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Tonight's Orlando Magic Game: at Dallas Mavericks

The Orlando Magic kick off a difficult back-to-back set when they visit the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Dallas owns the West's second-best record, has won three straight overall, and is 18-5 since hosting All-Star weekend. It also employs Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler, two players who've given the Magic fits on defense and offense, respectively, in recent years. But Orlando's playing some great ball of its own, and the Mavericks' credentials are less impressive in what's become one of the hottest topics in the blogosphere as we wind down the regular season.

2009/2010 NBA Season
Orlando Magic main logo
Dallas Mavericks main logo
52-22 (22-15 away)
Won 2
50-25 (26-11 home)
Won 3
April 1st, 2010
American Airlines Center
8:00 PM
TNT / Sun Sports
Probable Starters
Jameer Nelson PG Jason Kidd
Vince Carter SG Caron Butler
Matt Barnes SF Shawn Marion
Rashard Lewis PF Dirk Nowitzki
Dwight Howard C Brendan Haywood
Previous Meetings
February 19th: Mavericks 95, Magic 85
Advanced Stats
92.1 (19th) Pace 92.5 (15th)
110.3 (8th) ORtg 108.8 (11th)
102.8 (3rd) DRtg 106.5 (12th)
Game Officials
Dan Crawford
David Guthrie
Ed Malloy

The debate really got going when ESPN's John Hollinger wrote this piece (subscriber only) with Dallas in the midst of a 13-game winning streak. His computer formulas--it's important to remember that his power rankings are completely objective--had the Mavericks ranked just 13th in the league. Dallas is still rolling, record-wise, but has dropped to 15th in those same rankings as of today. He explains more in his chat today:

Dallas' point diff is slightly better since the break, but it's against a very soft schedule (29th over last 25%, though that doesn't include some tougher games just after break) and with 13-10 home-road split.

The consistent disrespect from more statistically inclined NBA analysts prompted Mavs owner Mark Cuban to send this angry Tweet yesterday, in which he corrects a perceived error Hollinger's calculations.

Indeed, Dallas has won 50 games this season, but has the point differential of a 43-win team. 7 other teams out West have a better differential than the Mavericks, who've been extremely fortunate in close games, going 9-2 in contests decided by 3 points or fewer. Just last night they rallied from 12 points down late in the fourth quarter, in Memphis, to win in overtime. And last month, they staged a similar rally in Orlando and won fairly convincingly.

I'm not here to dismiss the Mavericks, because I do take them seriously. Dirk Nowitzki's one of the greatest players of his generation and further padded his credentials with this historic feat, as Dallas has won 50-plus games in each of the last 10 years, with Nowitzki leading it in scoring each season. Jason Kidd has great size at point guard and helps the Mavericks cross-match on defense. Rookie guard Rodrigue Beaubois, whom Magic forward Mickael Pietrus is credited for discovering several years ago, is on fire this month, averaging 13.4 points on 56.3% shooting in just 18.6 minutes. Hollinger's so impressed that playing Beaubois "might be the only thing that can keep Dallas from freeing its golf clubs this spring."

So, how do the Magic attack this Dallas team? Defensively, there's not much they have to do, honestly. The Mavericks love to take long two-pointers, and Orlando loves to let its opponents take them, as the long two-pointer is the least efficient shot in the game. It helps that Nowitzki (47%), Jason Terry (45%), and Butler (43%) are among the league's best players at making it, but the point stands. Also, on the second night of a back-to-back, those jumpers figure to fall short more often than they might otherwise.

What Orlando can't do is lollygag, figuring it can assert itself at will when the time comes; it must take control early by attacking the basket and force-feeding Dwight Howard. Don't play into the Mavericks' hands by keeping the game close--recall their 9-2 record in one-possession games--as they're the best free-throw shooting team in the league. They can certainly close games out.