PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals; Game 1.
Having the home-court advantage would seem to give the Mavericks an edge, but they are widely considered underdogs to the well-rested Kings as the teams meet in the conference semifinals for the second straight year.
While Sacramento has enjoyed five days off since closing out Utah in the first round, Dallas nearly became the first team in NBA postseason history to blow a 3-0 lead before beating Portland 107-95 in Game 7 on Sunday.
“Nothing Sacramento can do will be tougher than what we faced here,” Dallas’ Michael Finley said.
Sacramento also enters as the favorite because of its recent history against Dallas.
The Kings won three of the four regular-season meetings and knocked the Mavs out of last season’s conference semifinals in five games.
“It’s going to be tough, but we know what’s ahead of us and we’re looking forward to the challenge because they pretty much put a whooping on us last year,” said Dallas guard Nick Van Exel.
More than one-third of the Mavs’ 11 home losses in the last calendar year have come against the Kings. Sacramento has won four straight visits to the American Airlines Center, two in last year’s playoffs and two this season by a combined three points.
“Home court is important, but we play well on the road, too,” Kings point guard Mike Bibby said. “People say vulgar stuff to us on the road. It gets us going.”
The Chris Webber-Dirk Nowitzki battle will again highlight this series. Just like in last year’s playoff matchup, Nowitzki had the edge statistically during the regular season but his team managed only one win.
Dallas will also have to deal with the forward playing across from Webber, Peja Stojakovic, who 28.3 points against the Mavs this season. Stojakovic, who was hampered by an injury in last year’s playoffs, led the Kings with 22.6 points per game in the opening round.
Many feel the Mavs do not match up favorably with the Kings’ frontcourt. While Dallas’ best big men—Nowitzki and Raef LaFrentz—are perimeter scorers and suspect defensively, Webber, Vlade Divac and reserve Keon Clark can control the lane for Sacramento.
The Kings grabbed 33 more boards than the Mavs in last year’s conference semifinals and held a 29-rebound advantage this regular season.
“Nothing that happened in the regular season matters right now,” said Sacramento’s Bobby Jackson. “They beat us last year 3-1, and we went in there and beat them in the series. That doesn’t matter. Whoever comes ready to play is going to win.”
With the edge up front seemingly going to Sacramento, Dallas must win the battle of the backcourts.
All-Star point guard Steve Nash was inconsistent in the opening round, but must be focused on both ends to keep up with Bibby. Finley has had success against Sacramento’s Doug Christie, considered one of the NBA’s better defensive guards, but has not been putting up big numbers since a lengthy absence late in the regular season due to a hamstring injury.
Van Exel scored 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter of Dallas’ Game 7 win Sunday and can be explosive off the bench. He finished fourth in the Sixth Man of the Year voting as Jackson took home the award after averaging 15.2 points during the regular season.
“Im going to have my hands full just like he’s going to have his hands full,” Jackson said. “Its going to to be a nice contest.”
These teams, two of only four in the NBA to average more than 100 points during the regular season, resume the series Thursday in Dallas.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Kings - F Webber, F Stojakovic, C Divac, G Bibby, G Christie. Mavericks - F Nowitzki, F Eduardo Najera, C LaFrentz, G Nash, G Finley
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Kings - Stojakovic, 22.6 ppg; Webber, 9.2 rpg; Bibby, 6.2 apg. Mavericks - Nowitzki, 29.9 ppg and 8.9 rpg; Nash, 7.7 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Kings, 3-1. The Kings won the first three matchups before a 129-123 overtime home loss on March 16, snapping their six-game winning streak in the series. The teams combined to score 234.5 points per meeting. Nowitzki put up 28.3 points and 14.0 rebounds per game in the series, while Webber averaged 23.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists in three meetings.