After 85 games worth of film and data clarified the Mavericks' potential, their playoff fate somehow became tethered to the play of J.J. Barea. The 6'0" point guard was a marginal addition for Dallas, which trusted him only to apply the right kinds of pressure as a third-string, minimum-salary point guard.
In that role, Barea's limitations would be masked and his strengths augmented. He could be free within his game at the helm of a system he, having spent three previous seasons under Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, already knew well.
But a funny thing happened on the way through Barea's season as a background player. Rajon Rondo's lemon turn and Devin Harris's lingering injuries opened up the point guard position so completely that Barea (17 points, 13 assists) made the start for Dallas in Game 4 and helped propel the Mavericks to a 121-109 victory over the Rockets to stave off their playoff elimination.
[daily_cut.NBA]Throughout this first-round series, lineup data had spoken to Barea's success beyond the box score. He was effectively the anti-Rondo: a player whose style and decisions with the ball challenged Houston's defense and opened up shots all over the floor. Barea doesn't have the stability in his game (in part because his natural disadvantage as an undersize point guard driving into a lane protected by giants) to be that player every night. Yet in Game 4, he proved to be exactly the creator Dallas needed to set a prolific offense in motion. The Mavericks were once the most efficient scoring outfit in the league. It took Rondo's fall from grace and Barea's incomprehensible ascent for Dallas to regain that form again in the postseason, if perhaps too late to change the outcome of the series.
Regardless, Game 4 was an exercise in competitive pride for the Mavericks. In it Dallas managed to harness the pace of the game as a weapon just as Houston had done throughout the series. Al-Farouq Aminu (16 points, 12 rebounds), who joined the starting lineup for the first time in the playoffs, made for a perfect complement with his defense, rebounding, and perimeter shooting. Monta Ellis (31 points on 21 shots) was exceptional on his quick releases out in transition and cutting around the rim. Dirk Nowitzki (16 points, eight rebounds, four assists) was a fourth-quarter pillar, Tyson Chandler the best he's been in these playoffs, and Amar'e Stoudemire the spriest he's looked in years.
This is what a fully invested, fully involved Dallas team looks like. Had it been operating in that capacity all series, it might find itself in more favorable standing than down 3-1 on the way back to Houston for Game 5. Instead, the Rockets will have every opportunity to cinch up their offense and address some larger defensive concerns in the games to come. Three potential games make for a tactical lifetime. There's good reason why no team in NBA history has ever made its way back from an 3-0 deficit in a postseason series. That span offers too much time for deliberate adjustment and natural correction, which are two factors working very much in Houston's favor.
The favorite in this series is still the team with the top-tier MVP candidate, the renewed center playing All-NBA-level basketball, and the more proven defense. Houston earned its advantage in this first-round series with smart game-planning (double teaming Nowitzki and Stoudemire in the post, for example, is still forcing cross-court passes that the Rockets eat up) and a roster versatile enough to find a way. That a win wasn't in the cards on Sunday isn't a major issue for a team still set to bring everything together on the right night.
Dallas's collective defense has solidified slightly as the series has progressed. Only so much can be done to disguise the individual defensive pieces at the Mavericks' disposal so few of which can be trusted to control their matchup. Together they rally well enough to give their offense a chance, but only that.
A point has been made and a sweep averted. From here the Mavericks begin the difficult work of affirming their success against the Rockets' adjusted strategy backing solid talent in a hostile arena. It's not enough that players like Barea and Aminu were able to play hero for a night. Now they, as is demanded by the roles they play, will have to hit the same marks or better again and again and again to advance. We've seen what the refocused Mavericks are capable of. Now we'll be shown how consistent they can be under extreme conditions.