OVERVIEW: This is the conference semifinal no one saw coming at the start of the season. Both teams were supposedly on the way out, with an evolving backslide in Dallas and dramatic salary cuts in Denver that drew a straight line to a shove into lotterydom. Bad call times two. Then the playoffs come and the Nuggets get the Hornets while the Mavericks draw the Spurs; try finding many people on opening night who take Denver and Dallas.
Yet here they are, decidedly. The Nuggets beat New Orleans so badly, it called the Hornets' heart into question. The Mavs needed just five games to eliminate San Antonio, an accomplishment for a perceived underdog no matter the physical state of the Spurs.
The regular season was Denver 4, Dallas 0. But three of the wins were by a combined seven points. The other was 10.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. What becomes of Dirk Nowitzki? Beating San Antonio looks all the more impressive when it comes without a monster offensive game from Nowitzki. But it's only a matter of time before the Mavs are going to need more than 19.2 points in the five games and eight three-point attempts. Total. That time is now.
2. Chauncey Billups vs. Jason Kidd. Who are we kidding? Billups vs. Anybody gets great buildup after his first round of 22.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 65.5 percent on threes. Somebody up there must not like Kidd. His 2008 playoff matchup: Chris Paul. His '09 playoff matchups: Tony Parker and the streaking Billups.
3. Jason Terry vs. J.R. Smith. One more head-to-head. High-scoring reserve guard on high-scoring reserve guard. Dallas needs the Terry who won the Sixth Man Award, not the Jet who shot 38.1 percent in the first round.
The Nuggets will undoubtedly come with the same aggressive approach that overwhelmed and frustrated New Orleans. The Mavs have to prove they can stand up to that better than in the past. Denver, meanwhile, is in a great place emotionally, but American Airlines Center in the playoffs is a special place. Bring ear plugs, Nuggets.
UNDER THE RADAR: That ankle problem that cost Josh Howard 11 games late in the regular season? He just averaged 18.8 points and shot 49.2 percent against the Spurs, followed by the added benefit of extended rest before the second round. Carmelo Anthony is a tough enough draw for a healthy defender. If Howard labors, the Mavs will either have to juggle lineups or assignments. If Howard moves well enough to keep up, Anthony-Howard becomes a nice matchup.
PREDICTION:Nuggets in 6. As well as Dallas has played, at the end of the regular season and in dispatching the Spurs, Denver is going even better. The Nuggets are stopping the ball -- from 14th in shooting defense in '07-08 to fourth in '08-09 -- and getting important offensive contributions from Billups, Anthony and Smith. They're generally crushing people these days. That's too much for the Mavs to counter.
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