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Clippers-Mavericks preview: Texas two-step

The Clippers play two games in two nights in Texas, beginning tonight against the resurgent Mavs in Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki is a game time decision for the Mavs with a sore ankle.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
2013/2014 NBA Regular Season

January 3rd, 2014, 5:30 PM
American Airlines Center
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Jose Calderon
Jamal Crawford SG Monta Ellis
Jared Dudley SF Shawn Marion
Blake Griffin PF Dirk Nowitzki?
DeAndre Jordan C Samuel Dalembert
Advanced Stats
98.08 (9th of 30) Pace 97.35 (12th of 30)
106.0 (7th of 30) ORtg 105.8 (8th of 30)
100.1 (7th of 30) DRtg 103.7 (18th of 30)
J.J. Redick (wrist) out
Devin Harris (toe surgery) out
Reggie Bullock (ankle) out
Dirk Nowitzki (ankle) GTD
Maalik Wayns (meniscus surgery) out

The Back Story (Clippers won the season series last year 2-1):

Date Venue Final

12/05/12 Los Angeles Clippers 112, Mavericks 90 Recap Box
01/09/13 Los Angeles Clippers 99, Mavericks 93 Recap Box
03/26/13 Dallas Mavericks 109, Clippers 102 Recap Box

The Big Picture:

The Clippers are coming off a terrific second half of basketball where they destroyed the Charlotte Bobcats on both ends of the court, one of the few times this season they've put offensive and defensive execution on display simultaneously. But that was Charlotte; and that was at home. This is the Mavericks in Dallas, where the Clippers are 6-29 since Blake Griffin turned five. The Clippers are 8-9 on the road this season, and the odds of that record getting above water on this two-games-in-two-nights Texas trip are not great, but it starts with a win over the Mavs. The Clippers seem to match up well with Dallas -- they don't really have anyone who can guard Chris Paul (they'll use the 6'9 Shawn Marion on him before the game is over, but neither Jose Calderon nor Monta Ellis are exactly known for their defense) and they really don't have a great option against Blake Griffin either (ironically, the versatile Marion may be the best option there as well, but he can't guard both of them). Griffin is coming off a 31 point game against the Bobcats, and his scored 30 or more in four of his last six. But even if Paul and Griffin have big games, the key for the Clippers will probably come from elsewhere. They've been dreadful from three point range in recent games, but Jared Dudley made 6-9 from deep against Charlotte to open things up. That's the thing about this Clippers team -- they don't actually have to be great from deep -- they were only 11-34 Wednesday even with Dudley and Byron Mullens hitting 8-11 between them -- they just need to be better than terrible. Unfortunately, they've been terrible from deep quite a few times this season. They can't afford that in Dallas.

The Antagonist:

The Mavericks missed the playoffs last season, and after an off-season that brought in Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis (as opposed to say, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul) they weren't expected to be much better. But in the deeper than ever Western Conference, the Mavs are currently in the thick of the playoff race, in eighth place with a 19-13 record, three games clear of the lottery. They're better than expected for a few reasons: Ellis has been great, playing like the star-to-be he was in Golden State and not like the Bucks chucker; Calderon has been very steady, as he has been throughout his NBA career; and Dirk Nowitzki is healthy and, well, Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk is having a bounce back season after missing 29 games last season and seeing his scoring average drop to its lowest level since the 90s in the games he did play. Unfortunately for the Mavs and for basketball fans that would like to see the matchup between the 35 year old Nowitzki and his 24 year old Clipper counterpart Blake Griffin, Dirk may be out of this game with a sore ankle.

The Subplots

  • The Questionable Blogger. For this, the first meeting of the season between the Clippers and the Mavericks, I exchanged some questions with Rebecca Lawson of Mavs Moneyball. Be sure to check out her answers to my questions, and also head over there to read my answers to her questions.
  • Comparison of key metrics. The Mavericks are right behind the Clippers in offensive efficiency, but are a below average defensive team this season. The return of Brandan Wright may help there as it gives them more rim protection.
  • Dirk questionable. Dallas superstar Dirk Nowitzki turned his ankle early in their last game against the Wizards on Wednesday. He tweaked it in the first quarter, had it re-taped, and returned to play 32 total minutes in the game. However, it is still sore, and Dirk skipped shootaround today and is being called a game time decision by the Mavs. There are two ways to look at this: Dirk is 35 and the Mavs aren't going to take any chances with him. On the other hand, missing a shootaround is nothing for him, so you can't read to much into that.
  • The Jose and Monta show. The Mavs had loads of cap space this summer and dreams of signing Dwight Howard. (They may have even had delusions of signing Chris Paul, but that was never going to happen.) When the big names immediately found landing spots, the Mavs still had a pile of cash. They gave contracts of 4 years/$29M to Jose Calderon and 3 years/$25M to Monta Ellis, two guards that have been roundly criticized as having major flaws. And their new starting backcourt has been nothing short of terrific, and the biggest single reason that they are in the thick of the playoff race after missing the postseason last year. Rick Carlisle has Ellis handling the ball a lot, and Calderon's per minute assists are down. But the Spaniard remains a very reliable, low turnover ball handler, and because he's an incredible spot up shooter, he is having a great season shooting the three off of Monta's forays to the basket. Always a great three point shooter, Calderon is averaging career highs in attempts (5.7), makes (4.7) and percentage (.469) this season. Ellis on the other hand has been completely reborn. A budding star with the Warriors, he was moved to make room for Stephen Curry, and things never worked out for him in Milwaukee. Back in the Western Conference, he's averaging over 20 points per game with much higher efficiency, and perhaps most surprisingly, a guy who was considered a black hole is leading the Mavs in assists.
  • Consistency. I wonder if there is a reasonably empirical means of testing consistency in an NBA team. The Clippers have seven losses to teams with winning records, while the teams that are ahead of them in the West all have six or seven themselves. But the Clippers also have five losses to teams below .500, while the Spurs, Thunder and Blazers all have one each (and until last night, when the Spurs and Thunder bizarrely each lost home games to the struggling NYC teams for their first such losses this season). Every team has bad games from time to time, loses games they were supposed to win. The Clippers five losses to sub-.500 teams and recent performance against Phoenix are hard to ignore, and more so than other supposed contenders, it seems there's an element of consistency missing in the team.
  • Mav for life. In looking at Dirk Nowitzki's situation in Dallas, I can't help but think of three other NBA superstars, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce, who represent three separate options for a player/team in the Dirk/Dallas situation. When an aging mega-star, who has played his entire career for a single team, is coming up on free agency, what should happen? Duncan and the Spurs worked out a contract that paid him plenty of money, but less than he could have gotten elsewhere, so that the Spurs could continue to pay other players as well. The Celtics decided it was time to tear it down and start over from scratch, and traded Pierce to Brooklyn after 15 seasons in Boston. The Lakers gave Bryant a two year extension that will allow him to remain the highest paid player in basketball, despite the fact that he was injured at the time (and is now injured again). What will Dallas and Dirk do? Nowitzki is currently the second highest paid player in the NBA behind Bryant (I'm not counting Gilbert Arenas), but it seems almost certain that he'll go the Duncan route -- sign a lesser contract in order to remain a Mav for life while also giving the team some flexibility to add pieces around him. Basically, only Bryant and the Lakers would have the arrogance to do what they did (though I totally get it for that player and that team). Rebecca Lawson has more on this subject in The Questionable Blogger.
  • Old guys. There are 22 active NBA players 35 years or older. Three of them play for Dallas -- two starters (Nowitzki and Shawn Marion) and their sixth man (Vince Carter)! They also start two 32 year olds (Jose Calderon and Sam Dalembert). This is not a young team.
  • The long and short of it. I am curious to see how Rick Carlisle decides to defend Griffin. Will he go with Dirk or Dalembert or Marion at the start of the game? Off the bench, he can pick a hyper long bean pole in Brandan Wright, or a hyper strong fireplug in DeJuan Blair. And of course he can mix things up to keep Blake guessing. The book is to defend Blake with length, so we may see a combination of Dalembert and Wright, but there are a lot of options. How Blake handles it -- using his strength against Wright, stepping away from the basket against Dalembert, using his height advantage against Blair, etc. -- will be the most interesting part.
  • Extra motivation for Collison? The Clippers' Darren Collison spent last season in Dallas. After losing the starting job to George Hill in Indiana, the Mavs acquired him for Ian Mahinmi, which seemed like a steal at the time. He began the season as the Dallas starter -- but it wasn't long before the Mavs were desperately looking for an alternative, any alternative. They signed Derek Fisher to start in front of him, and when that didn't work out, they signed Mike James from the D-League, a 37 year old who had played a total of 166 NBA minutes since 2009. His reputation suffered enough in Dallas that the Clippers were able to sign him for just $1.9M, but we've also seen in watching him more closely that he would be indeed be pretty maddening as your starting point guard. Regardless, one might imagine that Collison will be pretty fired up to show Rick Carlisle something tonight.
  • DeJuan Blair. When citizens complain about the dreadful reserve bigs on the Clippers bench, I tend to remind them that there weren't a lot of options available at the Clippers price point, which was essentially the veteran's minimum (Byron Mullens' contract isn't technically a min deal since it has a second season, but Mullens, Hollins and Jamison are all making the min this season). Were there really better options out there? Well, yes. DaJuan Blair signed a veteran's minimum deal with the Mavs on August 7 -- that's after the Clippers had signed both Hollins and Mullens, but before they signed Jamison. Blair sat on the free agency market for a full month before landing with Dallas. Blair -- a guy with per 36 career averages around 15 points and 11 rebounds on 53% shooting -- is averaging, guess what, 14.4 points and 12 rebounds per 36 for the Mavs, shooting 55.5%. Now, to be fair, Blair PROBABLY sat on the market for a month because he and his agent wanted more than the min -- meaning that he was out of the Clippers price range at the start of free agency. But could they have offered him the third big role on a better team in early August, before he signed with the Mavs and before the Clippers signed Jamison? Obviously Doc Rivers wanted floor stretchers in that roster spot, and Blair is not that -- but damn, the dude's PER is close to 19 this seasons and he was just sitting there. So yeah, there were alternatives. Hindsight is 20/20 and perfection (i.e. making the perfect decision in every case) is a tough standard, but Blair was a pretty obvious option, even at the time.
  • Dirk Griffin. The power forward position in the NBA has a lot of great players, but those players all seem to be very different from one another somehow. Depending on whether you call Tim Duncan a power forward or a center, Nowitzki has probably been the most dominant four of the last decade. He went to 11 consecutive all star games (missing last season due to injury), and has won a title, a league MVP and a Finals MVP. The Clippers have their own top power forward, who has been about as different from Nowitzki as imaginable in his first three years in the league. Blake Griffin is unimaginably athletic for a guy his size, but does the vast majority of his scoring at the rim. Nowitzki is a relatively slow and earth bound junge, who happens to be seven feet tall and one of the best shooters to ever live. Against Charlotte on Wednesday night, Griffin hit a series of long jumpers, including 5-6 and a three pointer in the fourth quarter -- it was almost Nowitzki-esque. But let's face it, while Griffin is an improving shooter and seems to be getting better all the time, he'll never be Nowitzki. We'll have to settle for Karl Malone.
  • Dirk and Blake. To further the comparison, according to stats, Nowitzki is 22-31 in the restricted area this season (71%); Griffin is 172-250 (68.8%). Griffin has eight times as many attempts in the restricted area as Dirk; Chris Paul has more than twice as many. From mid-range (defined as out of the paint, but inside the three point line) Nowitzki is 142-293 (48.5%) and Griffin is 71-185 (38.4%). Dirk is also 45-115 from beyond the three point line, where Blake is making some, but hasn't attempted many (7-18). Now, you need to bear in mind that although those midrange percentages don't look good, that's because basically no one shoots a high percentage on those shots. Only one player in the league has taken more than 100 from the midrange while making more than half (surprisingly, it's Luis Scola). Of players with more than 100 attempts, Nowitzki has the third best percentage in the league, and Blake is now above the league average (around 37%) for those shots.
  • End of an era. The Mavericks missed the post season last year after 12 straight trips to the playoffs. With Dirk nearing the end of his career and the Mavs missing out on the big names like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul with their free agency money, it seemed likely that they would be out of the picture for awhile. But here they are, in position to start a new playoff streak this season.
  • Carlisle and Rivers. During the Doc-udrama this summer, as the Clippers were pursuing Doc Rivers  to be their new head coach, I was somewhat surprised to hear that Rivers was one of only four active head coaches with an NBA title. Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Larry Brown have all won a title in the last decade, but those guys aren't coaching anymore, leaving Doc, Gregg Popovich, Eric Spoelstra and Dallas' Rick Carlisle as the only active NBA coaches to have coached their way to a ring. It's an exclusive club.
  • The 1998 Draft. In a quick check, it looks to me like there are seven active NBA players from the 1998 draft. Three of them could play in this game: Nowitzki and Vince Carter for the Mavs and Antawn Jamison of the Clippers. The others are Paul Pierce, Al Harrington, Nazr Muhammed and Rashard Lewis. Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue was also in that draft. And just to drive you citizens crazy, a quick reminder that the Clippers had the first overall pick in 1998 and chose Michael Olowokandi.
  • Carter and Jamison. Carter and Jamison have been linked for two decades now. They were teammates for three seasons at the University of North Carolina, where they advanced to the Final Four twice. On draft day in 1998, they were chosen fourth and fifth, and were traded for each other. And they are both members of the NBA's very exclusive 20,000 point club. They will remain linked at some level even after they retire, as they will both test the sensibilities of the induction committee when they become eligible for the Hall of Fame, since 20,000 point scorers usually get in, but neither Carter nor Jamison had much playoff success in their NBA careers.
  • Connections. Darren Collison was a Maverick last season. Antawn Jamison played for Dallas in 03-04 where he won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award. Jamison and Vince Carter were college teammates (almost 20 years ago). But while the Mavs have had a habit of signing former Clippers in recent years (Lamar Odom, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand) there aren't any Clippers currently playing for the Mavs.
  • Get the Dallas perspective at Mavs Moneyball.
  • Shakespearean reference:

    Macbeth -- Act V, Scene 5 -- Macbeth

    She should have died hereafter;
    There would have been a time for such a word.
    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing

    "Maverick" is not a word that existed in Elizabethan England. I could go with a synonym like perhaps rebel, but I'll save that for the next meeting. For now, the serendipity of what happened in The Questionable Blogger is too great to ignore. Rebecca Lawson of Mavs Moneyball quoted Macbeth in describing the team's plans going forward, so I thought I'd close with the full quote, from near the end of the Shakespeare's great tragedy. As an aside, The Sound and the Fury is also the title of a classic of American literature by William Faulkner. You get multiple literary references today.