DALLAS (Sports Network) – If he hasn’t already, Portland Trail Blazers head coach Nate McMillan should give himself a pat on the back for what his team was able to accomplish this season.
McMillan was strapped when star guard Brandon Roy missed some time with chronic knee issues and has been relegated to shorter spurts on the floor. True fans of the NBA were hard-pressed to see a player of Roy’s stature unable to fully recover for the stretch run, but the Blazers were able to get some help in other areas to capture the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoff race for the second year in a row.
Portland will face the No. 3 seed Dallas Mavericks in the quarterfinals, a matchup that doesn’t bode well for the inhabitants of the Northwest Division. The Trail Blazers have reached the postseason in each of the previous four years and were eliminated in the first round of last year’s postseason in six games by the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix didn’t even reach the playoffs this year.
“It’s a great accomplishment for this team and all (the players) had to go through — different guys having to fill in and make adjustments because of all our injuries,” McMillan said. “Guys stepped in and played good basketball and gave us an opportunity to play in the postseason. Now we’re there. The next goal is to get out of the first round.”
The Blazers haven’t reached the second round of the playoffs since the 1999-00 campaign and will rely on All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge for support in the upcoming run. Aldridge led the team in scoring with a career-best 21.8 points per game and also pulled down 8.8 rebounds a contest. With Roy practically relegated to a reserve role, Aldridge had to carry the load until the Blazers made a move with Charlotte to acquire veteran Gerald Wallace. The addition of Wallace even has fellow veteran Marcus Camby optimistic.
“I feel more excited than last year going into the playoffs,” Camby said. “The acquisition of Gerald brings us versatility and depth. We can rely on the bench a whole lot more and won’t have to have guys playing heavy minutes.”
Wesley Matthews has done an admirable job in Roy’s place as the starter, while Andre Miller, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez are solid components to McMillan’s philosophy. Camby’s rebounding and presence inside is another plus.
Making the playoffs has been a birthright for the Mavericks, who have reached the postseason 11 straight years. With no NBA title, however, this year could be the one Dallas finally gets over the hump.
Dallas, which was seeded second last season and lost in six games to the rival San Antonio Spurs, recorded at least 50 wins in 11 consecutive seasons, becoming just the third team in NBA history to do that. It hopes a stumble down the stretch doesn’t turn into a disastrous showing in the playoffs.
“We got over the four-game losing streak,” Mavs star reserve Jason Terry said. “We’re past it and the playoffs are approaching fast so every moment is going to be intense especially out there on the floor.
“Last year we got put out in the first round, but this year we don’t see that happening, and if we got out and play Mavericks basketball every second while we’re out there on the floor, we’re looking at a long run.”
Terry is just one of many weapons for head coach Rick Carlisle, as superstar Dirk Nowitzki leads a list a contributors that include Shawn Marion, J.J. Barea, Jason Kidd, and Tyson Chandler. Unfortunately, the chances of tough forward Caron Butler returning for the postseason after rupturing his patella tendon seem unlikely.
Nowitzki and the Mavericks split four meetings with Portland in the regular season. Nowitzki averaged 21.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in three games against the Blazers and also missed some time this season with a knee injury. The Mavericks have always been a tough sell at home, while Portland has lost 13 of 15 and 16 of its last 19 games in Big D.
Portland and Dallas have met in the playoffs three times previously, with the Trail Blazers winning two of the three series. Portland is 9-5 against the Mavericks in postseason play. The last time these two squads met in the playoffs was in 2003.
POINT GUARD: The matchup between point guards is an interesting one with Blazers veteran Miller going head-to-head with Dallas’ Kidd. Both players have postseason experience, but Kidd has the edge with his surrounding cast and slightly better quarterback skills. Kidd will most likely land in the Hall of Fame someday and can cause trouble on both sides of the floor. He owns 107 career triple-doubles and moved into third place on the all-time steals list behind Michael Jordan and John Stockton. Kidd, who became just the second player in NBA history to reach 11,000 assists for his career, is a 16-year veteran and is still considered to be one of the best guards in the NBA.
Miller has led the Blazers in assists the majority of the season and could learn a thing or two from his counterpart in Kidd. The smooth Miller just completed his second season with Portland and sets up the offense for Aldridge and Roy when he’s healthy. He doesn’t receive much attention, but his teammates past and present know full well Miller is one of the best. Miller is third in career assists among active players, trailing Kidd and Steve Nash, and reached the 7,000 assist mark earlier this month.
SHOOTING GUARD: Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews enjoyed a productive sophomore season and took over the starting spot when Roy’s knees gave him issues. Matthews is a quick player with strong defensive skills which will come in hand against Dallas’ quick backcourt. Matthews posted 17.0 points as a starter and just 10.2 points in 13 games off the bench this season. He won’t shoot the lights out on a consistent basis, but does know his way around the three-point line. He became the first Trail Blazer to make at least a trio of three-pointers in five straight games (March 11-19) since Damon Stoudamire (seven games, Feb. 1-13, 2005).
Rodrigue Beaubois may be a difficult name to pronounce, but he’s well known in the Dallas area. A first-round draft pick of Oklahoma City in 2009, Beaubois was selected with the 25th overall pick by the Thunder and was traded to Dallas in exchange for 24th overall pick B.J. Mullens. Beaubois, who was discovered at an open basketball camp in Guadeloupe, took over full time at the guard spot when Terry was shifted back to the bench under what turned out to be several lineup changes instilled by Carlisle. Don’t expect to get too much production out of this series.
CENTER: Camby isn’t much of a scoring threat and earns his paycheck by grabbing rebounds on both sides of the floor. Camby, a former first-round pick back in 1996, has been around the block a few times and has been bothered by injuries the last few weeks. Camby will be ready to go as evidenced by his excitement for the playoffs to begin. He is rated in the top 10 among players who have played at least 50 games with 10.3 rebounds per game and is the one of two players in the Western Conference averaging 10.0 rebounds and 1.50 blocks (Pau Gasol, Lakers). In his 15th season, Camby is fifth among active players with just under 9,000 career rebounds.
Chandler likely feels fortunate to have landed with such a fine organization that is the Mavericks, and is the team’s only inside presence. When Chandler scores 10-plus points in a game the Mavericks are unbeaten. He is one of the top rebounders in the game, but can have lapses on the defensive end. Chandler will have his hands full this series and hopes his back will hold up during the grueling stretch that is the NBA playoffs. Besides the 2010-11 campaign, the only other season he’s had a double figure scoring average was in 2007-08 with New Orleans (11.8 ppg).
SMALL FORWARD: Expect Marion to finish second in scoring for the Mavericks when it is all said and done this postseason. The veteran Marion is one of the top defenders in the league and usually covers the opposing team’s best player. Marion, aka The Matrix, has been in the starting lineup over the past few weeks and makes the Mavericks a dangerous team when playing alongside Nowitzki and Chandler. Marion averaged more than 10 points and six rebounds in his second full season with Dallas. He’s heating up at the right time, too.
The addition of Wallace before the NBA trade deadline was a brilliant move for a Blazers team that is proving to its fans it wants to win. Granted the Bobcats are a team on the rise, Wallace has to feel more comfortable now that he’s playing for a legitimate playoff contender. He was averaging almost 20 points in the past few weeks of action and scored more than 10 points in 11 during a recent stretch. His arrival ignited the Blazers and made them a formidable presence among the class of the Western Conference.
POWER FORWARD: Blazers forward Aldridge should make the All-NBA list and may even garner some votes for MVP. Aldridge automatically gives the Blazers an edge in this matchup simply for his ease in scoring and rebounding. Aldridge’s career year was made possible when Roy was sidelined for a significant amount of time. One of three NBA players ranked top 15 in points and rebounds (Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin), Aldridge is the only Trail Blazer to record three straight games of 36 points or more (42, Feb. 7 vs. Chicago, 37, Feb. 11 at Toronto and 36, Feb. 13 at Detroit) and is the first player in team history to play over 3,000 minutes since Damon Stoudamire in 2003-04. He led the NBA in the alley-oop department and will give the opposition fits on a nightly basis.
Dallas will only go as far as Nowitzki takes them, and time is running out on the West German stud. Nowitzki averaged 20-plus points for an 11th consecutive season and needs to be on his game in order for the Mavs to move on. Not typically known as being a closer in this league, Nowitzki is obviously the one opposing teams try to contain on any given night, as the 10-time All-Star eclipsed the 1,500-point mark for the 11th year in a row. That record is tied with Kobe Bryant for the longest active streak in the NBA.
BENCH: Terry is Dallas’ X-factor and is a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, having posted 15.8 points and 4.1 assists in all 82 games. The durable and fiery Terry, who made a handful starts in 2010-11, is an aggressive player and was recently in the news for a heated exchange with teammate Barea during a timeout. Terry easily gives the Mavs the edge in this department. Barea enjoyed a career year with 9.5 points and 3.9 assists in 81 games. The scrappy undrafted Barea will give Kidd a blow and needs to play better defense in the playoffs. Guards DeShawn Stevenson and Corey Brewer, center Brendan Haywood and forward Peja Stojakovic highlight the rest of Carlisle’s reliable options off the bench. Stojakovic is a sharpshooter and can make big shots in the clutch for a Dallas team that went 43-4 when scoring 100-plus points. The Mavs’ bench scored 60 or more points six times this season.
Matthews used to come off the bench for McMillan, but has been starting on a consistent basis since late November. McMillan has Roy to go to off the pine, but that’s only because his star player’s knees have been deteriorating over time and too many minutes will only hamper him more. Batum enjoyed a career year with 12.4 points and 4.5 boards in 80 games. The Frenchman can score and proved that by posting 16 or more points in a career-best six straight games from Nov. 4-Nov. 13. Forward Luke Babbitt and guards Patty Mills, Armon Johnson and Fernandez, and forward/center Earl Barron will see action as well.
COACHING: Carlisle, the Western Conference Coach of the Month for games played in February, has more than 400 career victories and 100-plus with Dallas, which obviously proves he has more experience and a slight advantage of McMillan. Carlisle, who became Dallas’ ninth head coach back in May of 2008, has a solid offensive and defensive pedigree and his use of Kidd at the point has made everyone better, especially Nowitzki. Chandler gives Carlisle the option of setting up a half-court style, while also instilling a high tempo offense with Terry, Barea and Beaubois. Carlisle also gets along with Mavs popular and sometimes impatient owner Mark Cuban, making the job a lot easier.
McMillan has helped the Blazers get back to relevance and was tested on all levels this season when Roy’s knees started to make headlines. With former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden proving to be a bust because of his injuries, McMillan was able to center the offense around Aldridge, who used to follow Roy’s lead in the scoring department. Like Carlisle and Kidd, McMillan has Miller to quarterback his offense, but don’t expect Miller to run often. The Blazers rewarded McMillan with a contract extension last month and the former NBA player has made significant strides with the organization since 2005. The Portland brass wanted to make sure McMillan was locked in for a few more years and even opened the bank for a few weapons in Camby and Wallace.
PREDICTION: Portland is playing solid basketball right now and can compete with any team in the league. The Blazers made a smart move to get Wallace from Charlotte, providing McMillan with a veteran presence, versatility and depth at scoring behind Aldridge. Portland’s bench isn’t as strong as Dallas’, and that may force McMillan to use his starters longer than anticipated. But then again Aldridge logged more than 3,000 minutes of action this season. The Mavs haven’t had much success in the first round of the playoffs save the 2008-09 campaign when they were bounced in the semifinals. Nowitzki won’t that happen again and has a potent cast around him in Kidd, Marion and Chandler. Not usually known for an inside offense, the Mavs will move on to the second round in just year one with Chandler stationed down low. A possible return of Butler in Dallas would fuel that prediction even more.
You can watch the Mavericks First Round Playoffs on TXA 21