This is one of the series that the Grantland Basketball Hour suspects is most likely to be an upset. I don’t share that opinion. Since March 15, an arbitrary date that I’ve chosen to look at how teams are playing as the playoffs start, the Dallas Mavericks have the fourth best offense and take the fourth most shots in the NBA. They’re scoring 107.9 points per game, the basis for upset picks. When normalized to a per 100 possessions basis, Dallas drops to 13th and are -2.3 net rating.1 So the offense can keep Dallas in it, right? Wrong, on a per 100 basis, the Houston Rockets jump up to sixth with a 107.7 rating and are a +5.4 net rating. It doesn’t solve the whole puzzle, but we’re not done yet…
I should mention this here because I don’t see him as a major factor of this series outside of normal solid play. But, we get to see Chandler Parsons return to the team that drafted him and that he “spurned” depending on your point of view by accepting the Mavericks offer sheet. You can find his stat line over the last month here, and can see that he’s a contributor, a good one, but he isn’t going to swing the series himself. This will be more of a broadcast heavy subplot than a true game changer.
Key to the Series
- James Harden – This one isn’t much of a surprise and I hesitated to make him the X-Factor. I also wanted to think of a more creative way of expressing that Harden is the key. But the truth is that he just is. When a team takes a league leading 31.6 FTA per game and a player is second in the league in percentage of FTA at 48.8%, that guys is probably pretty important. It’s been said time and time again, but, Harden is the Moreyball ideal. He could probably be a bit more consistent from deep than 37.5%, but hey, no one is perfect. Harden is the offense (31.3% usage) for sixth best offensively rated team.
- Defense – These two teams have similar offensive capabilities, but the defensive end is where things really turn. The Rockets have a true wing stopper in Ariza and one of the best rated rim protectors, even if he isn’t traditionally tested much.2 The Rockets have much more potential to win this series if they focus on keeping the potent Dallas offense down and let their offense do it’s thing.
- Patrick Beverley – Just a short throw-in key. There have been rumors of Beverley returning VERY early for the playoff run. If he can come back, it will help immensely with guarding . . . well, guards.3
- Pace – The Mavericks have had the fastest pace in the league since March 15; they have just under 101 possessions on a 48-minute basis. This should help keep the half-court defense disparity in check. If the Mavericks can push the pace and get to the basket before Howard can get set, they will stand a chance to deliver on Grantland’s prediction.
- Smart, Strong, Limited Fouls – Harden is going to get fouled, in the paint, and in the process of shooting. It can’t be stopped, but it can be limited. The issue is that the Mavericks are sixth in the league in personal fouls per game at 22.1. If Tyson Chandler gets into foul trouble, the Mavericks leaky defense will suffer immensely. Luckily, Chandler limits his fouls to 2.4 per game, a full foul less than many other centers in the league. Choose when to foul and foul hard when chosen.
Dwight Howard – Again, the Grantland article referenced above. Teams used to – we don’t have this year’s data – avoid going into the paint at all costs with Howard on the floor. Howard is up to around 22 minutes per game, but he’ll need to jump up to 35+ minutes per game in the playoffs if they’re going to be as successful as I think they will be.
The Mavericks and Rick Carlisle are one of my favorite teams and one of the smartest and most creative teams in the NBA. Unfortunately, they just don’t have the defensive talent to hold down Harden and the Rockets. This series could go poorly for the Rockets if their three-point shots aren’t falling, but Harden will be able to get to line no matter what using the red sorcery he has mastered.