Utah Jazz v Dallas Mavericks

Here are a few thoughts and some things to keep an eye on tonight when the Mavs take on the Jazz.

— Prepare yourself for a lot of talk about pace, or possessions per 48 minutes, this season. Dallas is a team that wants to control the clock, much like an NFL team relying on the running game. This does many things: 1. It limits opponents’ possessions, and therefore opportunities to score. 2. Slowing the game down helps to mitigate any athletic mismatches an opponent might have, particularly at the power forward and center positions. 3. A careful offensive system will limit turnovers and cut down on opponents’ transition chances. Transition offense is the most efficient in basketball, so the more of those plays you allow, the worse your defense will be. Just like some teams want to play at a screaming-fast pace, others want to slow things down. The Mavs had success doing so last season, going 22-8 in games played at a pace of 95.0 possessions per 48 minutes or slower.

The Mavs’ first two opponents in their first three games (Dallas played Houston twice) both want to pick up the pace. Indiana is ninth in the NBA, averaging 102.88 poss/48. Houston, meanwhile, would be much higher up the list had three of its games not come against the Mavs (twice) and Cleveland, the third-slowest team last season, at 95.48. If you remember Sunday’s game, Dallas was down 10 at the end of the first half, which was played at a pace of 100.12 poss/48. The Mavs slowed things down in the third quarter to a pace of 96.51 and tied. The fourth slowed to a crawl, at 87.90 possessions per 48, and the Mavericks won that frame by nine points. When Dallas can dictate the tempo, the team is going to find success.

The slowest: Utah, which played 93.26 possessions last season and is also slowest so far this season at 93.40. Both teams clearly favor that pace and style of play, which makes the Jazz a much more comfortable matchup for Dallas, at least on paper. The Mavs went 2-1 against the Jazz last season and have won 10 of the last 12 overall in the series.

— That isn’t to say Utah is a pushover team by any stretch of the imagination. I expect the Jazz will make the playoffs this season after the additions of veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw. But without star forward Gordon Hayward and guard Alec Burks due to injury, and as starting power forward Derrick Favors continues to work himself into the mix playing under a minutes restriction after recovering from an ailment of his own, Utah’s depth has taken a hit.

The Jazz did thump the Spurs last night in San Antonio, 106-91, so that tells you how much firepower is still on the roster. That said, the Mavericks have had two full days off in between games, while Utah had to catch a two-hour flight home after last night’s game, and the players probably didn’t put head to pillow until about 2 a.m. Johnson played 34 minutes, and each of Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, and Hill played 33 minutes last night. That means Dallas is the significantly more well-rested team, and with Dirk Nowitzki presumably back in action, the Mavs should have more energy, particularly in the fourth quarter when the pressure mounts.

Practice Report: Dirk Nowitzki

Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki says he's feeling better and looks forward to playing tomorrow night against the Jazz.

— Nowitzki coming back will be a huge boost for the offense. Every time the Mavs play without him is just another reminder of how effective he is on that side of the ball even when he doesn’t touch the rock. Simply by standing at the top of the arc, he draws the defense so heavily toward him, and that minor shift in geometry is enough to open driving and passing lanes for everyone else on the roster, particularly for Deron Williams and J.J. Barea. His pick-and-pop game with Barea has fueled the second unit for a few seasons now, but without him the reserve group has had to turn to other options for points. Obviously Dirk is an unbelievable scorer, but you can replace points. What you can’t make up for is his impact on opposing defenses. No player has ever had such an effect by literally standing still.

— 0-3 certainly wasn’t the start the Mavs expected or that we hoped for, but the way these games have gone does remind you of what Rick Carlisle has preached for a few years: Dallas’ games are decided by such incredibly small margins, so it’s important to make those plays go your way. For example, one single made bucket against Indy and one stop against Houston on Sunday, and the Mavericks are 2-1 and everyone is feeling great about themselves. Instead, a shot rimmed out here, or someone blew a rotation there, and suddenly the record is 0-3 and the sky is falling. The team itself is by no means in panic mode, but there is some understandable tension resonating throughout the fan base. But just know that the season is an 82-game process and, especially with a healthy Nowitzki, the Mavericks will be much more prepared to find themselves on the right side of those margins more often than not.

Tipoff is at 8 p.m. Central.

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