Dwight Howard's presence, Houston's balance expose Dallas shortcomings

Houston began its first-round playoff series not only with a clear awareness of itself, but also of the Dallas Mavericks en route to a 118-108 victory.
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Houston began its first-round playoff series not only with a clear awareness of itself, but also of its opponent. The debut featured all the usual Rockets standards (45 free throw attempts, 25 three-point attempts and 29 fast break points) by directly exploiting Maverick weaknesses. Dirk Nowitzki, who shows his age most on defense, was pulled into coverage whenever possible. Dallas' defensive rotations were attacked with quick initiation and lobs to open targets. Attempts at a matchup zone were foiled by simple draw-and-kick work. From opening tip the Rockets seemed to collectively understand which buttons to press, and then gleefully mashed them on a series of game-deciding runs en route to a 118-108 victory.

More of the same simply won't do for the Mavericks, but that in itself is a problem. Although Rick Carlisle has made a career of uncanny optimization, his current roster may not have the means to correct one issue without creating another. Nowitzki (24 points, 10-for-14 shooting), for example, is essential to the health of the Mavericks' offense and a nag on the timing of their pick-and-roll coverage. Rajon Rondo (15 points on 16 shots, five assists), by contrast, is Dallas' best on-ball option against James Harden and a friendly-fired magic bullet that collapses the Mavericks' offensive spacing. Carlisle can only do so much under ideal conditions to maneuver around those handicaps, much less under the limitation of Chandler Parsons' bothersome knee injury.

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His efforts toward a solution, and toward solvency, should make for one of the most compelling basketball attractions of the first round. There were elements in play during Game 1 that went beyond the Mavericks' control. Dallas' coaching staff won't sweat too much over Corey Brewer's 3-of-4 shooting from distance, for example, or the back-breaking shots that came after playing a full possession of competitive defense. Yet other quirks to this matchup present real, lasting problems that are deserving of attention in the film room.

[daily_cut.NBA]Two of those issues are nearly one in the same: Dallas' uncharacteristic rash of turnovers (17) and the transition points that came as a direct result. Houston is as active in the passing lanes as any team in the league, making some of those errors unavoidable. Yet far too many were the result of poor positioning on sequences that should come as second-nature to the Mavericks by this stage of the season. For years Nowitzki has felt out his defender, waited out double teams and found an open teammate on the far side of the floor. On Saturday, Nowitzki was rattled, committing a season-worst five turnovers as his own timing and his teammates' spacing never seemed to be in line.

Even on possessions that ended in a shot attempt, Dallas was slow in returning a sufficient number of bodies to play respectable transition defense. Houston runs wholeheartedly. If all that stands between the Rockets and the rim are a pair of perimeter players dashing back as fast they can, the most likely result is points on the scoreboard. That probability helped to anchor Houston during its fits of small ball, which were stretched to around 30 minutes by Dwight Howard's foul trouble. 

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When Howard played, he did exactly as needed: turning away Mavericks at the rim, awaiting lobs in the paint and playing a part without slowing his team in the post. When he sat, his teammates found ways to keep steady and protect their lead. Just 17 minutes of Howard (11 points, five rebounds, five blocks) changed this game to the Rockets' tremendous benefit. With considerably more playing time the series could tilt even further and present the Mavericks with another riddle in their current predicament.

Humbled Dwight Howard ready to make sacrifices for Harden, Rockets

So it goes in the postseason, especially with an opponent like the Rockets. If it weren't a challenge enough to beat a high-level defense four times in seven games, Houston pushes back with one of the game's great shot creators in Harden. Dallas doesn't have the personnel to really thwart Harden on the ball, at least until Parsons stops hobbling around on a bum knee, to wear him down by making him work on defense. 

Instead, he has his way. If Harden couldn't work past his assigned (or zoned) defender, all it took was a ball screen from Nowitzki's man to get him driving downhill. When he ran into more defensive pressure than expected, Harden gave up the ball quickly and let the next man in line continue his work. Collectively the Rockets assisted on 26 of their 38 field goals. Eleven of those assists came directly from Harden. Six, though, came way of Trevor Ariza (who also authored a double double with 12 points and 11 rebounds) and Terrence Jones (who notched a much-needed 19 points and nine rebounds), ball handlers only in this kind of utility. They re-routed to Howard and rookie Clint Capela for dunks, to Jason Terry (16 points, 4-of-7 from deep) for open threes, or to one another as the situation allowed.

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Even when the game was close, those supporting pieces and others allowed Houston to play comfortably. Some of those role players are flawed or underwhelming when evaluated individually. Yet when aimed by sound strategy and allowed to operate in context, they have the collective bluster to keep Houston pushing forward.