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Young big men quietly the key for Houston

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Former Mavs Jason Terry and Corey Brewer got outsized recognition for their Game 1 roles. But front court depth acquired through the draft is even more critical to the Rockets' supporting cast.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After the Rockets' game 1 victory against Dallas, the role played by two former Mavericks garnered considerable headlines. Jason Terry will never tire of reminding the Mavs they failed to bring him back after spending his last season with the team dropping hints about a new contract. And Corey Brewer, a benchwarmer for the Mavs title team, was good for a memorable, and salty, postgame quote.

There's no question the shooting provided by Terry, Brewer and starting small forward Trevor Ariza have been crucial to Houston's success in complimenting MVP candidate James Harden. But as painful as it is for Dallas fans to see two former Mavs light up the team from long distance, the key to Houston's supporting cast is really its big man rotation, which featured third-year player Terrence Jones and rookie Clint Capela prominently in Game 1. The collection of young bigs on the Rockets roster is also what distinguishes the team-building philosophy of the two franchises in recent years.

It's interesting how many frontcourt players in this series were coveted by both franchises before winding up with the Rockets. The Mavs made a strong pitch to Dwight Howard in free agency in 2013 before being spurned for Houston. Fellow Rocket Josh Smith was likewise recruited by both teams after being waived by the Pistons earlier this season.

And Dallas reportedly considered Ariza among the small forward options in free agency last summer before making Chandler Parsons a priority and prying him away from the Rockets with an unpalatable offer sheet.

Where there's been no competition since Dallas hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy is the draft. That's where Houston acquired forwards Marcus MorrisDonatas Motiejunas and Parsons in 2011; Royce White and Jones in 2012; and Capela last year. (The team packaged guard Jeremy Lamb—a 2012 draftee—and two first round picks along with Kevin Martin in a trade for Harden.)

The Mavericks, however, have never really prioritized the draft, preferring instead to maximize cap space with later picks—a strategy that also led the team to trade Brewer in a salary saving move. They've filled out their frontcourt rotation behind Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki this season with defensively challenged veterans like Amar'e Stoudemire and Charlie Villanueva. The team's other big man options either limit floor spacing (Al-Farouq Aminu and Bernard James), add nothing when they see the floor (Greg Smith) or haven't yet earned Rick Carlisle's trust (Dwight Powell).

Jones, who won the starting power forward job in Houston last year, quietly put up a stellar stat line Saturday of 19 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. But his biggest value came in repeatedly challenging Nowitzki on the pick and roll. When Chandler would provide help on Dirk's man, the Mavs gave up dunk after dunk to Howard and other Rockets.

Capela, after spending most of his rookie season in the D-League, also saw minutes in Game 1 as Howard struggled with foul trouble. He was a -4 in 16 minutes on the floor but collected six rebounds and blocked two shots with the Rockets' center on the bench. His defensive rating of 97 points was better than any teammate but Howard and Ariza.

While Stoudemire, the Dallas center finishing his fourteenth season, drew fouls on multiple Houston players, he also struggled mightily near the rim, missing 10 of 12 shots. And his defensive rating of 113 in 16 minutes was no better than Nowitzki's.

Dallas did well to sign Brandan Wright in 2011 at age 24 and turn the former washout lottery pick into a high value bench player and centerpiece of the trade for Rajon Rondo. But it's much harder to find that kind of 6'9"+ player to fill out your roster via free agency. Aminu, a former eighth overall pick signed by the Mavs last summer, has had a big impact on the defensive end this year but has yet to shoot better than 50 percent from inside the three point line in his five seasons in the league. Jones, already an efficient shooter at the rim, has meanwhile developed into a league average shooter from outside in his third season.

The Rockets haven't had such success with every front court player they've drafted—White is no longer in the league, partly because of struggles with anxiety disorder—but Motiejunas was a major contributor with Howard injured in the regular season. And the team was able to weather several Dallas runs with Dwight on the bench Saturday because of the play of two other mid- to late first round picks.

The Mavericks were in position to draft Jones back in 2012 but traded back to clear more cap space—a move they'd make in the next draft as well, passing on more potential contributors. As Dallas works out how to plan around Parsons' lingering knee injury, Rondo's spacing issues and Monta Ellis' lack of awareness on defense, the team will also have to figure out how to contend with a mix of young, two-way Rockets bigs using older, more limited veterans.

JET Terry and Corey Brewer can do all the chirping they want in this series. But it's the Mavs' draft decisions since 2011 and not the castoffs from the title squad that are really coming back to haunt this team.