Mailbag: Preferred 2nd-round opponent?!?!

DALLAS – I’ll readily admit that a certain sort of cynicism flows through my veins.

For example, it’s hard for me to look at the San Antonio Spurs' recent dominance of their old Interstate 35 rivals and envision anything other than the West’s top seed advancing to the second round. With the Spurs winning 10 straight over the Mavs, it’s tough to forecast Dallas winning four of the next six games.

It’s not my job to pump sunshine when black-and-silver clouds fill the sky. But I am here to serve the fans, and I must commend some of you MFFLs on your blind faith and enthusiasm.

Case in point: The first question of this week’s playoff-edition mailbag.

Tim, who would the Mavs rather see in the second round? Blazers or Rockets? – Jake (Philadelphia)

Jake, I must admit that I hadn’t given this subject a second of thought before reading your question. The easy answer is the Mavs would be absolutely ecstatic to have the chance to play either one of them.

The Mavs actually fared pretty well against both Portland and Houston this season. They went 2-1 against the Trail Blazers, winning in Portland on Monta Ellis' buzzer-beater and in Dallas despite blowing a 30-point lead. They split four games against the Rockets, including a classic Mavs comeback win at home.

I’d say flip a coin. Both potential opponents present major defensive challenges for the Mavs, featuring two stars (LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard for the Blazers and James Harden and Dwight Howard for the Rockets) with talented supporting casts.

But if you pin me down and make me pick one, I’d take Houston. They don’t have an answer for defending Dirk, who averaged 31.5 points in the four games against the Rockets this season.

What are the stats of Dirk Nowitzki in crunch time and OT? He seems to be wearing down late in games. -- @JonathanBlick on Twitter

There’s no doubt that the fight against Father Time is especially tough late in tight games, especially if the 35-year-old star’s minutes were extended that night.

According to NBA.com’s clutch stats (score within five points in the final five minutes), Nowitzki is averaging a still extremely respectable 37.2 points per 48 minutes in those situations, plus 9.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists. However, his percentages plummet: 39.2 from the floor, 20.7 from 3-point range. Yet his plus-minus (plus-25.6 per 48 minutes) is phenomenal, a testament to Dirk’s value as a decoy and Ellis’ ability to take advantage.

By comparison, Nowitzki averaged 41.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists per 48 clutch minutes in 2010-11, shooting 46.5 percent from the floor but only 12.5 percent from 3-point range. His per-48 plus-minus was 38.3.

During the 2011 playoffs, when Nowitzki went on one of the great closing runs in NBA history to key the Mavs’ title run, those numbers were absolutely ridiculous. In 49 clutch minutes that postseason, Nowitzki put up 66 points, 11 rebounds and three assists while shooting 53.6 from the floor and 60 percent from 3-point range. The Mavs outscored their opponents by 73 points in those 49 minutes. SEVENTY-THREE POINTS!!!

Nowitzki’s OT numbers this season are actually pretty darn good: 27 points on 9-of-18 shooting (3-of-7 from 3-point range), six rebounds and two assists in 28 minutes.

Do you think that our flaws exposed by playing the Spurs will affect what kind of player we target in free agency? For example, going after a more athletic/offensive center versus a SF. – Micah (Stephenville, Texas)

No, because it’s not like the Spurs will expose flaws the Mavs didn’t know about. They’ll be in the market for an all-around small forward and an upgrade at starting center regardless of what happens in this series. It’d be nice to get a center with scoring ability, but the Mavs’ priority this summer will be drastically improving the defense.

This is an elite offensive team and a below-average defensive team. The result is a 49-win season and an extreme long shot to win a playoff series in the West.

A lot of talk about Devin Harris replacing Jose Calderon in the starting lineup. I think the Mavs really missed Calderon's outside shooting in the 4th quarter, and Devin and Monta Ellis play a very similar style. Any chance Devin steals some of Monta's minutes to keep the spacing and keep a defensive presence? – Blake (Richardson, Texas)

Very interesting question, Blake. The Mavs were miserable offensively with Harris and Ellis playing together in Game 1, scoring only 19 points on 7-of-33 shooting in 19 minutes.

“They’re living with Monta and Devin shooting,” Nowitzki said. “It was clear on every pick-and-roll.”

However, it’s worth noting that Ellis-Harris was by far the Mavs’ best two-man lineup against the Spurs during the regular season. The two speedy guards were able to push the tempo, with the Mavs putting up an eye-popping 84 points in 28 minutes with that duo in the backcourt, going 31-of-53 from the floor and 9-of-14 from 3-point range.

San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich is the Coach of the Year for good reason. He figured out how to slow down the Ellis-Harris duo in Game 1 and make them play to their weaknesses, at least when they were on the floor together. Can Rick Carlisle counter that?

I’d be very surprised if Ellis’ minutes get trimmed. To put it in Texan terms, gotta go with the horses that brung ya, and Ellis was one of the Clydesdales out front for the Mavs all season. It seems pretty clear that Calderon’s minutes will be cut because he’s so overmatched defensively in this series.