The Dallas Mavericks are just one win away from clinching their spot in the playoff.
With Memphis at the eight seed, behind the Mavericks by seven games, Dallas’ odds to make the playoffs are over 99 percent. Making the playoffs is the easy part during this final stretch — surviving them is a completely different battle.
Below we look at possible playoff opponents, ranked from most favorable to most daunting, with the Western Conference standings given some weight. (Which is why you won’t see the Mavericks in a two vs. seven match-up.)
The Jazz have beaten the Mavericks both times they’ve played each other this season for two reasons. The first one is obvious — in their second meeting the Jazz were at full strength while the Mavericks were without Luka Doncic. The second reason is that Bojan Bogdanovic thrived in both games, scoring a combined 46 points. With the Mavericks now fully rested and Bogdanovic out with a wrist injury, the odds are a lot better for the Mavericks in any current matchup.
Outside their two stars, the Jazz don’t have enough firepower to make a deep playoff run. FiveThirtyEight gives them the worst full strength playoff rating of Western Conference teams that have secured a playoff spot. If Dallas can provide scoring off the bench and slow down Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gorbert, the series becomes easily winnable, perhaps in as few as five games.
This matchup is destined to be a shootout between the two most frequent three point shooting teams. Doncic looked exceptional in his singular game against the Rockets this season, scoring 41 points and dishing 10 assists. Even without Doncic in the teams’ January meeting, the Mavericks only lost by seven thanks to a 35 point showing from Porzingis.
The Rockets simply don’t have enough weapons outside of Harden and Westbrook to get a win if one of them is having an off night. Scoring from Curry and Hardaway Jr. gives the Mavericks the depth they need to win the series. The absence of a true center seemed to be favorable for Porzingis in the prior matchups despite his lack of post play. The recent injury to guard Eric Gordon could cause lingering problems for Houston as well, with Gordon expected to miss two weeks. The Mavericks could once again take advantage of this if the Rockets are their first round match-up.
The Thunder have been starting three guards regularly since January. It’s an interesting lineup and one that could actually work in favor of the Mavericks. The Thunder often run a singular big man, usually letting Danilo Gallinari play that role. That means the sole big man is forced to drop back when screened so they can protect the basket. So if the Mavericks’ screen setter fades instead of rolls, which is what they usually do, they’re likely to find themselves wide open.
Luka Doncic has played well in his two games against Oklahoma City this season, averaging 32 points per game. Doncic has also only turned the ball over twice in these two games, a nice improvement from his 4.2 regular per game average. The Thunder lack a good defender at the guard position, allowing Doncic more freedom to score the basketball. If the Mavericks can slow down the guard trio from scoring, they should have a good shot at winning this series.
While it may be tempting to predict a 31 point night from Boban Marjanovic every time these teams play, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see that again. But the Mavericks can take advantage of the Nuggets’ defense. The Mavericks run a lot of pick and roll and it works. The Nuggets attempted to switch their big, usually Nikola Jokic, onto the primary ball handler, usually Luka Doncic. Not only does this leave a slower Jokic trying to keep up with Doncic, it also in the past left a guard defending Boban in the paint which is a defensive nightmare. The Nuggets also attempted some “blitzing”, similar to how some defenses guard James Harden, but Doncic was able to navigate these pretty well.
The Nuggets have a lot of depth with six players averaging double figures. The most effective way to slow their offense down is making Jokic uncomfortable facilitating the offense. Unless recently discovered NBA superstar Bol Bol dominates or coach Mike Malone realizes Dallas has no one who can match up with Michael Porter Jr., the Mavericks starting five matches up well with Denver. Unfortunately, the Mavericks are battling some key absences and depth could prove to be the x-factor for the Nuggets.
The Lakers are not at number one in this ranking for one reason: Maxi Kleber. In the recent Lakers-Mavericks scrimmage, we saw Anthony Davis score easily when defended by Dorian Finney-Smith. Surprisingly, Kristaps Porzingis has defended Anthony Davis more than anyone else in the NBA this season. But with Dwight Powell out, Porzingis will likely be more effective defending the rim-running Dwight Howard. In this case, Rick Carlisle could slide Maxi Kleber into the starting five to defend Anthony Davis, giving the Mavericks a shot down low.
LeBron James is always going to do LeBron things. It’s just a matter of dealing with it, which the Mavericks can do with their offense. The only other Laker averaging double-digit scoring outside of the Davis-James duo is Kyle Kuzma. Compare that to the Mavericks who have the sharpshooting duo of Seth Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr., along with Kleber and Finney-Smith right behind them in the nine point range. The Lakers are also without two of their guards, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. If the Mavericks can stop Davis and LeBron, I think they have a good shot at stealing at least two games. Unfortunately, that’s something the Mavericks have been unable to do. The duo averaged 52.6 combined points per game the three times they played together against the Mavericks this season. Even with a historically good offense, that’s difficult to overcome.
This should come as no surprise. Mavericks fans have been constantly voicing their concerns over this match-up since March, and for good reason. The Mavericks have played the Clippers twice this season and lost both times. The first game in November, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 54 points while Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis had a combined 37. In their January rematch, Leonard and Doncic both gave their teams 36 points, but the Clippers supporting cast carried them to victory even without Paul George.
So why are the Clippers such an unfavorable match-up? For starters, the talent they have at the wing creates easy assignments on both ends of the floor. The Mavericks simply do not have the defense on the wings to match the offensive explosion the Clippers have. Look at how the two former All-Stars have exploited their individual match-ups this season.
The domination doesn’t stop there. Leonard, who is second in FiveThirtyEight’s Total RAPTOR metric, also makes his assignment a non-factor when playing defense. The two-time defensive player of the year is usually defending Dorian Finney-Smith, who he’s held to three points on 16 percent shooting in the two games they’ve met. If the Mavericks have to face the Clippers in the first round, they’ll have to find a way to score and defend on the wing in addition to outscoring their bench. Not a simple task.
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