April 29, 2011

Dallas fans can breathe a sigh of relief: The curse that saw the Mavericks lose in the first round of the playoffs in three of the last four seasons will not add another disappointment. Dallas thoroughly outplayed Portland for the second straight game in a 103-96 victory in Game 6 on Thursday to win the series 4-2 and send the Mavericks to a Western Conference Semifinal matchup against the Lakers.

• While the series had its dramatic moments, it never got as tight as the matchups suggested it would be. Dallas outperformed Portland at virtually every position, getting multiple memorable performances that kept them thoroughly in control all series. Dirk Nowitzki played like an MVP, Jason Kidd single-handedly won a game, Jason Terry outperformed Portland's entire bench and Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood set a physical tone inside that the Blazers couldn't match. Dallas had players come up with heroic performances each night, while Portland -- outside of a magical Game 4 from Brandon Roy and a terrific closing performance by Gerald Wallace -- mustered many good performances, but never competed at the level it seemed capable of reaching coming into the series.

• As Portland evaluates the last six games, many questions should be raised and seriously questioned during the offseason. First, can LaMarcus Aldridge be the face of this franchise? He posted solid numbers overall, but averaged just 4.5 points in the fourth quarters of the series, when he shot 45 percent (10-of-22). Compare that to Nowitzki, who averaged 10.2 points in the final period -- including two 14-point quarters and an 18-point takeover of Game 1 -- while shooting 50 percent from the field. Also, was Marcus Camby really noticeable against Tyson Chandler, particularly during Chandler's record-setting rebounding effort in Game 5? Andre Miller had nice moments, yet he didn't play a single minute in the fourth quarter Thursday with the season on the line, while the Blazers once again turned the point over to Roy in the closing minutes. And where was Portland's bench? Rudy Fernandez (2.8 points, 22 percent shooting) and Nicolas Batum (8.0 points, 1.7 rebounds) saw their production slip compared to the regular season while getting outclassed by Terry's sixth-man heroics.

• And Terry's play might have provided the key matchup advantage that swung the series. Just look at the game-by-game breakdown, as Terry consistently outperformed the Blazers' entire reserve unit. He single-handedly outscored Portland's reserves twice with 29 points in Game 3 (compared to the Portland reserves' 23) and 22 on Thursday (compared to Portland's 14). He also nearly matched the Blazers' bench in Game 2 (10 points while Portland scored 11) and Game 5, when he had 20 points (Portland had 24). And while Roy marveled with 24 points off the bench in Game 4, Terry doubled-up the remaining reserves 13-7. And those points often helped stamp out Blazers runs: On Thursday alone, Terry buried two shots in the final 4:04 that extended Dallas' lead to six points and snuffed Portland's rally attempts.

• Nowitzki made one thing clear to future opponents: Do not provoke him. Chris Johnson, a 6-foot-11 rookie who signed with Portland in January after the team was granted a hardship exemption, made that mistake in the second quarter Thursday. He hooked Nowitzki in the mouth after the Dallas forward pulled down a missed three-pointer with 8:39 remaining in the first half, knocking Nowitzki to the floor to draw a flagrant foul. Noticeably irritated, Nowitzki buried both flagrant free throws, then nailed a 14-foot step-back jumper on the ensuing possession, cutting a 33-25 Blazers lead in half and fully igniting a 33-12 Mavericks run to close the half with a nine-point lead. Nowitzki hit all four of his shot attempts and scored 11 of his 13 second-quarter points during that run. Portland never led again.

• One of the bitter aspects of the Blazers' loss -- their third consecutive first-round defeat in six games -- was the sudden discovery of the postseason hero for which Portland had been desperate for throughout the series. Sure, Roy provided a spectacular, emotional showcase in Game 4, but it was apparent in the games that followed that he wasn't ready to consistently carry his team after undergoing double knee surgery in January. It was the type of effort Gerald Wallace displayed in Game 6 that Portland desperately needed to consistently find but couldn't muster. Wallace, with his go-go-go motor, seemed to offer the Blazers a matchup advantage against the more methodical Shawn Marion. Yet he managed only 40 percent shooting in the first five games and was a non-factor on the offensive glass. But Wallace almost willed Portland to a victory Thursday with a brilliant performance: 32 points, 12 rebounds (five on the offensive end), two assists and 11 free throws. He was also defending Terry in the fourth quarter when the veteran guard committed two backcourt violations that kept Portland's rally alive. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they found their hero a little too late.

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