The story of the game was, once again, the new Mavs backcourt. OJ Mayo (32 points on 12-18 shooting) and Darren Collison continued their strong play on Monday (14 points, 13 assists), blowing the Blazers off the court almost from the jump as the Mavs won 114-91. It was OJ the Juiceman's birthday today. In honor of that, two fans in the lower bowl brought cardboard posters of orange juice and mayonnaise, which amused me at least.
The two work well in tandem, and it's a credit both to the coaching staff and their feel for the game that it has happened so quickly. OJ the Juiceman is basically playing as a spot-up shooter: most of his points came from going 6-8 from beyond the arc, primarily off the penetration of Collison. Mayo, in turn, spreads the floor for Collison, which allows him space to roam around the paint off the dribble. While they looked great on Monday, the one concern is that they are both undersized for their position, which bigger and more athletic backcourts can exploit defensively.
However, against back-courts like the Trail Blazers, the two can look like All-Stars. Damian Lillard's stat-line -- 13 points on 2-13 shooting, 5 assists -- is what you call a welcome to the NBA moment. That doesn't even count Collison getting him in early foul trouble and completely abusing him defensively. And if Lillard isn't going, Portland's not getting much offense from the perimeter: none of their other guards can get their own shot off the dribble, which puts an awful lot of pressure on their rookie PG.
I think Lillard will be a good NBA PG, but there are a few things about his game that concern me if people are going to call him a future star. I'm not sure if he was just tired on the third game of a road-trip, but he could not get around Collison or Dom Jones. Everything was from the perimeter or off the pick-and-roll. The strongest part of his game is his outside shot, which is what he goes too when he's in trouble, as his 1-8 line from beyond the arc showed against the Mavs. In general, I'd rather my PG set other guys up for 3's than take his own off the dribble. I don't like guys dribbling into 3-pointers; it takes everyone else out of the flow of the offense and leads to easy fast breaks.
That being said, Lillard is still an excellent ROY candidate. He's going to get every opportunity to play with the ball in his hands, because none of their other perimeter starters -- Wes Matthews, Nic Batum -- are really comfortable in that role. Their second unit is even worse: they were bringing Ronnie Price and Sasha Pavlovic, marginal NBA players, at best, as the first two perimeter guys off the bench. I feel bad for LaMarcus Aldridge, who will continue to be criminally underrated by most fans and media. That lack of perimeter firepower is going to kill Portland this year.
The one bad bit of news for Dallas came with Shawn Marion being knocked out of the game with some type of knee injury. The Mavs can ill afford his loss, as neither Vince Carter nor Jae Crowder can bring what Marion provides, either defensively or on the glass, where Dallas got absolutely destroyed tonight, which as Andy Tobo talked about in his column today, is becoming a very worrying theme. However, both are better perimeter shooters, which will provide even more floor spacing, but at a certain point, you do need some defense on the floor. Marion played only 24 minutes and was the Mavs leading rebounder with 7.
Chris Kaman has played good enough to be a starter, but I like having him come off the bench to score on back-up 5's. His sheer size (7'0 270) makes him more of a force on the boards than Brand, and he's been a better rebounder for the last several years now. Pairing the front-court will be tricky, but I think Kaman and Brandan Wright is probably the best combination to go with to close out games as long as Dirk's out. Kaman gives the bulk and size at the 5, Wright brings the athleticism and shot-blocking at the 4 and they're both skilled big men who are excellent finishers at the rim, something Mavs fans probably forgot was possible after watching Bradley, Diop, Dampier and Haywood for so long. Yeeeesh.
Brand, I think, should be the odd man out when Dirk gets back. At this point in his career, he feels more like a #4 starter, to mix a sports metaphor. He's out there eating innings and he won't kill you when he's on the floor, but he's not winning games for you either. That's valuable to have as a big man, especially because he can play at the 4 and the 5, but that's more suited to a 4rth big man role. He's solid at every aspect of the game, but he's not particularly good at any either.
Troy Murphy, meanwhile, showed the limits of his game on Monday, especially if his jumper isn't falling. He's useless defensively and he doesn't bring as much to the offense as Kaman or Wright; I don't think his -4 in a night when Dallas won by +23 is a coincidence. The duo of Kaman and Murphy was an absolute disaster on the defensive side of the ball. I hope we don't see that combination again. Murphy is more potentially valuable than the greatness that was Eddy Curry, but that's where it stops.
Dominique Jones continued to be useful, which is a pleasant surprise. The Mavs have finally found a role that fits his game: as the backup PG who dominates the ball and sets everyone up. He had 6 assists on only 1 turnover in 14 minutes tonight. His size (6'5 215) makes him a surprisingly good passer as well as effective defensively at the 1, but his lack of a perimeter jumper is going to wreck his usefulness as his scouting report gets around the NBA. I hope Jones' play isn't going to give Carlisle another excuse to bench Roddy B, but if Marion's out for awhile and you have to slide Carter and Crowder down in the line-up, Jones and Beaubois might could work as a second-unit guard combo ala Collison and Mayo.
That was another big difference between Portland and Dallas tonight: the Mavs kept rolling useful players off their bench, while the Blazers kept digging into their pockets and finding lint. Joel Freeland and Jared Jeffries? As John McEnroe would say, you've got to be kidding me! JJ Hickson is a 4rth big man; if he's your starting center, that's not a good sign, at all. This bench rivals the Lakers in terms of giving you nothing. I do like Meyers Leonard's size and activity, even if he's not always sure what's going on. That kid is going to be nice in a few years.
Giving Ronnie Price 20 minutes a night is a pretty good indication of what the Blazers think of Nolan Smith, but so was him being one of only two first-round picks from 2011 to not have their third-year option picked up. He doesn't have great size or athleticism at 6'2 185, and he's not a true PG, so that really limits the roles he can fill on a team. A guy like that has to be a light-out shooter ala Jet Terry and Smith's outside shot isn't great either. Here's a column I wrote from right after that draft about why Portland should have picked up Kenneth Faried instead.
At some point, Terry Stotts should think about giving second-round pick Will Barton a chance. If he's giving Sasha Pavlovic (a 10th-12th man) serious run, he's got nothing to lose. Barton is preposterously skinny, but at 6'6 175 with a 6'10 wingspan, he's skilled, athletic and can slither his way into the lane. The real concern for him is defensively, but Portland, with so many versatile perimeter defenders, can hide him fairly easily. I had Barton and Lillard rated as fairly similar prospects coming into the draft. Just throwing this out there, not saying it will happen, but there's a chance Barton becomes the better NBA player.
Dallas showed the ability to blow out an average team at home, which is exactly what good teams need to do in terms of banking wins for the playoff chase, which is going to be brutal out West this year. And looking at the early schedule, the Mavs could get off to a very fast Dirk-less start: of their next five games -- vs. Raptors, at Knicks, at Bobcats, vs. Wizards (w/o John Wall), vs. Wolves (w/o Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio) -- the only one they won't be favored in is against New York. Toronto, Wednesday's opponent, is an interesting young team, but they've got defensive and depth issues. I guarantee the Juiceman is ready to play DeMar DeRozan; no way he preeshed that guy getting $40 million plus and him being out here playing for a job on a one-year deal.