Dallas v. Denver: Nuggets in 5

I sincerely hope I'm wrong about this, but I have a feeling we're all about to get really pissed. Watching the most athletic - and by far the most animated and arrogant - team in the NBA knock the Dallas Mavericks out of the playoffs could be very painful.

Get out your hate hats, Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets is Sunday at 2:30.

If you haven't seen a lot of Nuggets' games this season, just wait. A week from now you'll look back at the San Antonio Spurs and consider them a docile ally. Trust me.

The Nuggets' cocky smugness starts with their coach, George Karl. Denver hadn't won a damn thing - much less a playoff series - since 1994 before this week's first-round elimination of the New Orleans Hornets. Yet listen to Karl and his team, and the Nuggets are confident of easily handling the Mavs.

"We're good," Karl shrugs, "I'm not afraid to say it."

He's right, of course. But even more than excellent, the Nuggets are egocentric.

It won't take long for you to cringe at the stylings of J.R. Smith, a fantastic reserve guard who dilutes his talent with animated gyrations after every single basket he scores. Smith - a Denver Thugget? - was the guy who drew Mark Cuban's ire up in Denver earlier this season for throwing a wayward elbow, and who walked onto the floor during a March game at American Airlines Center to taunt a fallen Antoine Wright. Last week as the Nuggets were ripping the Hornets by a record-tying 58 points, it was Smith who nailed a long 3-pointer and then skipped, twirled and laughed his way back up court.

Smith also, along with forward Carmelo Anthony, wears a garish sleeve on his left arm. Please explain this to me. Is it to keep his non-shooting, guide arm warm? Or perhaps just another "look at me!" accessory? And I haven't even mentioned Chris Anderson. He'll be the guy robed in total tattoos, a gelled-up mohawk and acrobatic offensive rebounds, punctuated with exaggerated pelvic thrusts toward Dallas' bench.

In other words, I hope you enjoyed the Mavs-Spurs series. Now totally forget it. Because in style and substance, this matchup will look like a different sport ...

With TNT and ABC telecasting the games, the Mavs will be without local TV voices Mark Followill and Bob Ortegel. They'll also be void of confidence.

Dallas was a league-best 18-5 in games decided by five points or less during the regular season. Against Denver in tight games they were 0-3, losing by 2, 2 and 3 points.

Know this: Unlike the San Antonio series, the faster the pace against Denver the worse chance Dallas has of staying in games. The Nuggets flourish ad-libbing in the open court. They will be quicker, faster and jumpier at every position. If this were a dunk contest, I'd confidently predict a sweep.

The Mavs have some hope. That Jason Kidd's savvy can maintain Dallas' pulse and pace at a managable level. That the games can be played in the low 90s and be decided by half-court execution down the stretch.

I have heard only two "experts" - TNT's Kenny Smith and ESPN's Dallas-based Marc Stein - pick Dallas. Though I'd be delighted to be wrong on this one, I grudgingly concur with the majority.

POINT GUARD: Jason Kidd vs. Chauncey Billups should be a bee-yoot. Kidd won't be chasing around the cat-quick Tony Parker anymore, but Billups will take Denver's most important shots and is, for my money, the NBA's most underrated player. Advantage: Nuggets.

SHOOTING GUARD: I know Antoine Wright will start for Dallas and Dahntay Jones for Denver, but the matchup between super-sub sixth men Jason Terry and J.R. Smith might decide the series. Each are streaky shooters brandishing sideshow bits - Terry's arms-out "Jet" is likely infuriating to Dallas' opponents. Terry is the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. In a series that should provide an open-court, up-tempo pace to his liking, he needs to play like it. Advantage: Mavericks.

SMALL FORWARD: Given the amped-up speed and quickness of this series, Josh Howard's gimpy ankle is going to be a factor. He has to play Carmelo Anthony to a draw for Dallas to have a chance. Unlikely. Advantage: Nuggets.

POWER FORWARD: The Nuggets likely won't double-team Dirk Nowitzki like the Spurs did, but more so rely on the length and athleticism of Dallas native Kenyon Martin to frustrate him. Denver's Chris Anderson will also try to bait and badger Dirk out of his game. Though he did miss an open 17-footer at the buzzer in the final meeting, Nowitzki averaged 30 a game against Denver in the regular season. Keeping their composure is crucial to the Mavs' strategy. Advantage: Mavericks.

CENTER: Denver's Nene can run circles around Erick Dampier. If guarding Tim Duncan was a 33rpm vinyl record, Nene will be a 78rpm. Rick Carlisle would be smart to keep Ryan Hollins warm in the bullpen. Advantage: Nuggets.

BENCH: Denver's defensive stopper is Anthony Carter, who somehow muzzled Chris Paul in the first round and will likely shadow everyone from Terry to Kidd to Howard in this series. If Dallas goes to a zone in an attempt to de-fang Denver's athleticism, George Karl can turn to long-range shooting specialist Linas Kleiza. Because of Denver's size, look for J.J. Barea's effectiveness to be reduced and the roles of Brandon Bass and James Singleton to be increased. Advantage: Even.

COACHING: While Karl is a loosy-goosey coach without a defined "system", Carlisle can cement his genius if he can concoct a zone-heavy scheme to get the Nuggets to slow down and play at Dallas' preferred, more pragmatic pace. Advantage: Mavericks.

INTANGIBLES: The Nuggets have home-court advantage, and they're 16-1 in their last 17 at the Pepsi Center including 15 of those by 10+ points. Though the Mavs have more playoff experience, Billups' leadership is the great equalizer.

PREDICTION: I'm afraid the Mavs don't have the manpower or the moxie to keep this series from deteriorating into a playground style they can't win. Nuggets in 5.

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