Boon or Bust

Reasons to hope for, but not expect a first-round upset

 Landing the Dallas Mavericks as a playoff opponent instead of Shaq and the Lakers or Duncan and the Spurs is a karmic bouquet Kevin Garnett and the Wolves will gratefully accept. It's still doubtful that they can capitalize on the gift and get the franchise's first-ever post-season triumph. But at least there's a sliver of legitimate hope after a dank two months offensive sludge and pacifistic D.

The NBA is all about match-ups, both in terms of individuals and team styles. The personnel and personality of the Mavericks abet the Wolves' virtues and don't exploit Minnesota's weaknesses as ruthlessly as most of the league's other quality teams. Here are a few specific reasons why this series may not be a hopeless cause.

Like most ball clubs, the Wolves' offense and defense work in tandem, and are often either synergistic or cancerous; play at one end of the court can easily feed or starve momentum at the other. Since opponents began solving Minnesota's zone schemes midway through the season, the Wolves' defense is rarely a catalyst for the offense; much more frequently, it's a burst of points that energizes their defense. Fortunately, there is no D in Dallas. The Mavs are congenitally shoddy, indifferent defenders, owing to an overconfidence in their ability to outscore opponents. The Wolves beat them twice in four meetings this year (and were ahead by more than 20 points in the third quarter of another game) primarily because they sank 51 percent of their shots.

KG, Wally Szczerbiak, and (perhaps most of all) Chauncey Billups are the beneficiaries of the Mavs' defensive nonchalance. Billups' accuracy is much more acute when he has time to plant and gather himself before firing. He's also a streaky shooter who knows enough to push his luck when hot, especially from long-range. The Mavs learned this during the third quarter of their third meeting with the Wolves, when Billups torched them for 24 points in 12 minutes, propelling his team to victory on a night when Garnett was off attending a family funeral. Imbued with quick reflexes but lousy court vision, Billups' passing game also thrives when the defense isn't pressuring him. When the two teams met for the last time during the regular season, Dallas allowed Billups to rack up 17 assists.

You'd think Michael Finley, one of the Mavs' only quality defenders when he feels like it, would be a tough match-up for Wally Szczerbiak. But Wally buried 62.5 percent of his shots against Dallas this year en route to averaging more than 24 points per game. If Finley isn't primed to lock down Szczerbiak, we might see more of the same in the playoffs. And if Wally and Billups are going off, Dallas can't afford to double-team Garnett in the low block. Since there is no single defender on the Mavs who can effectively contain KG (he converted 55 percent of his shots against them this season), that's a third reliable option in a dynamic scoring attack. It all starts with Billups, whose confidence has been rightfully fragile the past month. If the Mavs give him room to breathe, the Wolves might just blow them away.

A second reason for optimism stems from the defensive job Sam Mitchell has done on Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs' go-to guy, over the past two games. Dirk doesn't like to get bumped, and out on the court Mitchell is all elbows and knees (exerted with a veteran's sly savvy). His whole plan is to try and deny Nowitzki the ball, or at least make him black and blue in the process. Dirk did go off for 34 points in their final meeting, but, in a grimacing display of grit and excellence, he had to work like hell for every one. His bum ankle will make it even easier for Sam to stick with him; and it's a safe bet that Mitchell will only get better at administering his subtle beatings now that the stakes are raised and the refs are more prone to pocket their whistles. Nowitzki will get his points, but he and the Mavs could pay an uncomfortably high premium.

Factor three working against Dallas is the often idiotic proclivity of Mavs' coach Don Nelson to juggle the lineup. Nellie likes to throw a bevy of different looks on the court, from a super-small lineup that has point guards Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel sharing the backcourt, to a triple towers approach featuring seven-footers Wang and LaFrenz vying with Nowitzki and Nash to see who can chuck up the most threes. Nelson might just have too much talent on hand for his own good. Like the Portland teams of recent years, Dallas has to worry about quality players being resentful of limited minutes and trying to seize the opportunity to do something special once they get playing time. Van Exel in particular is susceptible to this-a notoriously streaky shooter, he could gun the Mavs to victory or defeat almost single-handedly. And I'm not sure Nellie will recognize Van Exel's cold-shooting selfishness in time, should it come to, er, pass.

So much for the good news. On the debit side of the Wolves' ledger, Dallas is loaded with quality shooters who outscored Sacramento and every other NBA team this season, pumping in 105 points per game. They are deadly accurate from long-range, mid-range, and the free-throw line. A challenge for Wolves' coach Flip Saunders will be stopping Finley off the dribble (a job for either KG or Felipe Lopez), preventing Nash from burning them with three-pointers in transition, and stopping LaFrenz and Nowitzki from jacking threes in the half-court offense. On the ESPN website, analyst and former coach Dr. Jack Ramsey says he expects the Wolves to deploy a zone--a sure sign of senility. Saunders might be able to get away with some "32" schemes with Garnett out on the perimeter, where he and Joe Smith will often be roaming to stop the big dudes from bombing, but Dallas moves the ball too well and shoots too accurately for the match-up zone to be effective.

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