Dallas' offensive principles
The Dallas Mavericks run one of the best executed offenses in the league, as designed by coach Rick Carlisle. According to Synergy Sports, the Mavericks score .98 PPP (points per possession), good enough for the 4th best in the league. Similar to other current high-powered offenses, their scheme involves a heavy doses of pick-and-roll. Every guard that plays many minutes is dangerous as a ball-handler, and they usually split the floor in half so each guard can operate on separate sides, similar to what the Spurs do when they have both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the game together.
The biggest reason that their pick-and-roll attack is so successful is because of spacing which sets up the team's three-point shooters. The Mavericks hit at a light's out .384 from 3 (Second only to the Spurs' .397), and have shooters all over the floor at positions 1-4. Having those shooters forces the defenders to play up on them, and allows for roomier driving lanes for Monta Ellis and Vince Carter to get to the rim.
Even with a guard-heavy pick-and-roll centered attack, Dirk Nowitzki is still the hub of nearly every Dallas possession. They often run some side pick-and-pop early in the shot clock to get Dirk a quick midrange jumper or post-up opportunity. If that doesn't work, they can quickly reset and run another pick-and-roll or a set play.
Outside of being the roll man in pick-and-roll, the way Dirk gets the ball is predicated on how the defense is defending him. If the defense matches up a big man against him, Dirk will operate as a perimeter player, and stay out away from the basket, and run off screens on the baseline to get quick jumpers or posts. If the defender is a smaller and more mobile, they're most likely to crowd his base on jumpers and try to be a pest. When that happens, Dirk takes advantage of the smaller defender, and will post up traditionally and use his strength to get a good shot.
Defense is not the Mavericks' strong suit, and that's the reason that they'll lose this series. They allow 102.4 points per game (tied for 11th worst in the league) on a .464 clip from the field. Outside of Shawn Marion, their perimeter defense isn't very good in one-on-one matchups, and so they aren't very good at the point of attack. And after their first line gets beat defensively, they don't communicate or rotate well defensively, and are susceptible to giving up open threes. Tony Parker is going to have a field day slicing through the defense, and the Spurs will be able to whip the ball around the horn for threes time and time again.
San Antonio will have to be careful passing against the Mavericks, because even though their rotations to shooters can be slow, Dallas likes to shoot the passing lanes to create live-ball turnovers with quick players like Ellis, Marion, and Devin Harris. The Mavericks have been able to turn this aggressive style of defense into offense all year, as they average 17.1 points off turnovers per game.
The Mavericks' ability to protect the rim isn't strong either. Big men like Dirk Nowitzi and DeJuan Blair are mainly offensive players and rebounders. Brandan Wright and Samuel Dalembert are both solid rim protectors, but both can be caught off guard. Of the two, only Dalembert can really defend in the post. They will both do their best to ward off Parker and Ginobili, but even if they can stop the penetration, the Spurs' guards will be able to dump the ball down inside, because the rest of the Mavs defense is slow to rotate.
Something to look for is the zone Dallas often uses. Carlisle and the Mavericks have been fond of using a zone defense for a while, going back to when they won a championship with using a 2-3 look to force the Miami Heat to settle for jumpers. Dallas doesn't zone up as frequently as they did then, but you can expect the Mavericks to switch to a 2-3 or 3-2 zone to combat the penetration of Parker and Ginobili. The Spurs shouldn't have too much trouble facing a zone since they have the shooters to break it, but it is a wrinkle to be aware of heading into the series.
Individual Player Scouting Reports: (Players that play greater than 15 minutes per game.)
Deadly 3PT shooter at .449 on the year. Very capable as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, scores .83 PPP in this setting. Likes to operate pick-and-roll on the side, so he can get to the middle for a pull-up jumper around the free throw line or pass back to Nowitzki for a jumper.
|Very quick, athletic, good ball-handler. Has thrived in Carlisle's offense. Very versatile. Is a deft pick-and-roll ball-handler, scoring .87 PPP. Uses quickness and speed to drive to the rim in pick-and-roll, and when attacking defensive closeouts. Led the league in ppg off of drives with 7.3. Inconsistent, volume shooter. A pull-up jumper from Ellis is usually a defensive win. Must get in front of him in transition. Has become a solid, willing distributor. Plays matador defense, and tends to gamble for steals.
|A bulk of Marion's offense comes on spot-up threes, cuts, and in transition. He's got an odd form, but shoots a good .389 clip on spot-ups. Finds the soft spots in defenses, and makes defenders pay for turning their backs on him. Fills his lane and finishes well in transition. Still an impressive defender. Can guard positions 1-4 effectively. Funnels ball-handlers to help defense (whenever the help is actually there).
|Stay with him at all costs. Best way to defend is by crowding him at the base of his shot and be as physical as possible without fouling. Even when defended perfectly, he'll still drill a jumper in your face. Extremely crafty, uses pump fakes well. Still quick enough to get by a bad closeout to the rim. Gets in fantastic position for rebounds. Pray to whatever god you believe in that he misses.
|Best rim protector. Can bang a little bit down low on defense. Good rebounder. Not really an offensive threat. Has awful hands.
|His athleticism has declined with age, but he can still throw down on you if you're not careful. Uses his great strength for a guard to put his head down and get to the basket. Chase him in pick-and-roll. If you go under the screen, he'll make you pay from deep. Gets .94 PPP as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, good for 20th in the league.
|Extremely efficient scorer with a low usage rate. He's "shot" .677 on the year, mainly on dunks and putbacks. Is 6'10" with a 7'5" wingspan, and great athleticism, which helps him get lots of rebounds. Good rim protector because of size/athleticism. Not a great one-on-one defender.
|Mainly used in pick-and-roll. Not particularly outstanding in any area offensively, but solid in many. Uses speed to push the ball in transition. Decent on-ball defender.
|We all know the report on Blair. He's great as a pick-and-roll big man. He tries to use a floater in the lane to finish over bigger defenders. Great rebounder for his size. Is a sieve defensively. Always plays up versus his former team. Loves Whataburger.
|Energy/hustle guy. Tweener. Corner three-point shooter.
Series prediction: Spurs in 4. The Spurs will be able to stop the Mavericks far easier than the Mavs will be able to stop the Spurs.
(All stats used in this piece were obtained from Synergy Sports, NBA.com's stats database, and basketball-reference.com.)
(H/T to @RamiMichail)