PORTLAND — Although March Madness has captivated the nation, the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture is providing its own entertaining game of knock-out.
Fitting of the stakes Wednesday night for Portland and Dallas, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts made playoff-like moves as the Blazers defeated the Mavericks 109-103.
With a half-game separating Dallas and Portland entering Wednesday and a whopping 1 1/2 games separating sixth place from ninth in the playoff race, Wednesday’s game was crucial for both teams.
Prior to tip-off Wednesday, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle said that the last few weeks of the season are a “mini playoff series.”
Appropriately, Carlisle’s former assistant, made a big change. Moe Harkless got the start in place of Noah Vonleh, moving Al-Farouq Aminu to power forward.
Harkless rewarded his coach’s decision, scoring 14 points and four rebounds, almost exclusively by cutting to the basket or attacking the offensive glass against the slower, older Mavericks front court.
After the game, the secretive Stotts declined opportunities to commit to that starting lineup moving forward, saying that the decision was to match Aminu’s minutes with Dirk Nowitzki, who dropped 40 on the Blazers Sunday.
But despite his efforts to play it down and focus on Wednesday’s games, it is hard to deny how effective that line-up has been when they see the floor.
The Blazers starting line-up Wednesday has outscored their opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, the best lineup involving any combination of Lillard, McCollum, Aminu, Plumlee and one other player.
Damian Lillard led the way for the Blazers with 27 points, six rebounds and six assists.
The Blazers attacked the rim more Wednesday than they did in Sunday’s matchup and their smaller lineup helped facilitate those opportunities.
“It opens it up because you pull bigs away from the basket,” Lillard said of the small lineup. “One of their bigger guys is probably guarding a smaller guy who can shoot. He has to respect that and that’s pulling him out to the perimeter and his guy is open and it’s swing swing open shot, we did a better job of that tonight.”
“I think it just changes the dynamic,” Harkless said of their small ball look. “Defensively we can pretty much switch 1-through-4. Offensively it creates an advantage to get to the basket if the big guy is guarding me or Farouq.”
We will not know for sure if this is the lineup moving forward until we see the Blazers use it more, but Wednesday likely gave the Blazers more belief that it could work.
With Meyers Leonard out for an undetermined amount of time, getting creative is a necessity.
Seldom used Tunisian center Salah Mejri got the start after Carlisle surprisingly went to him in Sunday’s matchup and the move to start the game small was a clear response from Stotts.
Lillard and McCollum were quiet for most of the first half as the Blazers were carried offensively by the play of Harkless and Ed Davis.
Davis had 16 points and nine rebounds, with all of his points coming in the first half.
“I don’t know if we win that game without Ed tonight,” Harkless said.
After combining for 71 points in Sunday’s matchup in Dallas, Dirk Nowtizki and Deron Williams were quiet, but the Mavericks were led by a familiar face.
Former Blazer Wesley Matthews led Dallas with 22 points, including six 3-pointers, although he held back on his patented “bow and arrow” 3-point celebration, leaving that to Charlie Villanueva.
The Blazers led by 10 after three quarters.
The Mavericks didn’t let the Blazers take over the game and made them sweat a little with big shots from Nowitzki down the stretch, but their haymakers did not have their desired effect after the Blazers hit them with their jab all night long.
The Blazers, with a 1 1/2 -game lead for sixth in the Western Conference and four games back of the Grizzlies in fifth, flew to Los Angeles to face the Clippers Thursday.