Dallas lost their first game of the playoffs to the Houston Rockets in a roller coaster of a game that also somehow was only competitive for about five minutes. Houston sprinted off to an overwhelming lead that, despite the fact that the Mavs did catch up by halftime, they never got over, in the strictest sense.
Houston won by somewhat unexpected means, however, and it's worth taking some time to think about what that might mean for the series going forward.
Dwight Howard is the most important player in this series
The Rockets were 25.8 points per 100 possessions better than the Mavericks when Dwight Howard was on the court. The Mavericks shot 36 percent from the floor when he was in and 50 percent when he was out, per friend of the site Bobby Karalla. It was totally unavoidable: the second Howard hit the floor, the Mavs refused to shoot from the paint, and he had at least four dunks in the game. He completely stopped the Mavs on both ends.
Getting Dwight in foul trouble was the best thing the Mavs did all game, but they're going to need to figure out how to handle Dwight if he's playing all game. The Rockets' offense was middling with Dwight playing at 100.9 points per 100 -- despite his pick and roll dominance (and there was never anything anyone could do when he was rolling to the rim, it was impossible) -- since Dwight loves to pepper bad post-ups into his repertoire, but the Mavs just couldn't score.
Dallas is going to have to do one of any number of things to mitigate Dwight. On offense, they need to goad him into post-ups, and if he's rolling to the rim send everyone at him and rely on his lack of passing to help.
On D, they need to go at him to draw fouls, or find a way to get him matched up on Dirk and outside of the paint to find space for Monta and Parsons. Rondo was genuinely solid this game, but he can't play with Dwight. If the Mavs are going to neutralize him and pull him out of the paint, they need more spacing than they can get with Rondo in the game.
The Mavs can probably keep their decent D job on Harden constant, but Howard can't keep affecting the series like he did tonight, especially not in more minutes. Watching how they adjust to him if whistles aren't blowing is going to be crucial.
Dallas got out-scouted going into Game 1, and that can't happen again
The Rockets came into this game way more well prepared than Dallas, which I don't think anyone expected. The Rockets were sitting on all of Dallas' pet plays and forcing turnovers when Dallas found themselves scrambling to create third options when Houston took away the first and second before the plays fully developed.
They knew how to leverage an advantage over old Dirk, on both sides of the floor early on, and they knew exactly how to handle Rondo. Their help D on any given play, too, was masterful.
The Mavs adjusted well -- it was much easier to do so with Josh Smith killing offensive possessions and with Dwight sitting, but they adjusted nonetheless -- but the Mavs can't come into games at a schematic disadvantage. The Mavs have much less talent in this series, and they need to rely on out-thinking the Rockets to win. They can't get beaten by talent and scheme every game. That, perhaps, is my biggest concern.
Monta and Dirk were defensive disasters
How many times did a three point shooter get the ball and Monta turned his head only to realize that it was his man with the ball, and he had been sitting doing nothing in the paint? Way too often. I mean, look at this play:
And, by the way, Terry didn't even get the ball in the play: Dirk did such a poor job keeping up with Josh Smith in the pick and roll that Tyson had to help and Clint Capela got an open alley oop. The defense is a mess everywhere.
This one was particularly egregious, too:
Dirk was pretty horrid too; every time he was involved in a pick and roll his man just charged by him. Dirk can't move anymore, and it's a serious issue. The Mavs got away with sticking him on whatever shooters was hanging out in the corner so that he wouldn't have to move, but then the Rockets countered by running plays where the corner player flared up for the ball, forcing Dirk into the play again.
Given how much he hurt the team on D (and he had a great offensive game, the only really shining player on that end for Dallas!) his yelling at Tyson for not being able to cover his mistakes wasn't a great look.
The Mavs need everyone they can get, particularly a healthy Parsons
The Mavs just couldn't score in the end. The defense had its problems, but they limited Harden to a reasonable stat line, the Rockets' offense was meh with Dwight in, and Jason Terry and Corey Brewer aren't going to combine for 21 points on threes on a 78 percent mark on most nights.
The Mavs only scoring 75 points per 100 possessions with Dwight in was huge though, and the Mavs are only gonna score enough to get through this if they have all their firepower. They can do it with all their players intact, but they need them bad. Chandler Parsons and Devin Harris are a big part of that, and if Parsons is limping his way through games and Devin can't play to relieve Rondo when the matchup is bad, then this may just not be the Mavs' series.
Playoff Rondo seems to be real, but it may not matter
Rondo had a great stat line, he shot 44 percent from the floor, had a corner 3, went nearly perfect from midrange, and had 5 assists. Despite that, the Rockets continually refused to guard him, their incessant doubles off of him frustrated Dirk in the post and Monta in hand-off situations, and contributed to a lot of turnovers. He was a team worst minus 25 in the loss.
He had himself a genuinely solid game but Dallas is going to have to be craftier about when he is and isn't getting deployed.
Houston fans were awful
I've mentioned a few times on the site that I'm from Houston, and so I have a long history of somewhat quietly liking the Rockets a little bit. We all have our flaws. I came into this game -- into an arena with which I was very familiar -- excited to watch a playoff game in the Toyota Center environment, one I both enjoy and associate with a lot of positive emotions.
The experience was great, right up until the game actually started. The entire arena firing off ground shaking boos anytime Parsons touched the ball was tacky, especially given that he didn't just leave, the ROCKETS DECIDED NOT TO PAY HIM, but it only got worse. They started up a chant of "Dirk you suck," as if that's the sort of thing you want to chant to support your favorite team, and they cheered when Parsons went to the locker room in pain.
The lack of basic human sympathy or respect was pretty jarring and gross in a public forum like that, and it only got worse, when, after the game, a Houston media member fired off this gem:
Rockets media complaining about Dirk's flopping. They're livid. "I wonder how many tampons he goes through" one jokes. Surrrreeee guys.— Hal Brown (@HalBrownNBA) April 19, 2015
Cool misogyny, guy! Because women are weak, or something! That's a great look, especially coming from the team that employs James Harden! It's made even worse by the fact that he said it to a whole group of Houston media members and some team staffers and the comment was met with full agreement. Just so unpleasant.
I know that Rockets fans already have a horrible rep, but as someone who was excited to show off the city I grew up in to friends from Dallas who are skeptical of the city, the fans at the game put on a horrible show and display and made me embarrassed to be a Houstonite. Do better.