After trading baskets with the Dallas Mavericks for three quarters, the Denver Nuggets' bench and home crowd ramped up the fourth-quarter intensity in Game 2, and the Mavericks wilted under the increased defensive pressure. As the Mavs come home for Game 3, they must find a way to prevent the fourth-quarter meltdowns that have plagued them so far in this series.
• The Mavericks have found themselves down three and four points going into the fourth quarter in each of the first two games of this series. But poor offensive execution that led to easy Denver transition baskets has turned both games into blowouts in the last 12 minutes.
• Fourth-quarter offensive execution should concern coach Rick Carlisle going into Game 3. The Nuggets are extending their pressure out front, pressing the ballhandlers hard and trapping whenever Dallas spacing puts two offensive players in proximity to each other.
• In Game 3, the Mavericks must go to their offensive sets that prevent Denver's pressing/trapping action and not let the Nuggets create a mad dribbling scramble on the offensive end. As good as the Nuggets are on the ball and denying passing lanes, they are not defending the down-screen action well in this series.
• Look for Dallas to run Jason Terry off more down-screen action in Game 3, and Terry must cut hard to score -- not just pop to the wing to catch. He must be aggressive when he receives the pass and attack immediately while Denver is still adjusting to the screening/cutting action.
• Baseline screening action has also given Dirk Nowitzki some easy scoring opportunities, and Nowitzki must also attack quickly on the catch in Game 3. The strength of Denver's defense is its individual on-ball defenders, and the more the Mavericks can make them defend screens and cuts, the less suffocating the Nuggets can be one-on-one.
• Dallas must also look for more high screen/roll action to include Erick Dampier. Denver switches this action, which allows him to seal a much smaller defender when he rolls, and the Nuggets do not rotate well from the weak side in these sets.
• The Mavericks must be gravely concerned with their transition defense, as they reacted poorly to turnovers and long misses in Game 2. Jason Kidd, Nowitzki and Terry all got caught staring at the play, then reacting late as the Nuggets reacted immediately to the change of possession and raced down the floor.
• Dallas also must double and help on Carmelo Anthony in the fourth. The Mavericks were effective (but inconsistent) with this scheme in Game 2. Anthony has been Denver's key fourth-quarter scorer in the first two games, and the Mavericks cannot allow him to face up and go one-on-one off the dribble. With Josh Howard hobbled and unable to defend Melo, the Mavericks must do it with their entire team.
• Denver is dominating the Mavericks inside, with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Anthony having their way with the Mavericks around the basket. The Nuggets have no fear of inside shot-blockers, so look for the inside assault to continue in Game 3. All three will go hard to the basket.
• The Mavericks also have not been applying enough pressure to turn the Nuggets over, so Denver must eliminate the unforced errors in Game 3. Look for Chauncey Billups
to take charge of the half-court attack at crunch time, looking for Melo, then attacking off the dribble with the shot clock running down on key possessions.
• The Nuggets will continue to push the pace in Game 3, especially if Dampier is on the floor. Nene can beat him to the rim and is too quick for him in the half court. If Denver can get Dallas to play smaller, that is even better, as it will allow the Nuggets to continue to dominate inside.
• Defensively, the Nuggets will continue to play Nowitzki straight up in Game 3, believing that he can't beat them by himself. The Nuggets don't want to overcommit with extra help on Nowitzki, which would create more open looks for his teammates. They can live with Dirk getting his points as long as they can prevent the others from joining in.
• One area of focus for Denver defensively will be to try to limit Nowitzki's free throw attempts, which come when the Nuggets get overly aggressive trying to block shots or when they become impatient defensively. They will try to make Nowitzki and the Mavericks beat them from the field in Game 3.
• Anticipate increased ball pressure on Kidd, Terry and Jose Juan Barea in Game 3, as the Nuggets' perimeter defenders have been able to push the Mavericks further toward half court in running their offense, and have created the turnovers that have turned the close games into blowouts in Games 1 and 2. Denver's defensive efforts lead to their offensive runs, so this will be a huge point of emphasis for coach George Karl and his staff.
Josh Howard's early effectiveness. After averaging 18.8 points on 49 percent shooting against the Spurs in the first round, Howard's limited action so far in the first two games against the Nuggets has been a paltry 7.5 points on 36 percent shooting; he went scoreless in six minutes of action in Game 2. As in last year's series with the Hornets, Dallas can't win without Howard's offensive production. He is also the Mavericks' best defender on Carmelo Anthony.
Birdman and Co. off the bench. The Nuggets' bench brings energy to the team, and brings the crowd to life at home, and it has been a huge factor in the first two games of the series. On the road this year, without the home crowd fueling its energy, the bench has been almost eight points less productive.
In Game 3 of their first-round series, the Nuggets stubbed their toe with a 2-0 lead against New Orleans, then followed it up with a 58-point massacre of the Hornets in Game 4. Expect them to have learned their lesson, as Denver will come out with nothing less than the sense of urgency needed to put the Mavericks away. That is exactly what could happen; the Nuggets have already won twice in Dallas this year. Without Howard at 100 percent, even the energy of the home crowd may not be enough to carry the Mavericks in Game 3. Expect another big game from Nowitzki, and look for the Jasons to lead the way for the Mavericks as they fight for their playoff lives.
Prediction: Mavericks Win Game 3
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.