The last time I wrote Statsketball, it was a playoff preview in which my model said that the Mavericks would be favored in a Mavs-Rockets series. Those probabilities have changed since, but it's seemed like for a while after the article everyone's desperately hoped that the Rockets are the team we want to pull, and here we are.
These Mavericks are not the same Mavericks I thought we had in the playoff preview I wrote before, however. For the last two months, the Mavericks have a bottom ten Net Rating. For two months the Mavericks have been one of the ten worst teams in the league. Swish that around for a moment. Taste it. It's not good.
The Mavs will be better than that in the playoffs however. Late season data is less predictive than earlier season data, and data from the start of the Rondo trade -- even against good teams -- is definitely more positive.
So there's that, and now they'll have time to really integrate everyone into a system (fun fact: Rondo has only practiced with the team six times since arriving) and they have Rick Carlisle matched up on a single team, a greater advantage for Dallas than giving Kevin McHale two days to scheme.
Still, it's undeniable that the Rockets are the better team in this series, and if you don't agree then I think your Houston-hatred might have gone a bit far. That doesn't mean Dallas can't win, or even be favored in the right circumstances: Dallas has a much better coach, a more flexible roster, and matchup favorability, but Houston is beating Dallas in talent in spades and that matters. A lot.
At this point -- between the Mavericks being a bad team for two months and the Rockets being a better team talent-wise -- the Mavs just can't be favored anymore, either by me or Vegas (and depending on the book the Mavs have anywhere from a 31%-36% chance of winning a series).
Something to keep in mind, though: the Mavs may not be favored anymore, but the odds aren't that bad, and they're decidedly better than anything the Mavs would have gotten against anyone else. Really, the Mavs winning the series roughly 3 out of every 8 times is pretty darn nice.
But, so what are the Mavs' actual odds of winning? I put together probabilities based off of a blend of point differential and win%, with a slight bias for early season, adjustment for schedule, and then an adjustment for major season changes (a la the Rondo trade). I added an adjustment for matchup, So, the odds are similar to the playoff preview I ran earlier, but with more adjustments.for the matchup (and the fact that the Mavericks have consistently out performed vegas expectations against the Rockets).
These are the raw odds. But what can we make about the nuances of the series? What about how the Mavs are going to stop Harden, what kind of advantage does the Mavericks' lineup flexibility and having Carlisle get them? Let's break it down a little further on both sides of the ball, before we try to make any predictions.
Defense: How Can the Mavs Stop Harden, and Maybe the Rockets?
James Harden is the lifeblood of the Houston Rockets, plain and simple. He's an incredible player, worthy of the MVP if he gets it and still amazing if he doesn't.
The team lives and dies with him, as evidenced by the fact that, per ESPN's RPM, he has the highest positive impact on an offense when he's on as opposed to off in the entire league. When he's on the court, the Rockets score like a top 5 offense, and when he's off they score like the league worst, per NBA.com.If the Mavericks can stop James Harden, they can stop the Rocket's offense.
Still, even with Rick Carlisle, you don't just stop James Harden. Even if whistles dry (no actual evidence they will) Harden relies on foul shots less than the likes of Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, and far less than his reputation, per his high but certainly nowhere near historic FT%. As much as we like to complain about him shooting free throws, and he does shoot a lot of them, no doubt, a natural reduction in foul calls isn't gonna do the job of reigning Harden in.
The short answer comes from one crucial stat: The Rockets' overall 3 point percentage is actually only 33.1% without James Harden and Beverly and Montejunas, who will be out for the series.
To stop Harden, you have to play him straight up without doubling from the perimeter, but when he starts to move, you have to crowd his space as much as possible without giving up a totally open shot. The Rockets work very hard to maximize Harden's cross-court passing and his ability to draw doubles by leaving the team's best three point shooters on the opposite corner or wing from Harden.
Horrible 3-point shooters like Josh Smith are shooting a respectable percentage (33% in Houston!) off of insanely open shots (more than 63% of his threes come with more than 6 feet of open space, 92% come with more than 4 feet) thanks to Harden. But stop doubling and crowd him in the paint, and those shots go away.
So, on a play like this, where Harden is isolating at the top of the arc, the key is that other than Jason Terry, all the other players can be cheated off of. But a full double commits to one of the Rockets being open, and the Rockets have designed it so that after a pass or two that player will be JET (or, depending on the players on the floor, Ariza or Brewer).
This, though, is actually trickier than it might appear. Typically, stopping an iso-heavy offense is considered an easy matter but most iso-heavy offenses aren't designed to produce passes and most don't involve a garbage-man of Dwight Howard's caliber. When Harden gets by Trey Burke here, the options are "let Harden lay it up, let Dwight get an oop, or let Terry get a 3."
The actual answer is to have Terrence Jone's man slide down to cover Terry's passing lane: the goal should be to force a turnover, crowd the paint, and get bad shooters the ball. Terrence's man doesn't slide down here, but Harden tries to pass to the corner and the pass is knocked aside by Gobert and taken by Trey Burke, resulting in a turnover:
This is Houston's dirty secret: if you can stop Dwight from getting the pass and if you can stop just one other shooter from getting the ball on a lineup -- Terry and Ariza (and maybe Jones, at 35% on a limited sample), are the only ones you don't want shooting it on the roster -- you can hurt Harden just by crowding his space.
He'll hurt you on stepbacks, but if Harden is going to beat you by himself shooting step back 3 pointers, you have to tip your hat. The scary part is, he might be able to do that.
Of course, another risk is that relying on Tyson to step out and contest Harden at the rim on every play could get Tyson in foul trouble fast, and the second that happens, the Mavericks are in a hole fast.
And I say all that like it's easy: of course you want to limit passes to Dwight and to shooters and play Harden straight up. But the key is to cheat off mediocre shooters without doubling and let Harden get his one on one: you can't hope to completely stop Harden, Houston's too crafty with clearing out with the right guys in the right places and Harden's too good, but slowing him -- forcing him to hit a crowded paint, cutting off passes -- could drop Houston from a top 15 offense to a bottom one. That's easier said than done, but it's what has to happen.
The main issue for Dallas with a scheme like this is that it leaves Dirk with covering Dwight more often than not, while Tyson shifts to help in the paint. Dwight is rebounding offensive boards at a low career rate for him, but his 10% of offensive missed shots collected is worrying compared to the fact that Dirk only collects just under 19% of the team's boards on defense, and that's when he's not matched up against Dwight.
The answer to that particular conundrum might end up being more minutes for Al-Farouq Aminu, who has a higher overall rebounding percentage than Dirk and who can keep up with Dwight athletically, if not size wise.
He'd be better switching onto Harden if the Mavs get switch happy again -- per synergy, Aminu is better at defending perimeter players than big guys anyway -- and he lets Dirk guard a shooter camped out in the corner, a defensive form of hiding that's actually very helpful to the team, given the Rocket's propensity to pass to those players and the German's crafty hands. I'd expect Aminu's minutes to easily rise into the 20s, as he's the key to actually executing any defensive scheme.
Something else worth noting: expect to see Carlisle switch a lot of picks and force the Rockets to pull up from midrange, where the team has only gotten 13.5% of it's shots all season, and where they only shoot a paltry 34%. The Rockets have been the one team exempt from troubles that tend to plague teams that shy away from the midrange, though, so that may not matter, likely because forcing players off the line requires help schemes that ultimately can result in a 3, if an offense is patient enough.
Is this enough? Who knows, Rondo has done a great job checking Harden before, and likely will again. That plus a clever scheme might be fine. Harden's shooting a 62% TS% against Dallas this season, but his impact on the team is vastly mitigated, and the Rockets have only scored 101 points per 100 possessions with him on the court against the Mavericks. If Dallas can maintain that and limit their secondary players from scoring (Harden has a worrisome 28% AST% against Dallas) then the Mavs might be in good shape defensively.
But Harden is a consummate scorer of the likes we haven't seen since, ironically, probably T-Mac, and there's only so much you can do to stop that. Expect Dallas to be ready, though.
Offense: Can the Mavericks Score against the Rockets Defense?
The key here is that the Mavericks will need all three of their primary scorers to be playing at their absolute best or the series is more or less done, but Chandler Parsons -- the one player on the floor with both playmaking and shooting chops -- will be particularly essential.
Whatever you think about Rajon Rondo, the Rockets won't guard him while he doesn't have the ball, and he won't be able to hurt them for it given his astoundingly bad 46% TS%. Since coming to the Mavericks, per Nylon Calculus' DRE -- an estimate of RPM that can be filtered for part of a season -- Rondo has had the second worst impact on offense of any player in the league (behind only Lance Stephenson).
The Mavericks have to find ways to not play four on five on offense against the Rockets' defense, which has been top 5 in the league for most of the year, and that's largely without former multi-time DPOY Dwight Howard.
Rondo is more threatening as the people around him become more threatening. Part of it is spacing -- he can only really score at this point if all four players around him can shoot, something the Mavs don't have-- but part of it is teams get more afraid of him only when his passes are a threat, and his passes are only a threat when the players he's passing to are playing well.
Essentially what has to happen is Dirk and Monta have to be playing well enough that Rondo running a two man game forces the Rockets to bend around Dirk and keep defending Monta on the strong side. They can't be unafraid of Dirk to the extent that leaving him open seems like a bad idea. The good news is Dirk is hitting his open shots again, which should force the Rockets to stick to him the way the Mavericks need them to.
If Dirk and Monta can stay threatening that way, Rondo will hit the paint with a collapsed defense, giving him options: he can try and score, or he can give it to either Parsons or Monta to take advantage of a scrambled defense.
The reason Rondo has hurt Dallas' defense so much is defending Rondo without the ball is so easy that the Mavericks have never gotten the players the ball with a scrambled defense, really. Carlisle is going to have to get creative, and Dirk, Monta, and Parsons will have to be legit threats from three, because the Mavericks can't keep being the worst three point shooting team in the league when Rondo is on the floor if they're going to win.
So what's the solution?
For one, Carlisle will need to break out everything he's learned about maximizing spacing in the last half of the season: strategic deployment of Charlie V when Dirk is out, staggering Rondo and Monta in good measure, pulling players who are cold, quickly, and giving a shot to someone else so no one on the Rockets gets comfortable sagging off.
The endgame though is that, fittingly, the Mavs' offense will largely depend on Chandler Parsons. If he can shoot somewhere around 38% from three, and he's shot 40% for two months, that will force defenses to scramble off ball. If he can remain a force as a primary option, the Mavs will have flexibility when things break down.
If Parsons plays poorly, however, Rondo won't have room to operate which will mean no one else will have room to operate, which will mean everything is harder. Some of that will be on Carlisle -- making sure the sets can get Parsons open early before defenses figure out what to do -- but Parsons is the beginning and end.
The Mavericks can possibly stop Harden, but in the end, the real question is whether or not the Mavericks can score. They have lots of players, Dirk, Monta, and Parsons who can create when options are limited, but starting at a disadvantage against one of the best defenses in the league makes it hard.
The Mavs can, theoretically, succeed here. They've done it before. The odds like them more than most teams matching up here, and 3 wins in 8 series is not awful. But the Mavs are going to have to get lucky to win, in the end. That may happen, but scoring has to come from places we can't predict if the Mavs are going to overcome the Rockets' stifling defense.