Defending Western Conference champion Dallas comes into Staples Center with an 0-3 record. Facing the Clippers tonight, followed by a TNT game in Phoenix tomorrow night, the Mavs are looking at the very real possibility of dropping to 0-5 on National TV.
To say that the Mavs have a sense of urgency coming into this game would be a massive understatement. They need this game, much, much more than the Clippers need it. In the 82 game NBA season, it's impossible to get up for every one. After falling to 0-3 at home to Nellie and the Warriors, Avery Johnson will have them ready for the Clippers.
Meanwhile, the Clippers are in the unfamiliar position of starting the season 3-1 while at the same time being disappointed in their play. And deservedly so. This team is absolutely loaded, and with the exception of the 4th quarter against the Nuggets, and the 2nd and 4th quarters against the Suns in Staples, they have not played anywhere close to their potential.
The difference between the 45 win teams in the NBA (usually there are about 10 of these) and the 55+ win teams (there are only 2 or 3 of these) is that the 55 win teams show up every night. There are plenty of guys who would tell you that's overrated in an 82 game season - Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson would each rather be in peak form in May and June than worry too much about games in November. But the Clippers are trying to really establish a winning tradition, and competing in every single game would be another big step.
The Clipper offense looked terrible in the first 2 games. The last 2 games have featured fewer of the super ugly, `let's try to make an entry pass until there's 4 seconds on the shot clock' type possessions, but there's still very little flow on offense to speak of. Corey Maggette and Sam Cassell have been very good offensively, as has Cat Mobley in stretches - but they've used a lot of one-on-one. The team's offensive sets have been pretty lackluster.
But the 4th quarter defense in the last 3 games has been excellent. Wins over Denver and Phoenix both featured smothering stretch defense which included Elton Brand blocks in the final minutes. Dunleavy stresses defense first, and must be happy with that end of the floor at least. Sure the Clippers are allowing over 100 points a game - but 3 of their 4 games have been against Phoenix and Denver, playing crazy up tempo ball. The defense has been there when it's mattered in the last 3.
And defense will be key against the Mavs. Dirk Nowitzki is probably the toughest matchup in the league today, and how the Clippers choose to cover him will be key. Based on their recent success with Carmelo Anthony, I am hopeful that Dunleavy will have a similar scheme of double teams awaiting the Diggler, forcing some of the other Mavericks to step up and make shots. Of course, the Mavericks have more guys capable of doing that than the Nuggets. It will be interesting to see who gets the primary assignment on Dirk. Last year Dunleavy used primarily Kaman, and James Singleton off the bench. It will be interesting to see if Singleton, who has logged a total of 9 seconds of court time this season, gets off the bench in this one. Tim Thomas is a possibility against Dirk that was not there last season. On the wings, the combination of Terry and Harris presents quickness problems. Cassell can't handle those guys, so Ross / Livingston / Mobley (pick two) will have to be in if Avery goes with those two guys. This is also a game in which Dunleavy may choose to 'go small', starting Thomas instead of Kaman. I hope he doesn't - I'd like to see us force Dirk to guard Brand or Kaman on the other end - but I wouldn't be surprised if he does.
Elton Brand has gotten off to his usual slow start, prompting some scouts to speculate that he's been working too hard. Unfortunately, I don't expect him to break out tonight. Diop's length has given Elton trouble going back to his Cleveland days, and Dallas will probably run double teams at Elton as well. If the Clippers are going to win tonight, it will be with another balanced scoring attack, probably led by Cassell and Maggette again.
One interesting sub-plot of this game is the battle between Shaun Livingston and Devin Harris. Chosen 4th and 5th in 2004, Harris was the only other point guard the Clippers considered in that draft. Having played a couple of years at Wisconsin, Harris came in a little more prepared for the NBA and was a key contributor to last season's conference title. But if you gave the Clippers their choice today, they'd still stick with Livingston.