The 2007 NBA playoffs began this weekend. The most compelling matchups, if you don’t have an East Coast bias, have to be the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks against the Don Nelson-led Golden State Warriors; and the San Antonio Spurs versus the Denver Nuggets. Chicago-Miami is getting a good deal of attention right now, and deservedly so, but that lacks the compelling one-on-one matchups that are on display out west. Do you really want to see Antoine Walker and Jason Williams – again? I didn’t think so.
The Mavericks have a problem. The Warriors have beaten them 6 consecutive times. In the reconfigured Western Conference, where teams from different divisions only play three times each season, this is evidence of a problem. The Mavericks have not beaten the Warriors in the 2006-2007 season. The Warriors have dynamic, attacking offensive players and they pose tremendous challenges to every single Dallas defender. After last night’s 33-point, 14-rebound, 8-assist, 3-steal effort from Baron Davis, it should be clear that the Mavericks do not have an answer for this big guard. Davis is too much. He has had durability issues throughout his career, but he looks strong and fresh. Davis is not the only problem for Dallas. Monta Ellis, Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington can all score off the dribble against the Mavericks. Each of these players is capable of 30+ point games in big situations. The Mavericks have a problem.
Dallas was blown out at the end of a home playoff game. This team will not crumble and Dirk certainly has a few 40-point games in him. He’ll need them because the Warriors are for real. The significant offensive advantages for the Warriors mean that they will be in every game as long as they take good shots and don’t settle for jumpers. They must continue to attack the hoop and exploit the slower, smaller backcourt players on the Mavericks. Jason Terry, Devon Harris and company do not have answers for Baron Davis. Avery Johnson may have to put Josh Howard on Davis – and that will be a problem also. The Warriors, though, have exploited another wrinkle that may be fatal for the Mavericks. Davis’ fellow UCLA Bruin Matt Barnes brought the ball up the court, allowed Baron to rest his legs and made some big shots. It was Barnes who made the “dagger three” after Jason Richardson wiped Devon Harris’ layup in the 4th quarter. That pivotal play caused the Mavericks to lose their collective composure (Cuban went berserk). After Barnes’ three, the game was effectively over. Barnes played solid minutes yesterday – and with his size and ability to handle and pass over the defense, he presents another challenge to the Mavs. His effective play negates the strategy of attacking Golden State by taking the ball out of Baron Davis’ hands. Last night, Barnes brought the ball up and Davis took his act to the low post. Dallas wouldn’t dare put Jason Terry on him in the box, so Devean George jumped in the toaster oven and even buttered his own backside.
Greg Buckner may be the Mavs most accomplished defender of big guards, but he may be too accomplished (read “old”) to get with the bearded Baron.
I like the Warriors to win this series – if they can avoid injuries to their starters. Dallas has a nice team, a 67-win team; but, they have a problem and I don’t see solutions on their bench. It will be difficult for Avery Johnson to come up with a gimmick to slow down that offense. The Mavericks players will have to summon the capacity to shut down superior offensive players. And, while they’re expending all that energy playing defense, they’ll need to score. And, they’ll now have to win 4 games against a team they haven’t beaten since in many, many moons.
The Spurs have a problem also. It’s really simple. First, Bruce Bowen cannot guard Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. First of all, Bowen cannot guard Iverson at all. Sorry – not happening. Bowen has had success against Carmelo, but with Iverson on the floor, the demands on Bowen to split himself in two are too steep. Second, Nene is giving San Antonio’s front line fits. His strength, quickness and determination are decisive. Third, Michael Finley is not the guy we thought he was. Finley has moved from being an elite scorer on a 50+ win team (the Mavericks) to a bench player with an inconsistent jumper. Finley hasn’t dominated a playoff series to date – and it’s not likely to happen here. Duncan, Ginobli and Parker will do their thing, but it’s not going to be enough. Iverson is going to make Parker work harder than he has ever had to in a playoff series – and there is nowhere to run or hide. Parker is going to be overwhelmed in this series. He’s an excellent player, but this is too much. Ginobli is going to have to cook the bacon for San Antonio. He is capable of huge scoring games and may need them if the Spurs are to get this going.
The Nuggets haven’t fully cracked the Spurs code, but with long guys like Marcus Camby and Nene on the court, it is much easier for Carmelo Anthony to get loose. Make no mistake about it – Carmelo is a formidable offensive player who performs best in clutch situations. His repertoire is vastly enabled by Allen Iverson’s presence. The key for the Nuggets in this series is shot discipline. If they settle for jumpers, they will lose. If they continue to attack and share the ball, they can win. I’m not as optimistic about their chances as I am about the Warriors, but they have seized the advantage.
Like the Warriors, Denver has a bigger guard who can bring the ball up the court (Steve Blake) and make an occasional jump shot. The Nuggets have three players they can reliably expect to score on the majority of their touches (Iverson-sort of, Carmelo, and Nene). They are getting solid bench play. And Iverson will provide a measure of experience and confidence that should allow the Nuggets to win out in a tight 4th quarter. They’ve got all the pieces.