Chandler is the fuel to Mavericks' fire
Mavs able to feed off their emotional leader's monster night to take 3-2 series lead
Chandler -- the 7-foot-1 team-appointed difference-maker from the moment he packed away his summer Team USA uniform and donned a Dallas Mavericks jersey -- didn't just show up in this critical Game 5 victory that very likely saved more than just a series.
He dominated it with a show of force not seen from him in this series, fueling his teammates two nights after the Game 4 disaster, with a barrage of points, rebounds, body bumps, muscle flexes and primal screams.
"Oh my God," said Mavs backup guard J.J. Barea, the smallest man on the team who is often the butt of friendly jokes by the tallest. "He was so focused tonight. He was controlling everybody. He was on everyone's ass. He made sure we won this game. It's hard to beat us when Tyson Chandler plays like that. Impossible, I think."
It certainly proved fatal Monday night for the Portland Trail Blazers, who melted away in the second half beneath Chandler's spirited play.
The 93-82 victory smoked out those Game 4 demons and put the Blazers in a desperate 3-2 hole as their Western Conference quarterfinal series shifts back to Portland and the rowdy Rose Garden for Game 6 on Thursday night.
The Mavs fed their starting center early on the offensive end to get him lubricated and it bled to the defensive end, where he gave Aldridge fits and outplayed the Blazers power forward, who finished with a series-low 12 points and nine rebounds.
Finally, Chandler wasn't constantly being slapped on the wrists for ticky-tack or ill-advised fouls. He entered the game with a decisive game plan to be active and aggressive and let the whistles fly as they may. It paid off. He scored 14 points -- two fewer than his four-game total -- and notched career playoff rebounding highs with 20 total, including 13 on the offensive glass. The latter was the most in a playoff game since Shaquille O'Neal grabbed 14 on May 16, 1995 with the Orlando Magic.
"I really just want to do whatever it takes to win at whatever time," Chandler said. "In that last game, I was as in as much shock as everybody else. I vowed to myself that I wouldn't let it happen again. Coming out tonight I knew my team would need me because after such a bad loss, a lot of times it can roll over into the next night and I didn't want to go back to Portland behind the 8-ball.
"I wanted to come out, bring energy and I was hoping my teammates would feed off of me, and they did."
One thing is certain: This Chandler is the one the Mavs must have if they are to clinch this series and have any hope of a deeper playoff run in a Western Conference suddenly bursting with opportunity. As much consternation surrounds this team advancing out of the first round, a potential semifinal matchup with the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers -- locked in their own first-round struggle -- is on the horizon.
The Mavs know solid center contributions are their only chance to compete in such a series. Game 5 saw Chandler and backup Brendan Haywood, who has been solid defensively, combine for 17 points, 25 rebounds and two blocked shots.
"Tyson was phenomenal on both ends of the floor with his energy," said Dirk Nowitzki, who had 25 points. "He was all over the boards. He was trying to make Aldridge work for everything and protected our paint. I always said if Haywood and Chandler play big for us in the paint, we can play and beat anybody."
Earlier in the day, Chandler told coach Rick Carlisle that he's been stuck on the weakside of the floor throughout the series and needed that to change. It was Chandler after Game 4 who, with bloodshot eyes, voiced his disgust that defensive adjustments never arrived as Brandon Roy single-handedly devoured the Mavs' 23-point lead.
Chandler was involved in pick-and-rolls and was seemingly always in position to hit the glass. His 13 offensive boards were four more than Blazers had as a team. In the first quarter, Chandler had seven points -- three more than his four-game average -- and seven boards, matching his series rebounding average.
Early in the fourth quarter, Barea drove the lane and missed the shot. Chandler wrestled the ball away from Blazers forward Gerald Wallace, went up strong and was fouled by Roy. After the whistle, Chandler and Wallace got tangled. Just as it looked as though both would bow up, Chandler raised both arms and briskly walked away, nodding his head to the approving fans.
Perhaps through the first four games, Chandler felt the strain of having to provide the emotional and on-court physical leadership of a franchise dragging substantial postseason baggage.
If so, his Game 5 performance might have busted the lid off, giving the Mavs exactly what they need most.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.