. In that time, Felton has played well and shown a level of confidence in his shooting and play making. He could very well usurp Barea in the rotation depending on Carlisle's mood and the flow of the game.

Each of Dallas' point guards has a distinct advantage over the players Houston has at its disposal. However, at least defensively, they may not see much time defending their counterpart as guarding James Harden will be the focal point of the perimeter defense.

Shooting Guard

Harden will be a handful for the Mavericks in the series. He is the alpha and omega of the Rockets' offense. What makes him so dangerous is his combination of ball handling, shooting and ability to get to the rim while also drawing a bevy of fouls. The MVP candidate averaged 25 points on 44 percent shooting (including 40 percent from deep) against Dallas this season. He also attempted more than 10 free throws per game in the four contests.

Backing him up is the versatile Corey Brewer, a swing player who can play both shooting guard and small forward. What makes him unique and effective is his constant energy. He lurks in the corner on offense, stretching the defense, but is also primed to crash the paint for an offensive rebound. Defensively, Brewer's energy and length are his best assets. He is a disruptive presence who will leak out at the blink of an eye converting a Rockets' rebound or defensive stop into a scoring opportunity at the other end before opponents have time to react.

Squaring off against Harden is Monta Ellis. In his second season with the Mavs, Ellis led the team in scoring, averaging 19 points per game. It's the first time in 14 seasons that Dirk Nowitzki isn't atop the team in that category. Questions abounded when Dallas signed the mercurial guard two summers ago and plenty still remain. However, Ellis has become the focal point of the Mavericks' perimeter offensive attack.

Ellis is extremely effective in the high pick and rolls which gives him the opportunity to either drive the lane or pull up for a midrange jumper. Against Houston, his ability to get to the rim will be tested by the presence of Dwight Howard and the Rockets' other bigs. If the Rockets' defense continually thwarts Ellis' moves to the basket, he could overuse his jumper. While Ellis has shot pull-up jumpers well since the All Star break, Dallas is better when he attacks.

Ellis shot just over 17 percent on 3-pointers above the break since the All Star break, where the majority of his 3-point attempts come from. This is a dramatic decline from before the break when Ellis connected on over 30 percent, while also taking more corner 3-point attempts. What happened to Ellis is anyone's guess, but he's going to have to find away to get going again against the Rockets if the Mavs hope to cancel out at least some of Harden's scoring.

Behind Ellis, Dallas is much like Houston. Richard Jefferson sees time playing the 2 if the Mavs decide to go big. Like Brewer, Jefferson can play either wing position. Dallas will also put a second point guard at the two.

Slowing down Houston will be a tall order for the Mavericks. It stands to reason that Carlisle will attempt to hide Ellis defensively, moving him over to guard whatever point guard the Rockets have on the court. Rondo, Jefferson and a variety of other players will spend time defending Harden throughout the series as the team tries to slow him down.

Small Forward

Trevor Ariza was the Rockets' replacement for Chandler Parsons this summer and quietly has been Houston's second leading scorer this season due, in most part, to Dwight Howard missing 41 games. While Ariza's numbers are down from his time with the Wizards, he is still a formidable two-way player.

Ariza is shooting just over 40 percent for the season and only 35 percent from downtown. However, since the All-Star break, he is connecting on more than 50 percent of his right corner 3-point attempts. It is here where he is the most effective on the offensive end outside of the restricted area. The only other area of the floor where he takes a significant amount of shots is above the break. He converts those attempts 32.7 percent of the time.

Defensively, Ariza is stingy. He has the length and athleticism with his 6'8" frame to guard four positions and will likely see time on whoever is hot for the Mavericks. His defensive win shares are second only to Harden's this season. Combined with the rangy Brewer, who will also see time at small forward, Houston's perimeter defense will be formidable.

Parsons will be tasked with softening that defense. Did you know that he used to play for the Rockets? During this series, you will be reminded of that fact countless times. Unfortunately, a swollen knee makes him questionable for Game 1. Dallas needs their star small forward in the series if they hope to keep up with the Rockets' potent offense. He was the third-leading scorer for the Mavericks this season. He averaged 15.7 points per game and made just over 46 percent of his shots, plus an equally effective 38 percent from deep.

Perhaps the biggest unknown for Dallas, and their potential X-factor, is Al-Farouq Aminu. During the latter half of the season, Aminu saw more playing time and showed a level of versatility and defensive prowess that the Mavericks often lacked. Although not a reliable scoring threat, Aminu disrupts opposing offenses by being active, jumping the passing lanes, and blocking shots. He is the team's leading shot blocker and second in steals.

Where he is potentially most valuable, beyond being able to guard multiple positions (read: he will guard Harden), is his ability to rebound. Aminu averages 12.6 rebounds per 100 possessions, including 4.2 offensive rebounds. Against Houston's frontline, Tyson Chandler is going to need all the help he can get on the glass and Aminu can be that guy.

Power Forward

Power forward starts and ends with Dirk Nowitkzi. Dirk has had a weird year, and a very much off one by his standards -- he shot 45.9 percent from the field, tied for the third worst mark of his career. What's especially troubling was Dirk continuing to transition to more "dynamo spot-up guy" after being "isolation post monster" for most of his career. In other words, Dirk shot worse than he has in years and missed more catch and shoot and "open" shots than ever before. At one point in the middle of the season, Dirk was one of the Mavericks' WORST 3-point shooters. (Fortunately, a return to normal, blazing Dirk from behind the arc to end the season helped him climb to a more than respectable 38 percent from deep.)

Basically, the Mavs need Dirk to elevate above his general meh-ness of his regular season. We've seen signs: Dirk had a fantastic April (20 points per game, over 50 percent from the floor) and has been lifting weights, sacrificing regular season production, to be fresh for the playoffs. If you remember, Dirk still got rest last year but had to be at peak level all year as the Mavs scratched out an eighth seed. Then Dirk looked awful and worn out in the playoffs against the Spurs. I'll trade a down Dirk regular season for a return to playoff god mode Dirk any day of the week.

The Rockets have a slew of options to defend Dirk and attack him at the other end. Terrence Jones is back in the lineup after an up-and-down season of health. Jones offers nice shooting, size, smarts and passing from the four and can help stretch Dirk away from the rim, making it even tougher for him to recover in the paint than it already is for his older knees. Josh Smith isn't Atlanta Josh Smith anymore -- but in Houston, he isn't Detroit Josh Smith either. He can take Dirk down low and stay with him at the hip on the perimeter while guarding him. No Donatas Motiejunas for the Rockets really hurts -- he turned into a solid post-up guy/help defender who could carry Rockets bench units when Harden took a breather. They're going to really miss his production.

I wonder how quick Rockets coach Kevin McHale will go to Smith in this series. As great a young talent as Jones is, Dirk has absolutely torched him in one on one match-ups. Smith offers the best defensive option, and of course, don't be surprised to see Trevor Ariza spend some time on Dirk as well. The Rockets also have a history of switching the small onto Dirk so hopefully Dirk can take advantage. With Amar'e Stoudemire being a defensive sieve, expect Al-Farouq Aminu to (hopefully) see lots of minutes behind Dirk up front. Aminu shined against Houston this year and pretty much all of the Mavs best net-rating lineups from NBA.com have Aminu in them. He has to see the floor.

Center

Tyson Chandler is a lonely man on a deserted island. That's how his Mavericks experience has been this season. While Chandler Parsons has made improvements and Aminu has been yanked in and out of the lineup, Chandler has often been the Mavs' lone positive defender and at times, only positive rebounder. Dirk's rebounding has fallen off tremendously and it's often up to Tyson to clear the glass himself.

Lucky for the Mavs, Chandler's been more than up for it. His numbers this season are even better than his first run through in Dallas and he's been a maniac whenever he's on the floor -- screaming, dunking, rotating and back-tapping offensive boards. For me, he's the Mavericks' team MVP this year. When Chandler isn't on the court, the Mavericks are a lottery team in the brutal West (106.6 offensive rating, 105.8 defensive according to NBA.com). When he's on it, they can somehow scrap together a somewhat respectable defense (102.1 defensive rating). His offense dipped a bit due to the Rondo trade and his own health, but he's an important cog for the Mavs on that side of the floor: rolling to the rim and sucking in the defense so Dirk, Ellis and Parsons have more room to work.

Dwight Howard has finally returned for the Rockets after knee issues sidelined him for a good chunk of the season. He has been limited to about 20 minutes a night, but has looked good in short bursts -- and the Rockets without him were already defending really well. He'll push them over the top and give Harden a place to dump the ball to when he needs a possession off. Think about the Rockets rotation -- who else besides Harden can generate their own offense consistently and efficiently? Howard's post-ups will be key.

Both teams offer meager backups. Amar'e Stoudemire has been a beast on post-ups but he's been his same laughable self on the boards and on defense (Mavs have a 110.3 defensive rating when Stoudemire is on the floor). The Dirk-Amar'e lineup sports a disgusting 112.7 defensive rating and simply put, there's no way Carlisle can use that lineup in a playoff series where the Mavs are already underdogs. Every minute, every possession matters now. Houston's backup bigs aren't much better, and without Tarik Black we'll likely see the Rockets putting Smith at the five because there's no way McHale can afford Joey Dorsey and his 28.9 percent free throwing shooting any extended burn.

Coach

After realizing what he had in Rick Carlisle shortly after hiring him, Cuban smartly pushed all his chips in the Carlisle pot. The only championship coach in franchise history has cemented himself as one of the top three coaches in the game and people around the NBA regularly consider Carlisle the 1B to Gregg Popovich's 1A. How many NBA franchises regularly tout their coach as one of the premier reasons to join their team? Carlisle has worked magic in Dallas, constantly turning re-shuffled rosters into competitive units. Almost every team in the West has had the same relative core for the last two to three years. Carlisle hasn't had the at least three starters in consecutive seasons since the title year ... think about that! I've long wondered what Carlisle's best trait is. It has to be his adaptability.

There's perhaps no other coach besides Popovich that gives this sense of fear to the opposing team -- Carlisle will adjust, change lineups and strategies on the fly. Last year's less-talented Mavs took the eventual champion Spurs to seven games! With Dirk shooting under 40 percent for most of it! Carlisle is perhaps the only coach besides Popovich that inspires (or should inspire, anyway) fear from opposing fan bases.

Kevin McHale isn't in Carlisle's league as a strategist. But he does need to be commended for fully running with the organization's analytics-based approach. The Rockets pretty much only shoot threes, free throws and layups, and that's in part due to G.M. Daryl Morey's prerogative -- but McHale has embraced it completely. He also has a good grip on the locker room and players respect the hell out of him. I mean, that locker room has even survived JOSH SMITH. The Rockets' season could have spiraled out of control with all their injuries, but with James Harden and McHale's steadiness on the bench, they not only survived, they thrived. Give McHale some credit for that, even if we've yet to see him prove his worth in a playoff series.

- Doyle Rader and Josh Bowe

meeks(Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports)

BY THE NUMBERS

31.5%

First things first: what are the Mavericks' odds of winning a seven-game series against the Rockets? This approachignores things like match-ups and injuries and just looks at the results of each team's full 82-game season, so there's a lot of context missing, but a generic 50-win team wins a seven game series against a generic 56-win team just fewer than one in three times. Those aren't such bad odds!

0.2

When you look at the season-long numbers for these teams, those decent odds seem reasonable in context. The difference in these two teams' point differentials this season is just 0.2 points. Houston has outscored opponents by an average of 3.7 points per 100 possessions compared to the Mavericks' average of 3.5. The way they get there is a little different, though, with Dallas scoring more (and allowing their opponents more points) than Houston despite playing at a slower pace.

That's looking at the entire season, though. Point differential tends to be fairly predictive of postseason success, so it's probably worth focusing on the numbers for these two teams as they're currently constituted. If you just focus on how these two teams have played since the All-Star break, things look a little less even. Houston has a point differential of 4.2 since mid-February, but the Mavs' is -2.5. Looking at how they earned those numbers (since conventional wisdom suggests contending teams need a top ten offense and a top ten defense), neither of these teams have been a top-tier defense during this time period, with the Rockets just barely making the cut on offense.

10.2

James Harden averages more than 10 free throw attempts per game and converts those into almost nine points. Harden has played in so few playoff games for Houston that it's hard to know whether he'll get the same calls during the postseason (he earned more free throw attempts during his 2013 playoff run and fewer in 2014), but whether you think he earns those free throws fair and square (and I'm guessing you don't), that will probably be a major issue Dallas has to contend with during this series -- along with the other 17 points Harden tends to put up during games.

3-1

The Rockets won the regular series match-up against the Mavericks, with the lone Dallas victory coming at home right after the All-Star Break. Worth noting, though, that all of those games came on the second night of a back-to-back for Dallas. Make of that what you will.

100%

So how did the Mavericks beat the Rockets in February? Well, for one thing, Chandler Parsons did not have an offensive meltdown. But more broadly speaking, Dallas got a 100 percent three-point shooting night from Charlie Villanueva and Richard Jefferson and above-average offensive performances from Rajon Rondo (who shot 67 percent), and Al-Farouq Aminu on a night when Houston shot below their average from the perimeter.

Obviously some of those numbers are mostly indicative of the folly of trying to draw lessons from a single game, but that win does illustrate the important of tightening the perimeter defense, especially against a team like Houston, who have been second only to the Cavaliers in 3-point attempts over the last two months. They hit them at a rate of 34 percent, which isn't even close to best in the league, but it's certainly enough to make all those attempts dangerous.

Dallas has improved its perimeter defense since acquiring Rondo, allowing opponents to shoot 36.5 percent from three as opposed to the insane 39.2 percent opponents were getting before his arrival, but it has still not been great. That could be tough for the Mavs, especially with Houston's big men healthy and requiring significant defensive attention.

- Kate Crawford

meeks(Jerome Minton/USA Today Sports)

3 BIG QUESTIONS

1. Can Rick Carlisle continue to work his playoff magic?

Playoff basketball is a different animal, a unique strain of the sport that mostly resembles its 82-game predecessor plus a bit of biological evolution. Matchups -- individual and team -- increase in importance. Plays are called more deliberately and certain rotations have a quicker hook if they fail to produce immediate results. It's a delicate balance between sticking with your strengths while introducing a new element that can catch your opponent by surprise and give one team the all-powerful upper hand.

Rick Carlisle did that flawlessly to open 2014's first round series against the San Antonio Spurs. The defense-adverse eighth-seeded Mavericks switched everything. 1-5 pick-and-rolls, off-ball screens on the baseline, even if Jose Calderon or Shawn Marion couldn't keep track of his man, the Mavericks switched, allowing them to stay home on the Spurs' shooters. The strategy disrupted San Antonio for two full games, allowing Dallas to steal one on the road and very nearly upset the future NBA champions.

Against the Rockets, Carlisle has more material to work with. If the first round series had been the Spurs again or the Grizzlies or the Clippers, he would have been scrambling to figure out a way to hide Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis defensively. But Houston's roster has just as many one-way players; against Pablo Prigioni, Joey Dorsey, Jason Terry and even Josh Smith, the Mavericks can make some matchups work. Two players that wouldhave been Maverick killers, Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, are both out for the season.

But Houston also has Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and, of course, James Harden. Those are matchup nightmares against anyone. The Rockets may have been the matchup Dallas wanted, but they're still a 56-win team who got here despite their second-best player missing exactly half of the season. Somehow, the Mavericks have to bridge the talent gap between the two. The first person that weight falls upon is Rick Carlisle, and seeing if he can bluff his way to a series win with an inferior deck of cards will be fascinating to watch.

2. How big will the shooting disparity be?

In four games against the Mavericks this season, this is how many 3-point shots Houston attempted: 46, 35, 37 and 31.

They made 52 of those 149 attempts (34.8 percent), but it's the sheer volume of shots that strikes fear. These shots materialized out of nowhere and the Rockets take them as soon as they appear, almost as if they are afraid Daryl Morey will walk on the court and slap them across the face if they don't immediately pull up. That's not a criticism -- the Rockets lead the league in made 3-pointers.

In contrast, the Mavericks -- historically a team that recognized the shot's importance long before other teams -- are just a middle of the pack 3-point shooting team this season. Since the All-Star break, they rank 16th in attempts and 19th in percentage (33.6 percent) in the entire NBA. Part of that is Monta Ellis' horrific shooting from deep. Part of it is the way Rajon Rondo's lack of shooting constricts the floor, slowly squeezing the life out of a healthy offense like an anaconda. If Houston dominates Dallas again at the line, then this series will likely play out like the regular season did, where the Rockets won three of four.

3. Can Rajon Rondo slow down James Harden?

Calling Rondo an anaconda might have been a bit rude, although watch the Mavericks' offense before and after the trade and tell me it isn't true. But the real reason the Mavericks made the trade was for a series like this, where Rondo will take primary responsibility for slowing down Houston's all-universe man.

He'll have help. Al-Farouq Aminu will surely spend time on Harden too, but in Dallas' frequent small-ball action, Aminu is too valuable as a weak side help defender and shot blocker to stick him on Harden for long stretches. Chandler Parsons will have opportunities too, although those may end as poorly as a beard competition between the two would. Harden has mastered the skill of drawing fouls (and please, don't go there -- it is a skill) while Rondo rarely commits them.

We've grimaced and groaned at Rondo's rough integration into Dallas, and nothing the Mavericks can do will return the offense to its humming engine efficiency before the trade. But Rondo has a legitimate chance to prove his worth in other areas. A series win may depend on Playoff Rondo

- Tim Cato

meeks(Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports)

THE FULL SCHEDULE

Game 1 April 18, 8:30 p.m., ESPN Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Game 2 April 21, 8:30 p.m., TNT Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Game 3 April 24, 6 p.m., ESPN American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
Game 4 April 26, 8:30 p.m., TNT American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
Game 5 (if necessary) April 28, TBD, TBD Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Game 6 (if necessary) April 30, TBD, TBD American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
Game 7 (if necessary) May 2, TBD, TNT Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Producer/Designer: Tim Cato | Editors: Tim Cato and Rebecca Lawson | Special thanks to: Graham MacAree | Title Photo: Jerome Minton/USA Today Sports

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