• OPPONENT: Dallas Mavericks

    RECORD: 15-30 (6-15 on road, 5-5 last 10 games)

    MEASURABLES: 104.7 offensive rating (14th), 107.0 defensive rating (22nd), -2.3 net rating (22nd)

    PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: PG Dennis Smith, Jr., SG Wesley Matthews, SF Harrison Barnes, PF Maxi Kleber, C Dirk Nowitzki

    WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:00 EST, Moda Center (Portland) NBC Sports Northwest/Fox Sports Southwest

    Don’t be fooled by the Dallas Mavericks’ record. No team in the league has played more clutch games than Rick Carlisle’s, and no team in the league has been less fortunate under that duress. Dallas is just 7-23 in games this season in which the score was within five points in the last five minutes, per NBA.com/stats, good for a win percentage of .233 – the NBA’s worst mark by a considerable margin.

    The Mavericks, clearly, are better than their record suggests, and random misfortune down the stretch of close games is hardly the lone indication of that reality. More convincing is that they’re 10-13 since December 1st, with a +1.9 net rating over the same timeframe. None of that means the Portland Trail Blazers shouldn’t win this game, of course. They’re heavy favorites, and rightfully so. But Blazers fans expecting a blowout victory to end a crucial three-game homestand undefeated could be setting themselves up for disappointment.

    Offense has been driving Dallas’ relative recent success. After an understandably ugly start to his 19th professional season, Dirk Nowitzki has again proven the bellwether for his team’s offensive performance, despite an utter lack of mobility that makes him a major athletic liability – even against opposing centers.

    But that’s a double-edged sword, of course, and the other side of it will be especially difficult for the Trail Blazers to blunt. Portland’s pick-and-roll defense calls for Jusuf Nurkic to drop back into the lane to prevent penetration while the primary defender trails from behind. That’s a losing strategy against a screen-setter who shoots like Nowitzki, though, which leads some teams to alter their scheme when facing the Mavericks. Should the Blazers elect for a more aggressive approach to defending ball screens involving Nowitzki, don’t be surprised if Ed Davis gets more playing time than normal. Foot speed is key to recovering to popping big men in pick-and-roll play, and Davis has far more of it to offer than Nurkic.

    Dennis Smith, Jr. is the player who’s been tasked with taking the torch from Nowitzki. With good size, world-class athleticism and natural ball-handling verve, it seems only a matter of time until he’s a star. Smith isn’t there yet, however. He’s been one of the league’s most inconsistent players on a nightly basis, routinely following high-impact performances with the type of clunkers that are an inevitable stage of the growth process all players of his age must experience. Undoubtedly more frustrating for Carlisle is Smith’s apparent apathy and obvious lack of awareness on defense. Look for Portland to try and exploit that weakness early, attacking with whomever player the rookie is tasked with guarding.

    Harrison Barnes, a known commodity to Blazers fans by now, is largely the same player he’s been since signing with Dallas two years ago. The same goes for organizational stalwarts like Wes Matthews, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris and Dwight Powell, the latter three of whom are part of the Mavericks’ most efficient lineup. The quintet of Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Harris, Powell and Nowitzki has played 208 minutes, a team-high, and boasts a net rating of +18.8, according to NBA.com/stats. Watching Carlisle and Stotts match wits, perhaps three-guard lineup for three-guard lineup, when the former pulls that rotational trump card will be a fascinating study for basketball nerds.

    This matchup represents another golden opportunity for Lillard and company to build on encouraging recent play, while putting further distance between them and the morass of teams fighting for playoff seeds and positioning in the Western Conference middle class. Portland has the talent to win this game handily, and Stotts, a member of the staff that helped Dallas win the 2011 championship, is as familiar with Carlisle’s in-game x-and-o gambits as any coach in the league.

    If the Blazers come out flat, though, the Mavericks are certainly good enough to steal a win on the Blazers’ home floor, and take any momentum gleaned from consecutive wins over the Phoenix Suns and Indiana Pacers with them.

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