After an offseason full of barbs between Mark Cuban and Daryl Morey following the Dallas Mavericks' signing of Chandler Parsons, the 2 vs. 7 series between the two Texas rivals has to be one of the most anticipated of the first round. While the Rockets have a clear edge in terms of regular season performance as well as having two stars in the prime of their career, the season-ending injuries to Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas should give some hope to a Mavericks team with a lot of talent that hasn’t been able to get everything going this season. When you break down the match-ups, you can see how many moving parts there are for both teams, which should give Rick Carlisle a chance to work some of his postseason magic.
PG: Jason Terry vs. Rajon Rondo
I don’t think you will see all that much of Rondo on Terry, as the Mavs will likely give him the first crack on James Harden. With neither Pablo Prigioni nor Jason Terry capable of scaring a team at this point in their careers, this position should give the Mavs ample opportunity to hide a defensive sieve like Monta Ellis and allow him to save energy for offense. The one thing Terry does provide is spacing for James Harden since whoever guards the 37-year old sharpshooter will have to mark him all over the floor. The injury to Beverley makes this series even more important for Rondo because Houston will probably want to hide their worst perimeter defender on him rather than Ellis or Chandler Parsons. We’ve heard a lot about “Playoff Rondo” - if he wants to make some money in the offseason, it’s now or never.
SG: James Harden vs. Monta Ellis
Cross-switching is going to be the name of the game in this series so I don’t expect Rick Carlisle to give Monta many possessions on Harden. At only 6’3 185, Monta doesn’t have enough size to prevent Harden from getting to his spots and can’t really contest his jumper. The presence of The Beard should alter the Mavs backcourt rotations, as they typically like to play two smaller PG’s for most of the game. One guy who could be huge for Dallas is Al-Farouq Aminu - he’s exactly the type of long-armed defender that can give Harden trouble.
This is a put-up or shut-up series for Harden, who didn’t play all that well against Wesley Matthews in the Rockets loss to the Blazers last season. The Mavs don’t have much interior defense besides Tyson Chandler so if Harden can live at the rim and draw fouls on Chandler it will open up the game for the rest of the Rockets. One thing to watch is how Dallas handles the two-man game with Harden - they could slide Dirk Nowitzki off the PF position in order to minimize the number of times he has to guard Harden in space.
Just as important for Harden will be what he has to do on the defensive end of the floor. Without Beverley, the Rockets will need their best player to be locked in on both sides of the ball. Dallas has a 1-2 punch of Ellis and Parsons on the perimeter and they will probably attack the guy that Ariza is not guarding. Ellis is another guy with more regular season than playoff heroics on his resume and he’s playing for a chance at a new contract in the off-season. The Mavs best chance of pulling the upset is using Monta’s speed on Harden and then having Parsons shoot over the top of his former teammate. The only spot to really hide someone on defense in the Dallas starting line-up is at PG and the Rockets already have to keep Terry and Prigioni there.
SF: Trevor Ariza vs. Chandler Parsons
The bad news for Parsons in a series where all eyes will be on him is that he’s coming off a lingering knee injury that kept him out of the line-up for the last two weeks of the regular season. He will need to be at 100% for the Mavs to have any chance of making this a series as he’s the only perimeter player on Dallas who can A) stretch the floor B) play defense and C) initiate offense at the same time. Parsons is the glue that holds this rickety collection of players together so Ariza taking him out of this series would be a deathblow. The fact that the Rockets let Parsons walk in free agency and gave his job to Ariza only adds to the intrigue of this match-up.
One thing that stands out when looking at these match-ups is there are a lot of different places in Houston’s starting line-up to hide guys. The presence of a spot-up shooter like Ariza at SF has to be real tempting for Carlisle in terms of hiding Dirk Nowitzki there since the Mavs aging star has little chance of staying in front of the Rockets much younger and more athletic PF’s. That, in turn, could really step up the defensive pressure on Parsons, who may have to body Josh Smith and Terrence Jones in the post, keep them off the offensive glass and guard Harden when the Mavs switch the pick-and-roll. That’s why he makes twice as much money as Dirk - he has a lot of responsibility on this team and there’s no one else who can do his job.
PF: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Terrence Jones
Jones got a baptism by fire in his first playoff experience last season, when LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 40+ on him in the first two games and forced Kevin McHale to change match-ups on the fly and bring Omer Asik into the starting line-up. With Asik gone, the Rockets are going to need Jones to give Dirk a little more of a challenge this season, although once again it will be tough for the 6’9 combo forward to match up with a 7’0+ pure jump-shooter. The key for him is to get Dirk back on the other end of the floor - make him move laterally, get into his legs and challenge him at the front of the rim. The Mavs don’t have an obvious match-up for his combination of size and strength so a big series for Jones and Josh Smith is probably the Rockets best chance to put the underdog away early.
For Nowitzki, this could be one of the last chances he has on the biggest stage in the NBA. At his age there’s no telling how many years he has left. He has been playing possum for most of the season so Mavs fans have to hope he has something left in the tank come playoff time. Even 2-3 years ago, this would have been the match-up Carlisle would have ridden all the way to the upset. As it stands now, if the Mavs can get one or two vintage Dirk games in this series and then find a way to hide him on defense, they would count it as a win.
C: Dwight Howard vs. Tyson Chandler
Howard has been completely off the radar this season while recovering from a knee injury and has played in a little over 40 games. For a guy at this stage of his career, it’s all about the playoffs anyway. The Rockets need vintage Dwight Howard to have any chance at winning a championship and the series against the Mavs is a prime example. Posting up your C may not be all that efficient in the regular season but having the ability to get offense from that position and putting the other team’s primary rim protector in foul trouble can totally change the dynamic of a playoff series.
If Chandler isn’t on the floor, the Mavs already subpar defense becomes straight up pathetic. Dallas is going to need yeoman’s work from their C. He has to control Howard in the post, prevent Harden from living at the rim, do the work of 2-3 men on the defensive glass and provide an offensive spark rolling to the rim in the two-man game. If he isn’t at 35-40 minutes a night, Dallas is going to have a tough time staying in this series because any combination of Dirk, Amare or Charlie Villanueva at 5 will kill their defense and either Bernard “Sarge” James or Greg Smith at 5 will kill their offense.
Key bench players:
PG - Devin Harris
Harris has the speed and shooting ability to really take advantage of the lack of footspeed of the Rockets guards and the Mavs have played much better offensive basketball with him at the point as opposed to Rondo. Dallas is going to need their bench players to outplay an injury ravaged Houston 2nd unit and that starts with Harris being on his game. He may also get time on James Harden behind Rondo, depending on what Carlisle elects to do with Al-Farouq Aminu.
SF - Al-Farouq Aminu
Aminu is the Mavs glue guy on defense, capable of guarding almost every player 1-5 in the Rockets rotation. He makes them much longer and more athletic whenever he is on the floor and he’s one of the only players on their roster with any chance of holding his own on the glass. The key for Aminu will be how he’s used and whether the Mavs can find him minutes in a way where his lack of shooting doesn’t destroy their spacing on the offensive side of the ball.
PF - Josh Smith
One of the most maligned players in the NBA has found a second life in Houston, where he has thrived as a 6th man and 3rd big man off the bench. This is where the Rockets have the biggest edge over Dallas - even without Motiejunas, the three-man rotation of Smith, Jones and Howard gives Houston a ton of athleticism and two-play upfront for 48 minutes, something the Mavs older rotation of one-way bigs really can’t match. Smith’s versatility on both sides of the ball could be invaluable for Kevin McHale in this series and if he’s making 3’s it will put Dallas in an unpleasant quandary.
Prediction: Rockets in 6