Rockets dunk Mavericks into submission, grab 2-0 lead

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Eric Freeman
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HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 21: James Harden #13 high fives Josh Smith #5 of the Houston Rockets after a play against the Dallas Mavericks during Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2015 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 21: James Harden #13 high fives Josh Smith #5 of the Houston Rockets after a play against the Dallas Mavericks during Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2015 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

At first glance, a 12-point road loss to the Western Conference's No. 2 seed should not suggest that a team is in crisis. But the Dallas Mavericks' 111-99 loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 2 of their first-round series was no ordinary game.

[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]

To be more specific, the fourth quarter saw the Rockets pummel the Mavericks into submission with a barrage of alley-oops and dunks keyed by an unlikely player — veteran forward Josh Smith. With MVP candidate James Harden struggling to shoot with consistency, Smith found Dwight Howard for several alley-oops and looked like his old dynamic self from his Atlanta Hawks heyday. Up just one point entering the period, Houston ended up with a 30-19 final-quarter advantage that looked far more dominant than the margin suggests. The Mavericks are now in a 2-0 hole and face many questions about their interior defense, a terrible performance from Dirk Nowitzki, and an apparent benching of Rajon Rondo.

Let's start with the Rockets' dunk party, because it jumped out for the sheer ease with which they seemed to finish at the rim. Smith served as the team's primary facilitator at the beginning of the fourth quarter and found his onetime AAU teammate Howard for several finishes at the rim. Dallas had no defensive answer — Nowitzki could not check Smith, and Amar'e Stoudemire and others could not impede Howard and others around the basket. The result was 14 dunks over the course of the game, as many as any team has had in a postseason game since the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001, when they had Shaquille O'Neal at his most dominant and Kobe Bryant at his athletic peak. Here are just a few of Houston's slams:

It was a positive period of play for the Rockets for several reasons. Howard finished with a team-high 28 points (10-of-15 FG, 8-of-11 FT) and 12 rebounds in a performance that suggested he is nearly fully recovered from the right knee soreness injury that sidelined him for two months. It was also nice to see the Rockets play especially well without Harden on the floor. MVP arguments in Harden's favor have stated that the team's offense would be lost without him, and that's appeared to be the case for much of this season. But Smith was tremendous on a night where Harden went just 5-of-17 from the field (plus 13-of-13 from the line) and starting forwards Terrence Jones and Trevor Ariza combined to shoot 2-of-15 for nine points. Smith's 15 points, nine assists (seven in the fourth quarter!), and eight rebounds changed the game.

It's hard to know if he can reproduce this performance, because there have been few precedents for it in the last few seasons. While Smith nearly notched a triple-double in a late March game against the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, he is mostly known these days for his poor shot selection. The furiously active monster who affected games in numerous ways with the Hawks is essentially no more, which is what made his excellent Game 2 so fascinating. If it doesn't happen again, then at least we got to experience this version of Smith in such an important situation.

The good news for the Rockets is that they don't depend on Smith playing in this way. On the other side, the Mavericks have to wonder if they can bounce back from such an overwhelming failure late. It was not a pretty sight for most of the night, but their interior defense was so lackluster as to suggest that Rick Carlisle might need to reform his big-man rotation for Game 3 to give Bernard James more minutes and perhaps add superior defenders to other spots in the lineup. No team can expect stellar defense from Stoudemire and Nowitzki at this point in their careers, but they were so bad Tuesday that it's worth wondering how their offense could possibly make up for it. That certainly wasn't the case in this game — Amar'e took only three shots (though he made them all) while Dirk went 3-of-14 for 10 points.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the team's regular point guard offered no positive impact. Rajon Rondo suffered through a horrible first half that included an unforced eight-second violation and was subbed out for good after a technical foul and personal foul in the first 34 seconds of the third quarter. Here's what he looked like as the Mavericks floundered to the loss:

Rondo finished with four points and one assist in 10 minutes, enough to compel questions about his role for the rest of the series. Not surprisingly, he didn't talk to media after the game. Rondo and Rick Carlisle have had issues with each other throughout this season, but it was supposed to get better in the playoffs, where the enigmatic point guard typically shines. If anything, though, Rondo has been at his worst in these first two games. Regardless of how the rest of the series goes, it is very hard to imagine him coming back to Dallas as a free agent this summer.

The best news for the Mavericks right now is that they play at home on Friday. A change of scenery and two days off could allow them to collect themselves and find something that works. Whether it involves Rondo or some other combination of players remains to be seen — all Carlisle and his staff know is that Game 3 can't possibly involve quite so many dunks.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!