NBA playoffs: The Dallas Mavericks are setting their phasers to 'kill'

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dirk nowitzki.jpgNo team in the West has better personnel to better match the Lakers than the Mavs. If you want perimeter defenders with length, Dallas has Shawn Marion, Rodrigue Beaubois, and DeShawn Stevenson. If you want bigs to match up with Pau Gasol and possibly Andrew Bynum, Dallas has Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier. If you want a scorer that can go toe-to-toe with Kobe, Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs have a far deeper bench, just as many scoring options, a point guard that isn’t a waste of space, and should they meet the Lakers in the Conference Finals, surely some momentum on their side as well.

Getting to that point is going to be tricky, and making the transition from tough match-up on paper to a real threat even trickier. If any team in the West can do it though, it’s the Mavs.

If you’ve seen the impact of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd this season,
you know the offense will be there. The difference-maker — and the
thing that could take the Mavs all the way to the NBA championship —
will be their ability to defend. 

A huge part of that is Shawn Marion’s defense against Kobe Bryant, which is absolutely critical for the Mavs to make it to the NBA Finals. Marion will need to continue sharpening his defensive abilities in the earlier rounds against some brutal competition, but the endgame is easy: stop Kobe, and (probably) then after that, stop LeBron. It’s not a one-man job and Marion would and should have help, but the Mavs’ defense against those two stars begins with Shawn.

Perhaps just as crucial, though, will be the play of Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier. Together, the two have the potential to be the most effective defensive center tandem in the league. Haywood is one of the best post defenders in the league, and Dampier is criminally underrated on that front. If those two can play the type of defense they’re capable of playing (which includes not only good on-ball post D, but supplying superior weak side help, and rebounding well), Dallas would have an easier waltz to the Finals than you’d think. It’s just about translating that potential into reality, or really, executing defensively more consistently than they have over the last two months.

The Mavs are on a bit of an upswing right now, and their point differential over their last five games is +13.6. Four of their last five opponents were held to under 100 points, and three of those five under 90 points. It really feels like Dallas could be on the verge of something great if the defensive execution could just stick around for a spell.   

Plus, despite the unfounded claims against Dirk’s ability to perform in the clutch, his “softness,” or inability to perform in the playoffs, Nowitzki is as good of a postseason player as we have in the league. Last year he posted a 28.4 PER and earned .284 win share per 48 minutes in 10 games against the Spurs and Nuggets. Those numbers are just a few ticks under LeBron James’ this season, and while Nowitzki may not be able to keep up with some of the league’s other superstars on the defensive end, he’s still an offensive juggernaut.

So many things are on Dallas’ side that it’s ridiculous. Coaching? Rick Carlisle is one of the best in the game, and his ability to adjust in-game and in-series is top-notch. ‘Veteran savvy?’ Dallas is one of the most experienced teams in the league. Clutch play? The Mavs have been dominant in close games this season, relying on the stability of their late-game execution to win the day. Home-court advantage throughout at least half of the playoffs? Check. Leadership? Double-check.

The Mavs are confident and ready to roll, and with the the added rest and preparation time the playoffs afford, no one should be too surprised if they’re hoisting up a trophy in a few months’ time.

Kobe Bryant’s 25 points not enough to upset Spurs

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs have watched helplessly as Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant has tormented them for the better part of the past two decades.

Bryant did so again in his final appearance in San Antonio, but the Spurs were able to enjoy this one.

LaMarcus Aldridge scored 26 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a throwback performance by Bryant to beat the Los Angeles Lakers 106-102 on Saturday night to remain unbeaten at home.

“I thought it was great,” San Antonio point guard Tony Parker said. “It was a great game, fans were into it. It felt a little bit like the old days in the playoffs, Spurs and the Lakers.”

Kawhi Leonard added 20 points and 13 rebounds to help the Spurs win their 28th straight home game to open the season. The Spurs’ 37th straight home victory dating back to last season was surprisingly difficult.

Bryant had 16 of his 25 points in the third quarter, going 3 for 6 on 3-pointers in guiding the Lakers to an 81-79 lead entering the fourth.

“I watched him growing up,” said Lakers guard and San Antonio native Jordan Clarkson, who finished with 21 points and four assists. “I watched him kill the Spurs.”

San Antonio has trailed for only two minutes in the fourth quarter at home this season, but the Lakers led for all but 23 seconds in the opening seven minutes of the period.

Bryant finished 9 for 28 from the field, but was 7 for 18 in a dynamic second half that electrified a pro-Bryant crowd.

“It’s like watching Michael (Jordan),” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “I was just watching. It was great. It was great. We made some mistakes. He took advantage of it. He’s fantastic.”

After rising to drain a 3-pointer with Leonard squarely in his face contesting the attempt, Bryant turned to an injured Tim Duncan on the bench and shrugged his shoulders.

“He was like, `No way,’ and I was like `Dude,’ ” Bryant said. “What could I do? I miss the easy ones and make some B.S. like that. I don’t even know what to tell you. It was Tim’s version of a yell, so it was a strong whisper.”

The Lakers trailed 101-99 lead after trading 3-pointers following Bryant’s improbable shot, but the Spurs’ were able to hold Los Angeles to just three points in the final 2 minutes.

“Missed defensive assignments,” said Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, who had 12 points. “They executed their offense to perfection. We were young and that’s an excuse I could give you.”

Bryant had a sore right shoulder, but he was not about to miss one last game against his fiercest rivals. He has faced the Spurs 90 times in the regular season and postseason, his most against any opponent.

TIP-INS

Lakers: The Spurs honored Bryant with a 3-minute video. The Spurs’ Big Three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all paid tribute to Bryant’s competitiveness along with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. Bryant walked over to the Spurs’ bench prior to tipoff and hugged Popovich, sharing a few words with San Antonio’s longtime coach.

Spurs: San Antonio’s 12-game lead in the Southwest is the largest ever since the division was formed in 2004-2005. … In addition to Duncan and Ginobili, the Spurs were also without Matt Bonner. The reserve forward suffered a left calf strain Friday against Dallas, which was just his 20th game of the season. … Pop star Selena Gomez sat courtside, wearing a Tony Parker jersey.

 

Spurs honor Kobe Bryant in his last game in San Antonio (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 30:  Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands next to Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs on March 30, 2006 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Spurs won 96-85. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Kobe Bryant farewell tour has gone all around the NBA, but some stops are more emotional than others. His final trip to San Antonio certainly qualifies — the Spurs and Lakers have played each other in the playoffs eight times in his career, including twice in the Western Conference Finals (the Lakers won both times). The only player who has rivaled Bryant’s longevity is Tim Duncan, and the Lakers and Spurs were the two most dominant teams of the 2000s, winning nine of the 12 championships from 1999 to 2010 between them.

So, of course, the Spurs had an elaborate tribute video planned for Bryant. The video ran two and a half minutes and featured narration from Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Watch it below:

Report: Clippers’ Austin Rivers has broken hand, out 4-6 weeks

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Austin Rivers #25 of the Los Angeles Clippers scores on a layup past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 105-93 win at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.

The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.

Warriors hold off late Thunder run to remain undefeated at home

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For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.

But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.

Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.

The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.

Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.