Shootaround: Devin Harris

Devin Harris says the Mavs will have their hands full with Derrick Rose and the Bulls tonight.

This Mavs/Bulls matchup is one where an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, but the roles are reversed. In this instance, it’s the Dallas defense that won’t budge, and it’s the Bulls’ offense that’s unstoppable. Weird, huh?

The tables have certainly turned since the last time these two teams met, when Dallas boasted the best offense in the league by far and the Bulls were still considered an elite, defense-first squad. Make no mistake, though: Both teams can play at both ends of the floor. But consider that since Rajon Rondo’s debut on Dec. 20, the Bulls are sixth in offensive efficiency and the Mavericks are sixth in defensive efficiency. During that same time frame, the Bulls have dipped to 16th in defense while the Mavs have hovered just below Chicago in seventh place offensively.

The clubs aren’t necessarily experiencing an identity crisis of any kind. Just the opposite, actually: Chicago’s Achilles heel over the years has been the inability to score, and that’s only been worsened by heavy injuries, primarily to now-healthy superstar Derrick Rose. The Bulls solved this issue by signing Pau Gasol, who’s starting for the East in the All-Star Game.

Meanwhile, the Mavs were in trouble defensively earlier in the season so they traded for Rondo. The rest is history with that deal, obviously, up to now. Dallas is now half a game behind Portland and Memphis for second place in the Western Conference, and neither of those teams play tonight. If the Mavericks win this one, they’ll be tied for second. My how things have changed, and they’ve done so quickly.

OFFENSE
Mavs Offense Bulls Defense
Points/100 poss. 110.7 (2) 102.4 (12)
eFG% 52.7 (4) 47.7 (3)
TOV% 12.4 (2) 12.9 (29)
Off/Def Reb% 24.4 (T-21) 74.0 (20)
FT/FGA .263 (21) .247 (4)

It’s the end of an era, so to speak. The Mavericks have been No. 1 in the NBA in offensive efficiency for virtually the entire season. The Toronto Raptors very briefly overtook them a few weeks ago, but Dallas went on a run and reclaimed the top position, presumably to never look back. The gap between second-place Dallas and the first-place Clippers, however, is just 0.1 points. A solid offensive outing for the Mavs or an off-night for LA could resolve that issue.

In the end, though, offensive ranking doesn’t really mean anything, other than it represents a point to brag about to your friends who support the Spurs or Rockets. What really matters for this club is defensive improvement, and it’s been there since the Rondo deal.

The last time these clubs met, we witnessed a double-overtime epic that shaved at least a few weeks off of our lives. Both teams were throwing hay-makers, jabs, uppercuts, and every other kind of punch. It was crazy. Monta Ellis knocked down three free throws late in regulation to send the game to OT, and Rose banked in a ridiculous pull-up shot to tie the game at the buzzer in OT.

Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki were spectacular down the stretch of that game. Right now it’s unclear who will actually be suiting up for Chicago tonight, however, which will certainly influence the game. Bulls center Joakim Noah missed last night’s game in San Antonio, as did small forward Mike Dunleavy. Noah is in many respects the anchor of the team’s defense, the same way Tyson Chandler plays for Dallas. Without Noah to protect the rim, Ellis and the rest of the perimeter attackers should have an easier time finishing. However, Jimmy Butler is a ridiculously good defender with or without Noah, and it’ll be his job to make things difficult for Ellis tonight.

Nowitzki, meanwhile, will be checked by Gasol and Taj Gibson, Chicago’s usual sixth man who has been starting in place of Noah lately. The red-hot Dirk should have the advantage against Gasol at this end, but Gibson is much stronger and more athletic pound-for-pound than the seven-foot Gasol. Regardless, the Big German will have to work hard for his points.

DEFENSE
Mavs Defense Bulls Offense
Points/100 poss. 102.9 (13) 105.9 (8)
eFG% 49.9 (T-17) 49.3 (19)
TOV% 16.6 (T-4) 14.6 (T-10)
Off/Def Reb% 72.1 (28) 27.5 (T-6)
FT/FGA .274 (13) .327 (2)

The Bulls offense, as it always has, runs through Rose. After battling even more injuries earlier in the season, he appears to be rounding back into top form. In his last five games, he’s scored 32, 29, 23, 18, and 22 points, and in three of those games he’s shot above 54 percent from the field. Rajon Rondo has his work cut out for him this evening, defending a big point guard in Rose, who stands 6′ 2″ with a 6′ 8″ wingspan yet moves at a lightning-quick pace when healthy.

If Dunleavy is unable to play, that will be a huge boon for Dallas. He’s the team’s second-best three-point shooter this season at 41.7 percent, trailing only Aaron Brooks (43.8). All told, the Bulls play four guys who shoot 40 percent or better from deep, although one, Gasol, has attempted just nine all season. Dunleavy has been replaced by both Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell in the starting lineup. Hinrich is shooting a respectable 35.4 percent from deep, but Snell hits just 32.0 percent of his attempts.

One other player to watch offensively for Chicago is rookie Nikola Mirotic, who for a time was considered a favorite for Rookie of the Year before Andrew Wiggins surged to the front of the pack. Mirotic is averaging 7.9 points and 4.8 boards this season on 40.8/34.6/78.0 shooting. He’s drawn comparisons to Dirk, as do most young stretch fours, but Mirotic has an awfully polished game for a rookie because he played in Spain for several seasons before making the leap over the Atlantic. He’s 23 years old, which is ancient in modern-day NBA rookie years.

We haven’t even mentioned Gasol or Butler on the offensive end, both of whom are terrific in their own right. The Bulls have one of the deepest teams in terms of quality in the league, right up there with Dallas, a healthy Portland, and Golden State. Chicago can beat you in so many ways offensively. However, the Bulls are coming off a back-to-back, having played last night against San Antonio. Tired teams generally settle more often for jump shots, so Dallas must do what it can to keep Chicago far away from the basket, especially if the club will be playing without some of its better perimeter shooters.

It’s still way, way too early in the season to consider this any type of “possible Finals preview,” but this is the type of marquee matchup to expect when it comes to the postseason. Recent struggles aside, Chicago is a quality team which has a chance to compete come May. The same can be said about the Mavs. Any time two heavyweights collide there are bound to be some pretty awesome fireworks, not unlike what we saw earlier in the year. This should be a heck of a game.

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