The difference between winning and losing an NBA playoff game usually comes down to a few critical plays at the end of a game. The Mavericks did everything necessary to win Game 3 but could not execute on their last offensive and defensive possessions. They not only lost a game they had won but probably also gave the series away.
• The Mavericks continue to be plagued by their inability to focus for an entire defensive possession, which was best illustrated by the Nuggets' putback and dunking assault on the offensive glass during Game 3. Dallas was murdered on the boards, giving up three consecutive putbacks to Chris Andersen to end the first quarter. The Mavs followed that up by allowing J.R. Smith to step right through four defenders standing around at the rim for a putback layup to start the second quarter. Down the stretch, they could not control a key defensive rebound late in the game, which led to a Chauncey Billups 3-pointer.
• This lack of focus and extra effort isn't evident just on the boards. Possession after possession, Dallas has three or four defenders in position, with two or three guys not quite where they should be. The Mavs then give up baskets they just shouldn't -- on the glass, at the end of plays and on key possessions down the stretch.
• In the fourth quarter, Brandon Bass had forced Nene to the baseline and cut him off. J.J. Barea took a bad help angle, overextending past the midline. With Jason Terry and Josh Howard standing above the foul line watching the action, Anthony Carter slipped into the lane for an easy layup.
• The Mavs' poor execution when trying to foul Carmelo Anthony at the end of Game 3 may have been the best example of the the team's defensive deficiencies. Mavericks players should have told the officials Antoine Wright's foul was coming, and it should have been a wrap-up -- not an "excuse me" reach in.
• These aren't X's and O's problems for coach Rick Carlisle and his staff. These are effort, concentration and focus issues for players on the court, issues they must solve in Game 4 if they want to avoid being swept.
• One strategic scheme the Mavericks must improve upon is their defense of Anthony. Dallas must make a better effort of denying Carmelo the ball in the midpost because they continue to allow him to catch the ball. Compare the Mavericks' effort on Melo to Brian Scalabrine's efforts to keep Rashard Lewis from catching the ball in almost the same spot. This should be hand-to-hand combat, but the Mavericks make this a two-hand touch.
• When Melo catches the ball, the Mavs must take away the middle of the court, make him spin baseline and bring the help hard on the baseline side. Doing this would take away any opportunities for Anthony to pass out of his drive to 3-point shooters who are open at the top.
• Offensively, Dallas attacked the rim early and often in Game 3, getting to the foul line a whopping 49 times. But down the stretch, it had to rely on fallaway jumpers from Dirk Nowitzki. On the Mavericks' most crucial possession in the fourth quarter with Dallas up two points and 14 seconds to play, Nowitzki caught the ball at the foul line, declined a clear drive to the basket and allowed Kenyon Martin to body him up and force yet another fadeaway.
• In Game 4, Denver will focus on key defensive areas. The Nuggets' transition defense was poor in Game 3, allowing Terry and Howard to get to the basket and leaving Terry wide open on the wing for uncontested 3s. In Game 4, look for the Nuggets to get to the ball earlier and identify the shooters more quickly.
• Denver also was hurt by Jason Kidd's posting Billups, as he went down to the left block in the second half and got deep into the paint. Billups adjusted on Kidd's last attempt, taking away the middle and forcing a fadeaway miss. This will be as much about Billups' accepting the challenge, but Billups will pick up earlier, dig in and fight the backdown to the middle.
• Expect more effort from Denver to deny Terry easy catches off the down screen and vary degrees of double-teams on the ball screen. Terry is indecisive with a soft trap, and the Nuggets have shown they can lure him in. They won't just allow Terry to come off one down screen to shoot or turn the corner in ball-screen action. With this defensive emphasis, look for extended minutes for Dahntay Jones.
• Look for Billups to ramp up his offensive aggressiveness in Game 4, as no one on the court understands the importance of closing out an opponent more than he does. Expect to see his pull-up 3s as well as hard drives to the basket. Dallas has no defender who can keep him from the rim.
• Denver will try to re-establish Nene in the post, especially because Dallas is still searching for a matchup for him. He has been guarded by four different Mavericks so far in this series, using his quickness and size against the varying defenders. If Dallas focuses most of its attention on Anthony, Nene should have big numbers in Game 4.
• The Nuggets have to love Melo's aggressive attacking at the rim, and although he hasn't gotten all the calls he wants, his drives create rotation havoc that allow for all the offensive rebounding opportunities. When Smith, Martin and Andersen see the defenders rotating to Anthony, they should be flying to the rim for tip dunks and putbacks.
• Bass gives the Mavericks more athleticism, and his offensive rebounding efforts got him to the free-throw line 14 times in Game 3. If Dallas elects to go smaller, quicker and more athletic, Bass will play more minutes. He also can defend all three frontcourt positions.
• The Nuggets had their whole front line in foul trouble in Game 3, with Birdman fouling out and Nene and Anthony each finishing with five fouls. They must play with better discipline at the end of plays and look for coach George Karl to substitute with more frequency during the first half.
Denver has been dominant on both ends of the court for most of this series, and it plays better than Dallas when hitting on all cylinders. The Mavericks must get over the debacle of Game 3 and dig down deep to prevent being swept. There is not much evidence that they want any part of going back to Denver for a Game 5, but professional pride and competitiveness must rule the Mavericks' thoughts in Game 4. If Denver is content to think ahead, it could give Dallas some hope. Don't expect Billups to let that happen.
Prediction: Nuggets win Game 4
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.