Dirk: Bringing the tongue wag back since the early 2000s at least. Credit: Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE

Game 56 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks

Blazers: 26-29 (4th Northwest Division)

Mavericks: 31-24 (3rd Southwest Division)

Game Details: American Airlines Center Dallas, TX. 5:30 PM. TV: CSN. Radio: 750 AM (KXTG)

Projected Blazers Starting Lineup: PG Raymond Felton (#5, 6’1”, North Carolina), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6’5”, Marquette), SF Nicolas Batum (#88, 6’8”, MSB Le Mans, France) PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6’11”, Texas), C Joel Przybilla (#10, 7’1”, Minnesota)

Projected Mavericks Starting Lineup: PG Delonte West (#13, 6’3”, Saint Joseph’s), SG Vince Carter (#25, 6’6”, North Carolina), SF Shawn Marion (#0, 6’7”, UNLV), PF Dirk Nowitzki (#41, 7′, DJK Wurzburg, Germany) C Brandon Haywood (#33, 7′, North Carolina)

I’m getting a sinking feeling that we’re reaching the part of this season that is going to make me sad. We’ve got 10 games left, six road and four home, and barring some miracle (or more accurately a succession of back-to-back-to-back miracles) that’s it.

This is the time of year when the games get better. Teams in the hunt for Playoff spots start shorting their rotations and playing every second of every possessions. The intensity level in the stands goes up a notch. The focus heightens. That Playoffs are coming. If you’re a fan of basketball at it’s highest level, like me, then you get excited just knowing that in a couple of weeks you’ll get to see the very very best basketball in the world.

What makes me sad is that the Blazers will not be taking part. Three straight Playoff appearances is a good run. It can even make for a successful era. But Portland is a franchise that once played in 23 consecutive post seasons. That puts this iteration’s Playoff streak two decades shy of tying that its forebear’s. Talk about disappointment.Playing hard and getting positive results is good. But missing the Playoffs is going to be hard to stomach.

One team that isn’t going to miss the Playoffs is Portland’s opponent on Friday: NBA champs of last year, the Dallas Mavericks. Handicapping Dallas is a tough proposition. They’ve played much better basketball than what we’ve seen from them in 2011-12. But it’s as true today as it ever was, when you’ve got Dirk Nowitzki on your roster you can compete with any team in the league.

The Mavs are comfortably stationed in the sixth spot in the Western Conference. Comfortable in the sense that they won’t fall out of the top eight. They are, however, tied with Memphis, two games behind the Clippers for home court in the first round, and a game and a half ahead of Houston for the seven seed.

If the Playoffs began tomorrow, the Mavericks would face the Lakers in the first round. That would be a classic grudge match, but I doubt it’s one the defending champs want any part of. I can imagine Kobe Bryant et al. salivating at the chance to repay Dallas for handing the Lakers their ignominious exit from last year’s Playoffs, and I can just as clearly imagine Dirk an co. believing that getting swept out of the first round will somehow invalidate their title run.

Dallas has two choices: play a little bit better, or play a little bit worse. My guess is they try to play better. That’s no good for Portland. The Blazers have played well in Dallas, but very rarely have they played well enough to win. With the Mavericks intent on improving their Playoff position, there’s a good chance that Portland will have to be at the topper most of their top form to have a chance.

The Mavericks are beatable, though, and luckily for Portland, the best way to beat them is by playing a lot of defense. I say it’s the best thing because since taking control of the team head coach Kaleb Canales has preached defense, preached to the point that he often says little else, even when asked about offense, or lineups, or the Kardashians. The Blazers will have a chance to flex that defensive identity when and if they can stop Dallas from blowing up the scoreboard.

The Mavs begin and end with Dirk Nowitzki, of course, but they still have a ton of weapons. It’s important to note that they still bring Jason Terry off the bench, and that this season he’s been joined by the other Mr. Kardashian, Lamar Odom. Against the Nets on Wednesday, Portland’s bench was pretty ineffective. The combo of Gerald Green and Anthony Morrow hung an even 40 spot of the Blazers’ second string. LO and JET can and will do better. Luke Babbitt, Jonny Flynn, Nolan Smith (maybe), and Jamal Crawford can’t hope to out-score their Dallas counterparts. For Portland’s second unit it is going to be defend or get killed.

Like Boston (in a regular season when Portland plays them twice) the Blazers often get Dallas at least one good game. Usually that game happens at home. Portland went to double OT their only other stop in the Big D this season, and won’t meet the Mavs at the Rose Garden until next week. History tells us, then, that Friday’s game will not be the Blazers’ one shining moment against the Mavericks. History has been wrong before though.

Here’s a couple of things to watch for:

  • The J.J. Hickson/LaMarcus Aldridge duo: Joel Przybilla will start Friday. He will start the rest of the season. He won’t start next year (at least not for the Blazers). That position will likely go to J.J. Hickson. Friday will most likely be like the last four or five games. Joel starts and plays around 10 minute; J.J. comes off the bench and plays around 27. Dallas used to be a dominant defensive team in the paint because they used to have Tyson Chandler. Brandon Haywood is not Tyson Chandler, and Dirk has never been a defender. With Hickson and Aldridge on the court, Portland might not have a distinct advantage defensively, but they at least are going to be able to get some stuff done on offense. If J.J. and LA can combine for 30 or more points and 20ish rebounds, I do believe Portland has a chance.
  • Jamal Crawford versus Jason Terry: Jason Terry is the elder statesmen of Seattle basketball; Jamal Crawford is the next in line. Terry and Crawford play arguably the same roles for their teams, and even if their shots don’t look anything alike, they have basically the same style of play. Jamal’s a bit better off the dribble. JET’s a bit more consistent. Whenever Seattle guys get together, they like to go at each other. Jamal would probably like nothing better than to have a good game against his older Emerald City comrade; Terry would probably like nothing better than to keep Jamal from going off by going off himself. Should be fun to watch.
  • Coach K’s game plan: Portland cannot lose any more games the rest of the season, that we know. We also know that winning right now is basically irrelevant. We also know that the Canales Era has alternated wins and losses since the day it began. Kaleb Canales has a choice: try to break that cycle by playing Friday as if it were a game that mattered, or play Friday like he’s been playing all his games, as if getting guys minutes is equal in importance to the score. The former gives Portland their best shot. The latter is what I expect to see.

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Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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