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Game 49: Mavericks at Celtics

02.04.11 at 11:19 am ET

The Dallas Mavericks have been doing this for a long time. They have been a playoff team every year for the last decade, the second-longest current streak after San Antonio. Their run coincided with the emerge of Dirk Nowitzki as a big-time player and over the years he has remained the one constant.

Steve Nash gave way to Jason Kidd. Michael Finley and Josh Howard were eventually replaced by Jason Terry and Shawn Marion. Through it all, Nowitzki has remained, and despite his MVP season, he remains one of the NBA’s underappreciated superstars.

Nowitzki is having another phenomenal season, perhaps his best since his MVP days. His impact can be seen through his +/- numbers where the Mavericks are more than 22 points better with him on the floor, the highest margin in the league, according to Basketball Value. His impact was even more obvious when he missed nine games and the Mavs went 2-7 during that stretch.

They have since won seven of their last eight and are re-establishing themselves as one of the Western Conference’s prime contenders along with the Spurs and Lakers.

“You can make a strong argument for him for MVP,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Him and Derrick Rose and LeBron [James]. He’€™s having a heck of a year.”

As great as Nowitzki has been, the biggest change has come from the Mavs’ never-ending search for the right complimentary players to put around him. That would be Tyson Chandler.

“He’€™s the biggest change on their team,” Rivers said. “Chandler has made them a defensive team. They have an anchor now. Just think, they have [Brendan] Haywood coming off the bench. That’€™s a big, deep basketball team.”

Chandler gives them 10 points and nine rebounds per game, while shooting 66 percent from the floor on a limited arsenal of dunks and put-backs. But it’s his defensive presence that has been the biggest factor, especially in their zone defense.

The Mavs are ninth in defensive rating, up from 12th the season before and 17th the year before that. Additionally, they only give up 20 shots a game at the rim — the second lowest total in the league after Orlando where Dwight Howard patrols the paint.

This may be the same old Nowitzki, but it’s not the same old Mavs.

MAVERICKS (33-15, 7-3 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 108.1 (Points scored per 100 possessions, 11th)

Defensive Rating: 104.8 (Points allowed per 100 possessions, 9th)

Pace: 90.2 (Possessions per game, 23rd)

Likely Starters: Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson, Dirk Nowitzki, Brian Cardinal, Tyson Chandler

Injuries: Caron Butler (Knee, out), Roddy Beaubois (Foot, out), Peja Stojakovic (Knee, out)

CELTICS (37-11, 8-2 LAST 10)

Offensive Rating: 108.1 (12th)

Defensive Rating: 100.1 (2nd)

Pace: 90.8 (21st)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, TBD

Injuries: Shaquille O’Neal (Hip, Achilles, Questionable), Jermaine O’Neal (Knee, out), Delonte West (Wrist, out)

KEY MATCHUP: Kevin Garnett vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Individual matchups are the lifeblood of the NBA. Good teams try to get their best players in mismatches and then exploit them. Nowitzki is a walking mathcup nightmare. He’s a 7-footer who can score anywhere on the court and get his shot off against anyone, any time. One of the few players in the league who can even dream of checking Nowitzki on the perimeter is Garnett. If you like NBA basketball, this is why you watch.


1. Will Kendrick Perkins start?

Shaquille O’Neal is iffy at best for this game and is apparently now dealing with an inflamed Achilles. Perkins logged over 20 minutes in each of the four games on the Celtics west coast trip, including 27 in the win over the Lakers. If he’s not ready yet, he will be soon. A more interesting question may be whether he’ll finish.

2. How will the Celtics handle the zone?

You would think that a zone defense would be the last strategy to employ against the Celtics because of the presence of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. But in their prior meeting back in November, the Celtics shot only 42 percent in an 89-87 loss. The Mavs play zone more than any other team in the league, and the Celtics need to be prepared.

3. The start of something big

Beginning tonight, the Celtics play the Mavs, Magic, Lakers and Heat at the Garden (with a dangerous side trip to Charlotte on Monday). The schedule tapers off significantly after that in terms of quality opponents. This stretch will have a significant impact on the race for homecourt.

Read More: Celtics, Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks, Preview
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