Saturday April 25th, 2015

There’s no denying the Mavericks are a better team without Rajon Rondo. The only problem is that team still isn't good enough to beat the Rockets.

With its beleaguered floor general out of the equation indefinitely—apparently “back problems” are a symptom of detesting your coach—the Mavericks played their best basketball of the series in Game 3, scoring a playoff-high 72 points in the first half and shooting a crisp 52.3% from the field. They ran the floor, moved the ball, knocked down open shots and scored from everywhere on the floor. Alas, so did Houston.

With James Harden pouring in a playoff career-high 42 points and just about everyone else on the Rockets having a strong night as well, Houston eked out a 130-128 road victory Friday to deal Dallas’ season a near-fatal blow.

• MORE NBA: Schedule | Grades | Awards | Playoff coverage | Finals picks

No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA playoffs—and the 2014-15 Mavericks won’t be the first.

Dallas emptied the tank in Game 3, using up whatever was left from its dashed hopes after losing Chandler Parsons to a knee injury and Rondo to the ongoing “back problems” between him and Rick Carlisle. Physically limited and emotionally drained, the Mavs responded at home with a valiant effort, receiving 34 points apiece from Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. While Ray Felton (0 points in 12 minutes) served as a literal placeholder in the starting lineup, the Mavs got a big boost from J.J. Barea, who turned in a vintage performance with 11 points, nine assists and six rebounds to go along with a team-best +22 plus/minus rating.

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Rajon Rondo's tenure with Mavericks spawns disturbing numbers

With Harden and the Rockets’ offense howling from the tip, the Mavs needed someone to not only run their offense but orchestrate it to perfection. Barea assumed a familiar role of unlikely playoff hero, infusing life into the team’s offense and playing with the urgency his team desperately needed. Where Rondo would walk the ball up the floor, Barea would sprint as if the hardwood behind him was crumbling into the earth. That led to nine assists in 25 minutes, which is more than Rondo accumulated (6) in 37 postseason minutes in Games 1 and 2.

While Barea’s boost helped keep Dallas in Game 3, the role he played signified just how wrong the Mavericks’ season plan had gone. Since last summer, Dallas made putting a title contender together look simpler than assembling a bowl of ramen. It stole Chandler Parsons from Houston’s grasp, traded for a defensive anchor in Tyson Chandler and landed an All-Star point guard in Rondo, who was supposed to be the team’s “missing piece.” It added Amar’e Stoudemire after the break, giving them veteran big man off the bench and yet another option at Rick Carlisle’s ever-growing disposal.

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But just like ramen, there are better things than a title contender slapped together with a guy who ran everyone out of town in Boston and two former Knicks.

The Mavericks’ starting lineup of Chandler-Nowitzki-Parsons-Ellis-Rondo had the worst net rating of any five-man lineup to play at least 350 minutes this season. Instead of being Dallas’ long-lost point guard, Rondo was someone the fan base longed to get lost with his detrimental impact on the team (103.4 offensive rating on floor vs. 112.2 off it). The former Celtic was used to having the ball in his hands and the grand experiment of adding him to an offense dependent on ball movement turned out to be the grand mistake some feared it to be.

If the Rondo experiment was pitched on an episode of Shark Tank today, Mark Cuban would have the pitchman removed by security.

• MORE NBA: Power Rankings | Fallacy of 'Playoff Rondo'Highlights

Meanwhile, the Rockets’ front office decisions have been working out better than Daryl Morey could have ever imagined. Harden, once a sixth man, is now a bonafide MVP candidate. Howard, once a headache in Orlando and L.A., is his same dominant self (13 points and 26 rebounds in Game 3) without any of the baggage. Josh Smith and Corey Brewer are looking like massive midseason steals and there’s also examples in the starting lineup of Morey hitting pay dirt in free agency (Trevor Ariza) and the draft (Terrence Jones).

The playoffs have a swift way of sorting out the teams that belong and those that do not. As of Friday night, the Clippers-Spurs series remained the only series in which both teams had won a game. As is the case in this series, one team has a postseason future and one is playing out its last hand. Dallas’ front-office maneuverings, as bold as they were, will ultimately leave its team short of contention. Houston’s have them on a sure-fire path to the next round.

It won’t be long until Rondo isn’t the only Maverick whose season has come to an end. Houston is bound for bigger things, Dallas is set for another, hopefully more fruitful, makeover.

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