Ball Don't Lie - NBA

After a needlessly overwrought season that seemed to start all the way back in July with LeBron James'(notes) "Decision," the playoffs are finally here. After months of waiting, we're at a point where we don't have to qualify every on-or off-court decision with the caveat that reminds us that we're not yet at playoff time. No, we're at playoff time. It's the freakin' playoffs, cats and kittens, and I can hear your goosebumps popping from here. Gross.

So come heed my middling mutterings, alongside the staggering genius of Dan Devine and Eric Freeman, as we discuss the opening round.

In this episode, we feature the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks.

The matchup has only been set since the early hours of Thursday morning, following Los Angeles' overtime win in Sacramento, but already this series has been bashed about so much that we're not sure if we're countering the counter or the counter's counter. Portland roared out of the gate as the major favorite, despite winning nine fewer games than Dallas during the regular season, and we're having a hard time finding a writer not based in Dallas that thinks the Mavs are going to make it out of the first round.

Then the backlash hit, with some writers reminding us of just how good the Mavericks are, or were (depending on who you ask), while warning against underrating the team, if not overrating the Trail Blazers. Then, in half a day, we're all back on the Blazers side.

You're right not to underrate the Mavericks. Though the team has fallen off since Caron Butler(notes) went down because DeShawn Stevenson(notes) couldn't sustain his initial promise and Roddy Beaubois never found his touch this season, this is still a great team that could have made it to the second or even third round had it found the right matchup. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, Portland is not that matchup.

The team is too long, and it has started to close out on shooters better now that Gerald Wallace(notes) is in the fold, and his teammates appear to have acclimated to his ways. Nate McMillan has opened up the taps a bit offensively, and this has clearly become Andre Miller's(notes) team with Brandon Roy(notes) playing a secondary scoring role off the bench. Pity, but it needed to be done.

I'm picking Portland, but that doesn't mean we can't have a close series. It's a close series that could end in four games, with each contest coming down to the wire, or we could see what the Spurs and Mavs gave us last year -- a six-game series with the Mavs going down, but with four of the contests going down to the wire, and a sixth game that saw the Mavs just a shot or two away.

So you're right not to sleep on the Mavs, and don't expect a one-sided series. But with Tyson Chandler(notes) coming through with varying degrees of effectiveness and Jason Kidd's(notes) scary March and April fresh in our minds, we just can't give the 57-win team the edge.

Hopefully we'll get a great series out of it, though.

My pick? Trail Blazers in six.




Dan Devine presents...

Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" It's that time of year again, sports fans! This postseason, who will survive and thrive? Who will spit the bit? And who's going to come up with a third thing that rhymes?


Here to give you their made-up takes on the key X-factors, O-multiples and Zeeman effects of Mavs/Blazers are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!

Mark Eaton: Once again, Mark Cuban produces a team chock full of odd, odd players that wins 50-plus games. But once again, people are leery of betting on them to win a first-round series -- this time, against the hard-charging Trail Blazers. Do you see Dirk's crew advancing or making another early exit?

Ol' Man Howard: I liked Dallas' chances a sight more before gubmint stuck its mitts in the mix.

ME: You're referring to FBI agents "recruiting" Gerald Wallace recently?

OMH: Mm-hmm. Left to his own devices, a man'll build. Create. Make a life for him and his. Leverage his technological expertise and business acumen into a streaming online video operation that he then sells, using the profits to purchase a sporting enterprise and ride Jason Terry(notes) to an overtime win or two.

ME: Classic American dream story, sure.

OMH: 'Less, of course, he builds and leverages too much. Stands too tall. Gubmint can't abide that, so it sends in lawmen to load up the dice, lighten up your saddlebags and lose you a series.

ME: So your position is that the full force of the American federal government is going to hand this series to Portland? Is there anything the Mavericks can do to hold on?

OMH: Adiosin' that Stevenson character might be a start. Can't imagine the White House takes too kindly to President Lincoln's face being pierced.

ME: Shrewd advice. Still, my money's on Dirk. Mavericks in six.

OMH: Look on America's works, ye Mavs, and despair. Portland in six.

(Editor's note: Dan's got the Mavs in seven.)


Eric Freeman's Reputation Index

The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady(notes) never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher(notes) lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups(notes) owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the first round.


LaMarcus Aldridge(notes): After a fantastic season, Aldridge is now officially a star and the Blazers' best hope for success in the future. But it's, as yet, undetermined if he can do enough damage in the postseason to be the best player on a team that can win a series or just be a perennial playoff participant. Going up against Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki(notes) in the frontcourt, Aldridge has a chance to make a huge name for himself in this series. Can he reach the next stardom, or will GM Rich Cho need to consider making a trade for another star to help LMA out?

Brandon Roy:
Roy's future role is in extreme doubt right now -- his knee problems suggest that he won't ever be a star again, but it's still unclear if he can even be a strong starter or is better suited to a bench role that requires fewer minutes. The Mavs series may due much to determine the Blazers' plan for Roy. If he can't handle Jason Terry (or, worse yet, Jason Kidd) on defense or beat either at the offensive end, then the Blazers may have to face facts and decide to enter the future feeling confident that Roy can't be a particularly big part of it. If he performs adequately, then Portland may still feel that he has a chance. Can this franchise handle another season of uncertainty?


Dirk Nowitzki: The massively unfair book on Dirk is that he chokes in the postseason, with the Mavs losing the 2006 finals after winning the first two games in Miami, and being ousted by the eighth-seeded Warriors in 2007 as evidence. Never mind that Dirk wins games in crunch time forever, or that Dallas was only in the finals because of Dirk's performance in Game 7 of the conference finals, or that the We Believe implosion could be blamed on virtually every member of the Mavs roster and coaching staff save Josh Howard(notes). Dirk, like most players, has come up big and fallen short in big spots, although his continent of origin seems to have convinced most people that he's soft.

Nevertheless, Nowitzki has a reputation as a loser. And, with the Mavs looking nowhere near their best despite holding the third seed, a first-round exit would seriously harm Dirk's reputation for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, a convincing win over Portland (plus a strong second-round showing) would hopefully make everyone realize that Dirk is a pretty darned impressive playoff performer. Or maybe not. Europeans have terrible body odor and teach our children socialism, so they must be weak.

Mark Cuban: What Cuban has done for the Mavs over the past 11 years has been borderline-miraculous, but he has yet to deal with the troublesome facts of a team on decline. In part, that's because he negotiated the middle of the past decade very well, turning the Dirk/Nash/Finley core into a new group with little trouble. Yet that ease was aided by Dirk's greatness, and it's unclear if Cuban can get lucky finding a superstar again considering Dallas has traditionally been a mid-market NBA city. Dirk is still a great player, but a first-round exit this season would signal the beginning of the end for the current Mavs. Can Cuban negotiate the next era as well as he's handled this one? Or was that success owed to Nowitzki more than Cuban's leadership? Win a series, though, and these concerns get pushed back at least one more season.

Trail Blazers in six.

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