The Mavs will be looking to shake off a couple rough losses tonight in Sacramento, a club which has been battling through its own fair share of tough ones lately.

The Kings haven’t played like the upstart group we saw at the beginning of the season, when Sacramento jumped out to a massive lead against Dallas before Dirk Nowitzki and the gang pulled off a heck of a comeback in the second half. Sacramento lost nine of 11 to end calendar year 2014.

However, the Kings have started 2015 off on the right foot, winning three of their first five games of the New Year, a blowout win against the Oklahoma City Thunder among them. Sacramento has won three of its last four games at home all in all — despite their 16-21 record, the Kings are still 10-11 at home. Crazy things happen in that arena, as Dallas can attest to. The Mavs lost there by 15 last season and then barely held on for a 93-91 win during the late-season, ultimately successful playoff push.

This one likely won’t be easy. DeMarcus Cousins, Darren Collison, and Rudy Gay are all very good players, and it’s tough to beat teams with very good players away from home. But it’s one the Mavs almost need to take: Dallas has only lost three straight games once since February 2013.

Mavs Offense Kings Defense
Points/100 poss. 111.6 (1) 105.5 (23)
eFG% 53.1 (3) 49.5 (13)
TOV% 12.5 (2) 12.7 (30)
Off/Def Reb% 24.8 (19) 75.6 (T-9)
FT/FGA .262 (21) .286 (T-16)

The Kings’ defense was once the strength of their team under defensive-minded head coach Mike Malone. Tyrone Corbin has since taken the reins, and the efficiency has slowly begun to drop. The Kings defend shots well, sure, but they struggle to force turnovers. The Mavs are 10-2 this season in games in which they turn the ball over 10 times or less. Sacramento can’t necessarily afford to allow a sweet-shooting team like Dallas too many looks, so I’m curious to see if the Kings will play a little more aggressive than normal in an attempt to try forcing the Mavs into some mistakes.

One big area of weakness for Sacramento is defending the rim. The Kings allow opponents to shoot 62.1 percent from within five feet this season, third-worst in the NBA. Dallas still leads the league in that category on the offensive end, converting on 64.1 percent of its FGA within five. Cousins is not necessarily to blame for the Kings’ struggles, however. He limits opponents to worse than 47 percent shooting at the rim this season, per SportVU, a very good mark.

Sacramento plays Jason Thompson and Carl Landry, two big men who have struggled on the defensive end this season, more than 18 minutes per game each. They’ll be the ones defending Dirk Nowitzki tonight, who was 7-of-12 for 23 points the last time these two teams met. Each of those players struggles defending shots at the rim, too, so the Mavs could manipulate that matchup by using Dirk more in pick-and-roll situations on one side of the floor while Tyson Chandler floats on the other side. That removes Cousins from the equation defensively while focusing instead on Thompson and Landry. However, Cousins has demonstrated he’s athletic enough on that end of the floor to make up for mismatches, anyway, which is what makes him such a dangerous player.

As vulnerable as the Kings might seem at the rim, they’re just as effective when defending threes. The Kings hold opponents to just 33.0 percent shooting beyond the arc this season, tied for fourth-best in the league. That doesn’t mean opponents don’t try shooting them, however, as only two teams in the league surrender more three-point attempts per game than Sacramento. That’s an odd stat; usually teams that are very good at defending something do not allow many of those things, if that makes sense. As a result, Sacramento concedes 8.0 threes per game, a surprisingly middle-of-the-road number for a team as good at defending the three-point line as the Kings. Dallas was a respectable 10-of-27 behind the line in the teams’ last matchup, good for 37 percent.

Mavs Defense Kings Offense
Points/100 poss. 103.9 (19) 103.8 (14)
eFG% 50.7 (T-21) 49.3 (19)
TOV% 16.7 (4) 16.4 (27)
Off/Def Reb% 71.9 (29) 27.5 (7)
FT/FGA .269 (12) .378 (1)

The Mavs defense was on the upswing before the Pistons and Clippers games, and as a result the defensive efficiency has fallen from 14th in the league to 19th in just two games. That’s how close all of these stats are. Still, Dallas forces plenty of turnovers, and that number could experience an increase tonight, as the Kings turn it over more often than all but three teams in the NBA.

The secret to beating the Kings is to keep them off the free throw line, which is easier said than done. The Kings shoot an astonishingly high volume of free throws — for every five field goals they attempt, they basically shoot two free throws. For reference on how ridiculously high that number is, the gap between Sacramento and second-place Miami in FT/FGA (.046) is nearly as wide as the gap between Miami and 14th-place Oklahoma City (.047). It’s a monstrously high stat.

Not only does surrendering a ton of free throws give your opponent plenty of easy chances for points, but it also puts your players in foul trouble and slows the game down a TON. That’s what hurt the Mavericks so much in the first meeting earlier this season. Foul calls and trips to the charity stripe dramatically slowed the tempo and prevented Dallas from developing any type of rhythm. It’s difficult to defend players like Cousins and Gay without fouling them, as they attack the basket with such ferocity that it’s hard to even get out of the way. However, that’s what they must do. The last thing you want to have happen is for Chandler and Nowitzki to each commit two fouls in the early goings and then be playing without them for most of the half.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Cousins one more time. He is an absolute beast on the inside. He scores 23.9 points per game and shoots a very respectable 79.7 percent from the free throw line, an elite mark for a center. His per-36 scoring numbers have increased each of the past three seasons, as have his rebounding, assist, and block numbers. His 26.7 PER is fifth-best in basketball and is better than all but two of Dirk’s best PER seasons. Crazy, huh? He’s only 24 years old but he has career averages of 18.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. What a special player. Goes without saying that if you can slow Cousins down, you slow the Kings down. It’ll be a tough job, but Tyson Chandler will be up for the challenge.

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