No matter how you felt about the Mavs’ chances heading into the season, I’m not sure anyone would have predicted a November matchup against the Washington Wizards would be one of the league’s biggest games to this point in the season.

Dallas (8-3) and Washington (7-2) are two of the NBA’s best eight teams by record so far in the young season. Washington is unbeaten at home and the Mavericks have played very well in four of their five road games to this point. Something’s got to give in this one.

The Wizards, who rode hot shooting to the second round of the East playoffs last season, have only won one game against a team with a winning record this season, a victory against the upstart 5-4 Milwaukee Bucks. Dallas, meanwhile, has lost three games to above-.500 teams, but the Mavs have also clinched wins against the Pelicans and Kings.

One team is going to get out of this game with a much-needed victory against a very good team, while the loser might begin to wonder what it’s doing wrong against winning teams. This should be a close, intense game, and with a back-to-back approaching this weekend, the Mavs are really going to want this one.

Mavs Offense Wizards Defense
Points/100 poss. 115.5 (1) 99.4 (6)
eFG% 56.2 (1) 49.2 (14)
TOV% 11.6 (2) 18.0 (5)
Off/Def Reb% 25.7 (16) 75.6 (12)
FT/FGA .251 (T-23) .286 (14)

The Wizards defense thrives off of forcing turnovers, much like the Mavs’. John Wall, Washington’s star point guard, averages 2.3 steals per game, tied with Anthony Davis for tops in the NBA. Starting alongside Garrett Temple, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Wall guarding Monta Ellis, at least to begin the game. It would take a lot out of him to chase Ellis for 36 minutes, but Wall has the ability to do so while still remaining effective on the offensive end.

Marcin Gortat is going to have his hands full on the inside tonight. He’s Washington’s blocks per game leader and holds opponents to a respectable 51.5 percent field goal clip at the rim, per SportVU. However, he’s only faced 7.6 attempts at the rim per game, not exactly high for a center who averages 31.4 minutes per game. That’s because Wall has been able to limit point guards on the outside this season, and it’s also perhaps due to the fact that Washington has only played two games against clubs with premier drivers — Miami and Toronto, and Washington lost both games. (To be fair, the Bucks shoot the seventh-highest percentage on drives, but Milwaukee is only middle-of-the-pack in team points per game on them.)

That’s important to mention because the Mavericks attempt the third-most drives in the league and score more points off of them than any other team in basketball. The Mavs’ 38.1 points per game off of player drives leads the league by 4.4 — the gap between them and the second-place Spurs is exactly equal to that between San Antonio and eighth-place Cleveland. Gortat and the other Wizards rim protectors are in for a tough, taxing assignment tonight. However, if Wall can keep Ellis in front of him and Paul Pierce and Otto Porter can slow down Chandler Parsons, the stingy Wizards defense is capable of giving Dallas headaches.

Nene will be the man responsible for guarding Dirk Nowitzki tonight. The big man has never necessarily been known for his defense, but he has a career-best defensive rating (100) this season and has been worth 2+ defensive win shares in both full seasons in Washington, per Basketball-Reference. He seems, on paper, like the type of player who can guard Dirk well. He’s a big guy who moves fairly well for his size. In two games against Washington last season, Nowitzki scored 12.0 points per game on 33 percent shooting. I would be stunned to see a line like that from him tonight — he shot below 50 percent for just the fourth time all season against Charlotte two nights ago. In the other three contests following a sub-50 percent shooting night, he hasn’t shot worse than 58.3 percent from the field and hasn’t scored fewer than 23 points.

Mavs Defense Wizards Offense
Points/100 poss. 102.2 (13) 102.7 (19)
eFG% 51.8 (24) 46.9 (26)
TOV% 20.0 (1) 14.3 (12)
Off/Def Reb% 69.4 (30) 23.3 (22)
FT/FGA .288 (15) .296 (15)

The Wizards offense runs almost exclusively through Wall. He averages 67.8 passes per game, per SportVU, sixth-most in the league, and creates 21.3 points off of his 9.1 assists per game, fourth-highest in the NBA. About one-third of his dimes result in threes, most commonly by Temple and Paul Pierce. Last season’s starting shooting guard, Bradley Beal, has missed the entire season with a wrist injury, which has severely hurt Washington’s perimeter shooting. There’s a chance he could be making his debut tonight, however, so that’s a storyline to keep in mind. The Wizards’ offense changes entirely with a player like Beal, who’s deadly from so many different spots on the floor.

Pierce has gotten off to an uncharacteristically poor shooting start to the 2014-15 campaign. The 37-year-old vet is converting at just a 34.4 percent rate this season and his hitting only 25 percent of his three-point attempts, both miles below his career average. However, his shooting struggles are really limited only to the outside; he’s hitting 52.2 percent of his field goal attempts from less than 10 feet, per It will be important that the Mavs do not allow Pierce to put the ball on the floor. If he does, he’s still dangerous, even at his age.

Nene and Gortat round out the starting five. Each average at least a dozen points per game. Washington runs a ton of pick-and-rolls to get the speedy Wall in open space, and they’re primarily set by the two big men. Nene is very effective at either elbow, as he has the skill to play off the bounce and attack the basket. Gortat has slightly more touch and is a consistent 18-foot jump shooter. The “Polish Hammer” hits catch-and-shoot 2s at a 53.3 percent rate.

Both teams have very good starting fives; Washington’s first unit has an 8.6 net rating, a solid mark for any oft-used five-man unit. But where Dallas can beat them is once the teams turn to the bench. The Wizards’ primary second unit — Andre Miller, Rasual Butler, Otto Porter, Kris Humphries, and Kevin Seraphin — has a -3.1 net rating, and that’s coming against playing teams who aren’t anywhere near as deep as the Mavs. If Wall exits the game, Dallas must look to make a run. Fortunately for the Mavs, their bench is strong enough to make that happen if their shots fall.

Washington isn’t interested in losing its first home game of the season, and the Mavs aren’t looking to come back from a two-game road trip with a 1-1 record. It’s always fun to watch two heavyweights duke it out, and, at least by record, that’s exactly what these two teams are. Both are going to be in the playoffs come April, and both have the type of roster that can win a series or two, or perhaps even more. It’s wayyy too early to consider this a possible Finals preview or anything like it, but it’s still a heck of a game for November. You won’t want to miss it.

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