The chase for the Western Conference's No. 2 seed was one of the fiercest and most complicated in recent memory. Rarely are so many quality teams packed this tightly: the Rockets, Clippers, Grizzlies and Spurs all finished with 55 or 56 wins. And, rarely do so many quality teams maintain, all the way through the last day of the regular season, that playing for wins is better than easing up.
Further down the standings, the Mavericks were already locked in as the West's No. 7 seed, stuck waiting until late Wednesday night to find out the identity of their first-round opponent. Over the previous few months, Dallas had slowly faded in the West after a strong start. A midseason trade for Rajon Rondo coincided with their offense slipping out of the No. 1 spot, Rondo was suspended for a game after an exchange with coach Rick Carlisle, Monta Ellis's efficiency hit the skids, the team's defense continued to lag, and questions were raised about the locker room's chemistry.
Put the race for the No. 2 seed side-by-side with the Mavericks' 14-13 record after the All-Star break, and it's hard not to conclude that Dallas was the team that everyone wanted to play. Or, more precisely, that facing Dallas was deemed preferable to playing one of the other teams bundled in the West's second tier.
"If you want to circle us, that’s fine," Mavericks small forward Chandler Parsons told SI.com in a recent telephone interview. "We’ll play anybody and match-up against anybody. It doesn’t matter to us. I’ll circle all the other seven teams and I’ll play whoever in the first round. Whoever wants to play us, we’re not afraid. Experienced guys in this league know the playoffs are what matters. We have a very experienced team that has been in this situation before. We have guys that have won championships and been to the Finals."
As it turns out, the Mavericks wound up drawing the Rockets in the first round, turning Parsons himself into one of the series' top storylines. The 2011 second-round pick signed a three-year, $46.1 million contract with Dallas last summer, leaving Houston after spending three years there as a starter. His departure, which was announced via a nightclub selfie with new owner Mark Cuban, broke up a developing core in Houston. It also led Rockets GM Daryl Morey to sign Trevor Ariza to a four-year, $32 million contract as Parsons' replacement.
Head-to-head comparisons between the two players are inevitable, and who wins this positional matchup will be a key X-factor in the series. Although Ariza didn't match Parsons point-for-point as a scorer this season, he played nearly 3,000 minutes over 82 appearances, was a key piece for the Rockets' surprising defense, and filled his role as a complementary option on offense.
Parsons: 15.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, 46.2 FG%, 38 3P%, 16.3 PER, 5.5 Win Shares
Ariza: 12.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 40.2 FG%, 35 3P%, 12.7 PER, 6.6 Win Shares
Parsons understands that some observers will look at his contract figure, which is nearly double Ariza's in terms of per-year compensation, and conclude that his production should blow Ariza's out of the water. Indeed, NBA TV's "The Starters" recently labeled Parsons as one of the league's biggest disappointments, pointing to the added responsibilities that come with an eight-figure contract. Some fans have also noted the incongruity between Parsons' team-leading salary and his role as an auxiliary option behind franchise power forward Dirk Nowitzki, who took a discounted deal to free up the cap space to sign Parsons, and Ellis.
"The whole expectations of being a max player and taking that next step, it’s tough to manage at first," Parsons admitted. "A lot of people look at me like I’m a different player. I’m the same player. I’ve gotten better. My numbers are down a little bit but at the same time I continue to get better. I’m on a different team. We’re very explosive offensively, we have more of a balanced attack, and I’m playing five minutes less than I did in Houston.
"I don’t really read any of that stuff or pay attention to it, but you know it’s out there. I could have eight points and we win the game, but somebody would say, ‘Parsons is a max player, why doesn’t he have 20 points?’ A lot of times from the outside looking in, people want points. That’s not necessarily what I do. I can score points, I’ve scored 17 points per game in this league before. I’m a basketball player and I impact the game in many different ways. Defending, rebounding, passing the ball – I’m a very good play-maker for a guy my size. Negativity sells, and people are going to write whatever they want to write. My job is to be a good teammate, work extremely hard and do whatever it takes to win games."
For Parsons, the postseason pressure will be heightened due to a right knee injury that has kept him out of the lineup since April 2. Although Parsons suffered a setback this week, Carlisle told reporters on Friday that he expects Parsons to be ready for Game 1 on Saturday in Houston.
Don't expect the Rockets, or the Toyota Center crowd, to cut Parsons any slack if he's less than 100% healthy to open the series. Cuban and Morey exchanged plenty of barbs over Parsons' departure during the offseason, and Rockets center Dwight Howard called Parsons "the enemy" this week.
Although former teammate James Harden has emerged as one of the MVP favorites and Houston posted its best record since 1996-97 this season, Parsons said he hasn't second-guessed his decision to leave for Dallas. He added that the reports suggesting the Mavericks were suffering from internal turmoil were "just reports" and insisted that his teammates "genuinely like each other."
"Both situations were great for me," he said. "I had a chance to go to the playoffs with both teams. This year we have a really good chance of winning. Nothing has really changed for me. ... We have the talent, we have the coaches, we have shooting, we have a little bit of everything. We’re a very versatile and experienced team. It’s just a matter of us going out there and competing for 48 minutes."
Dallas will bank on that versatility and its multifaceted offense when it faces Houston, a team that leans heavily on Harden, the NBA's second-leading scorer. Cuban told Grantland.com this week that he views the Rockets as "predictable" and "not very good."
In that vein, this series figures primarily to be a referendum on Harden, who courted the scrutiny last summer when he referred to himself and Howard as the Rockets' "cornerstones" and the rest of the team as "role players," while downplaying the impact of Parsons' departure. At the time, Parsons called that a "pretty ridiculous statement." Although Parsons said that Harden "has been great" this season, he told SI.com that he would vote for Warriors guard Stephen Curry for MVP over his former teammate.
"You have to reward the guy who has had a very good year on the best team with the best record," Parsons said. "A lot of guys have had very good seasons, but it’s Steph Curry because his team has had the best year."
If Dallas was the lower-seeded team that seemingly everyone wanted to face, Houston now looks like the higher-seeded team that isn't inspiring an overwhelming amount of fear. The Rockets, who were knocked out by the Blazers in the first round last year, will be without Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas due to injury. Although Howard will be in the lineup, he just recently returned after missing half of the season with a knee injury and told SI.com that his goal is to captain the defense and make sure he doesn't mess up Harden's rhythm. Even Harden, a likely All-NBA First Team selection, inspires doubters who, like Cuban, wonder whether his one-man, head-on approach will work in a seven-game format.
Parsons enters the series against his former team with "something to prove." He references the No. 38 he keeps on the tongue of his sneakers, to remind himself of his draft position, and he takes pride in ditching his "mellow" off-court personality and becoming a "different dude" when he steps on the court. There's no getting around this truth: the first real verdict on his decision to leave Houston for Dallas will be written over the next two weeks. Parsons is approaching that moment of reckoning with open arms.
"The playoffs are the most fun and the most exciting time of the year," Parsons said. "Being in those environments. Playing in front of those crazy crowds, the tense energy. You have to have such an attention to detail. Every possession matters, every shot matters. Sometimes when you play an 82-game season, you can get away with a little bit here and there. In the playoffs, everything is under a magnifying glass."
Especially this year.