By Aggrey Sam
So it comes down to this. Last year’s MVP vs. this year’s should-be MVP (even though it won’t happen; just change the award to “Most Deserving Player,” give it to Kobe and be done with it because if CP isn’t the most valuable in the League, then Kobe should have to share the award with Mitch Kupchak and all the Lakers’ youngins–but I digress). The best point guard of the last decade vs. the best point guard now. Jason Kidd vs. his old nemesis Byron Scott, or vice versa, however you wanna carry it. An intriguing power-forward matchup of Dirk vs. surprise All-Star David West, neither of whom can check each other. And of course, the matchup on the sidelines between Byron Scott and Avery Johnson. Byron went from good coach to bad coach (a lot of that has to do with his tenure with the Nets, where he coached the aforementioned J-Kidd), back to good this year (and not to throw shade–yes, I will bring back old phrases in an effort to stop using the word “hate”–but I think the job he’s done with the Hornets has more to him giving a lot of leeway to both CP and his staff to do their thing instead of trying too hard to put his stamp on the team; but I suppose pulling back and learning from past mistakes can be qualified as good coaching), while Avery’s short career is in somewhat of a downward spiral–from next great coach, to critics picking holes in his game for last year’s Golden State series, to many thinking Cuban has him on the firing line (their well-documented lover’s quarrels don’t help matters) if he can’t make progress this year–with maybe a slight reprieve earned for the adjustment period after the Kidd trade, though sitting him in the clutch and losing games don’t exactly benefit his cause. Enough with my rambling about sub-plots–let’s get to the matchups. I’m in Arkansas, of all places, for the weekend (explains the delay; I’m not happy about missing Game 1 in the N.O.), so I’ll keep it simple.
Obviously, the key matchup is at the one, between CP and J-Kidd. I went to the first game Dallas had after Kidd was acquired–coincidentally, against New Orleans–and the youngster had his way with the vet, almost racking up a triple-double (nine steals!) in the Hornets’ win. Since then, however, Kidd and the Mavs have finished the getting-to-know-you stage, and in the season finale, the future Hall of Famer gave CP his own triple-dip in the Dallas W. That said, CP is having a hell of a season and even with a semi-slump over the stretch run, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the top point man in the League. On the other hand, Kidd has that playoff experience and with all the discussion of him wanting out of Jersey prior to the trade (and his perceived prolonged adjustment period), you know he wants to shut folks up. Still, if I have to pick a winner of this head-to-head matchup, I’m going with CP–if he doesn’t win MVP, he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder and even if he does, he knows people are throwing shade.
At the two, we have Mo Pete and Jason Terry. No contest on paper, but don’t think the Hornets won’t put Jet in the post more than a little bit. Jet will have his way with him on offense, as his advantage in quickness will pose a problem for the grizzled vet, not to mention his shooting. Look for Terry’s scoring to be a key for Dallas.
Josh Howard should be able to go to work against Peja with minimal problems. Too athletic, too physical and with J-Kidd running the show, he should get easy buckets–especially in transition. Peja, however, has been slowly turning it up toward the end of the season. Last year’s big free-agent signing for the Hornets is definitely overpaid, but if he’s knocking down shots when CP gets the defense to collapse, he’s earning a healthy portion of his check.
Dirk and David West should give each other an equal amount of problems. For those who haven’t seen him play much, West’s mid-range J off the pick-and-roll with CP, post game and dirty work on the offensive glass are what make the hard-nosed power forward an All-Star. Dirk is Dirk. Who knows if last season’s playoff debacle is completely behind him, but he gets points for coming back from being hurt so soon–although I’m not sure that’s such a great thing, regardless of his late-season big-game performances. He does seem to be gelling with Kidd, which frees him up to just make shots and not have to create for himself as much.
The center matchup between Tyson Chandler and Erick Dampier is exactly as one-sided as it seems. If this series is as up-and-down as I expect, Tyson should get a lot of opportunities in transition. And with Paul causing havoc for the Mavs’ D, the same should hold true for half-court situations. I can see Damp getting in foul trouble and pulling his infamous disappearing acts quite a bit.
The Mavs have a funny rotation, led by Jerry Stackhouse, Eddie Jones and Brandon Bass. Stack is their scorer/guy in the clutch, Jones is their stopper/high IQ vet and Bass is their young energy/tough guy. They are no longer a young team, but they have some parts with playoff experience. Filling in the gaps include Tyronne Lue provides depth at the point, Devean George is another defensive-minded wing with size, Malik Allen is a shooting post and Juwan Howard offers them a rebounder with some offense.
The Hornets’ top reserves are Bonzi Wells, Jannero Pargo and Julian Wright. Wells is their equivalent to Stack, a tough guy who can score and loves the postseason spotlight. Pargo is an underrated gunner who is a good matchup for Terry and Julian Wright has come on strong in the second half of the season as a surprisingly good scorer and defender and an all-around athletic energy guy. Helping out in the post are Hilton Armstrong (who is playing better recently), Melvin Ely (who isn’t; free Birdman!) and Ryan Bowen (a great hustle guy who needs to play more, since he doesn’t really hurt the team when he’s out there), while the one and only Mike James is starting to play his way into shape and should help in the backcourt.
As I wrote earlier, Byron’s less is more thing has been working out beautifully this season. If he continues with that philosophy and only reigns in CP if the newness of the playoffs are getting to the young fella, they should be fine. Vets like Bonzi, Mo Pete and Peja will be extremely valuable, as well–if he lets them do their thing.
Avery has been coaching all season like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. After last season, I can’t say I blame him for feeling that way, but I don’t see that being the recipe for success with this bunch. Overcoaching a guy like Kidd certainly isn’t the answer, and I don’t know if he’s done figuring out how to master the impossible task of making Dirk a true killer. Plus, I never feel like he correctly uses players like Stack, Terry and Howard (who do have that killer in them) until the going gets too tough.
Living in New Orleans, I’m probably biased on this one. The Hornets get a ton of easy points off their D, offensive boards and hustle points. And while it wasn’t true when I first moved down there, they now have a real home-court advantage. But probably the biggest thing they have going for them is Chris Paul. If I have to explain that to you, you haven’t watched a lot of NBA basketball this season. The biggest thing working against them is the playoff inexperience of their three core guys: Paul, West and Chandler. But with the veteran leadership they have, as well as Byron’s postseason past, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Dallas has transformed from a young team in the Nash/Finley/Dirk era to a squad with experience galore in the present day. I’m not sure if they’ve been together long enough to make a deep playoff run, but at least most of their players have been there before. Kidd is probably jonesing for a ring the most, but after the last two postseasons, the team’s returnees, Avery and other new acquisitions like Eddie and Juwan are right behind him in fiending for a chip. The question is: Can they put past disappointments behind them and become cohesive with the quickness?
Hornets in seven. This just seems like New Orleans’ year and while Kidd, Dirk and the rest of the Mavs won’t go down without a fight, I think the combination of CP at the point, West and Chandler in the post, tough D and contributions from guys like Bonzi, Mo Pete, Peja and Pargo will be too much. Dirk isn’t all the way healthy, Kidd isn’t all the way adjusted and I don’t think guys like Stack, Terry and Howard are utilized enough unless Dirk is just doing awful. At the end of the day, however, it won’t really matter, as either San Antonio or Phoenix should take down the winner of this series in the second round.