HOUSTON -- The Mavericks spent the majority of Game 2 hanging on to the edge of a cliff with the Rockets slowly, methodically stepping on their fingers. Considering the circumstances, Dallas' performance was actually quite impressive. Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki went a combined 11-35 from the field, while the Mavs as a whole shot a measly 37 percent from the field. Nonetheless, by some miraculous basketball voodoo, they held a lead early in the fourth quarter. From there, Houston transformed into lob city en route to a 2-0 series lead.
Let's take a look at some important storylines going forward.
Dwight Howard is a problem
Dwight Howard entered the series as a giant question mark for both ball clubs. The 13th year center dealt with a nagging knee issue that sidelined him for large parts of the regular season. Howard's injury riddled tenure as a Rocket has left questions about to resemble his peak form. On Tuesday night, Howard did just that, tallying 28 points and 13 rebounds while terrorizing the Maverick front court on both ends.
On defense, Dwight flustered every Maverick player at the rim. Driving lanes that normally lead to layups for Monta Ellis and JJ Barea were snuffed out by Dwight. His ability to protect the rim was at the root of the Mavs' offensive stagnation.
Offensively, Dwight honed in on his best trait: rim running. Houston attacked Dirk in pick and rolls all evening creating impossible two-on-one situations for Tyson Chandler to defend. Dwight forewent his clunky post ups in order to utilize his explosiveness with Terrence Jones and Josh Smith's passing abilities. Furthermore, he knocked down 8-11 free throws and managed to log 33 minutes. If this version of Dwight Howard continues to show up, this series won't be heading back to Houston.
Rajon Rondo shouldn't start on the Mavs anymore
They tried. They really tried. Rick Carlise and his staff have done everything possible to make the Rajon Rondo trade work, but it's time to pull the plug. Over 50 games of evidence implies that Rondo torpedoes the offense. Opposing guards abandon him to stand in the paint or double Dirk in the post. Anyone who has watched this team over the last three months knows Rondo is not a fit here. Tuesday night only cemented that fact.
In the first quarter, Rondo committed one of the most absurd eight second violations I've ever seen on any level of basketball. Every possession in the playoffs matter and he wasted one by doing the foxtrot before crossing half court. When Carlisle yanked him mid-way through the first quarter, the team began to play better. Even with Rondo on the bench for nearly the entire second half, the Mavs were able to hold James Harden to a mortal performance. If the Mavs can defend Harden without Rondo, then he shouldn't have a place in the rotation.
Dallas actually found a suitable defensive scheme
For the first three quarters of the game, the Mavs performed admirably on the defensive end. Rick Carlisle tweaked their scheme by allowing Dirk to drop in pick and roll coverage and keep everything in front of him.
Here, Dirk manages to keep Harden in front of him and his use length to force Harden into a tough floater. Harden has the ability to knock down these mid-range jumpers, but that's far better than letting Harden hit the roll man with nothing but space in front of him.
As opposed to here, where Dirk shows hard after Josh Smith slips the pick a little early leaving Tyson in an impossible two-on-one situation. It's more of the same defense Dirk played in Game 1.
Dallas managed to keep multiple bodies in front of James Harden at all times, which led to his 5-15 shooting night. Houston averaged 32 three-point attempts per game during the regular season, but only managed 20 in Game 2. The Maverick perimeter defenders did a great job of running guys off the three-point line. It was ugly, but effective; Houston shot only 39 percent through three quarters.
However in the fourth quarter, the Rockets snuffed out a different weakness in Dallas' scheme. In his post game interview Josh Smith alluded to the scheme deficiency that allowed the Rockets to be successful, saying, "I noticed they were switching on me and Dwight's [Howard] pick and rolls. I knew that we had mismatch advantages on that." Smith was referring to the Dirk-Amar'e pairing in the fourth quarter.
The Rockets continued to attack Dirk by using Smith as the primary ball handler in pick and rolls with Howard. Dirk's inability to switch with quickness led to a couple of those lobs. Moreover, Dirk playing alongside Amar'e only exacerbated the issue. Stoudemire doesn't have the footwork or the awareness to negotiate the space between the two bigs on these kinds of pick and rolls. The two simply cannot play together for long stretches of time if the Mavs want to have success on defense.
If Dallas can shore up their defensive issues from the fourth quarter, they may be able to find some success as the head back home.