NBA Playoffs: The Mavs fight to stay alive and look damn good in doing so

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caron butler.pngIn the first four playoff games between the Mavs and the Spurs, each game was decided by just a few possessions. Dallas edged San Antonio in Game 1, the Mavs were within two points during the fourth quarter of Game 2, and the Spurs’ took Games 3 and 4 by a combined seven points.

Then in Game 5, Dallas through the series blueprint out the window, and rode the wave of their own desperation to a decisive 103-81 victory. Facing a 1-3 deficit, the Mavs had no other choice. They’ll still need to secure a win on Thursday to give themselves a shot at the series, but at least Dallas lives to fight another day.

The heroes of Game 5 were undoubtedly Caron Butler (35 points, 11 rebounds, three steals) and Brendan Haywood (eight points, eight rebounds, four blocks), who ironically enough were both the subjects of recent mini-controversies over Rick Carlisle’s distribution of playing time.

Butler didn’t see a second of floor time in the second half of Game 3, and his inefficient scoring style has been considered by many to be a reason why the Mavs have struggled to top the Spurs. Haywood received his first start of the series on Tuesday night, and responded to his unearthing by grabbing six offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line 12 times. These were keynote performances by two of the Mavs’ mid-season acquisitions, and should Butler and Haywood maintain the theoretical foundation for their success — Butler’s improved shot selection and Haywood’s increased intensity on the boards and defensive focus — there’s no reason why Dallas won’t pose a legitimate threat to San Antonio.

Dallas exploded out of the gate in similar fashion to their opening statement in Game 4, only this time around they protected their double-digit lead with offensive balance and superior defense. With Butler (and the rest of the Mavs, for that matter) looking to attack the basket more than ever, the Spurs’ defense faced a rather difficult test. Even San Antonio’s impressive team defense couldn’t hold against a Dallas team attacking from all angles, and the game was already decided by the midpoint of the third quarter.

The heavy lifters on both sides received plenty of rest, as Gregg Popovich had officially thrown in the Ian Mahinmi towel by the end of the third. Tony Parker led the Big Three in minutes with 26 (and in points with 18; Ginobili and Duncan scored 18 combined), and though Dallas’ starters lasted a bit longer, Butler was the only Maverick to log more than 32 minutes.

The Mavs looked confident and impressive with their backs against the wall. Dallas looked to push the ball at every opportunity, and their effectiveness in transition helped to establish an offensive rhythm that carried over into their half-court sets. Game 6 will bring its own challenges, though, as Butler isn’t likely to drop 30+ points again (much less in such an efficient manner; Caron shot 50% from the field and didn’t turn the ball over once), and the atmosphere in San Antonio won’t offer the same fuel for the the Mavs’ fast break.

This team seems prepared, though. Butler’s ascent was accompanied by a team-wide offensive improvement, due to both the more favorable pace and improved player movement. The reason the Dallas offense became bogged down Games 2, 3, and 4 was due to too many Mavericks camping out along the perimeter while Dirk went to work. As impressive as Nowitzki is, that strategy is doomed to fail, and fail it did. With more transition opportunities and better movement once the Mavs settle down, the Mavs could perform far better offensively in Game 6 than they did during their last trip to San Antonio.

Dallas was the best road team in the Western Conference during the regular season, and they’ll need every bit of that visiting team mojo when they face the Spurs in San Antonio on Thursday. 

Jimmy Butler on Marcus Smart dustup: ‘He’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down’

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Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler had to be separated during the Celtics’ Game 4 win over the Bulls after Smart pushed Butler, who was hounding him defensively in the backcourt.

Butler:

As far as the Marcus Smart situation goes, he’s a great actor. Acting tough, that’s what he does. But I don’t think he’s about that, and I’m the wrong guy to get in my face. So, he needs to take it somewhere else because I’m not the one for that.

Was that their first run-in? Butler:

That’s the first time. Last time, too. We’re not going to sit here and get in each other’s faces like that. Like I said, he’s not about that life. So, he’s calming down.

The Bulls, who’ve lost two straight to allow Boston to tie the series 2-2, is angling for any edge. Butler tried to intimidate Smart on the court, and the Chicago wing might actually rattle the too easily shakable Smart with his postgame comments.

The irony: Some might say Butler, who did come up hard, lost touch with his roots as he entered stardom. I don’t buy that, at least not majorly.

But even if both – or neither – are posturing to any degree, this will be a matchup to watch in Game 5.

Remembering former NBA official Jess Kersey, who passed away Saturday

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Jess Kersey, who officiated more than 2,200 NBA games, including being part of 19 NBA Finals, passed away over the weekend, losing his battle with cancer at age 76.

Kersey was a well-respected official who feared nothing. Maybe the most remembered image of Kersey is him trying to break up a fight between Mitch Kupchak and Hakeem Olajuwon, essentially trying to tackle Olajuwon with his head in Olajuwon’s chest and his arms wrapped around him. Kersey got in the middle of everything if that was what was required.

Our thoughts go out to the Kersey family for their loss.

Bulls Fred Hoiberg complains Isaiah Thomas gets away with palming. Thomas shrugs.

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The Boston Celtics have evened their series with Chicago Bulls, and more than that seem to have been able to take the Bulls best punch and now are responding.

At the heart of that is Boston All-Star Isaiah Thomas, who had 33 points on Sunday. He was attacking and getting into the heart of the Bulls defense all night, telling Michael Carter-Williams “you can’t guard me” so many times Thomas got a technical. Thing is, Thomas was right. No Bull has been able to guard Thomas the past two games.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said the reason for that is the officials let him get away with a palming the ball when dribbling. Via Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.com (video above).

“Let me say this: Isaiah Thomas is a hell of a player, an unbelievable competitor, a warrior, everything he’s going through right now. He had a hell of a game tonight,” Hoiberg said. “When you’re allowed to discontinue your dribble on every possession, he’s impossible to guard. Impossible to guard. When you’re able to put your hand underneath the ball, take two or three steps and put it back down. It’s impossible to guard him in those situations.”

I liked the follow-up comment from the reporter (not on the video), which was essentially “the league doesn’t call that on anyone, so that’s your complaint?” Thomas doesn’t get away with palming any more than any other ball handler in the league. If you want to define the rule by a 1950s standard then yes, he does carry, but so does pretty much every Bulls’ ball handler. So does 3/4 of the league by that measure.

Fortunately, Hoiberg never had to coach against Allen Iverson or he might have completely lost it watching him dribble.

This came off as a desperation ploy by Hoiberg. Or it was the worst attempt ever at a “take that for data” rant ever.

Thomas, for his part, basically shrugged when told about it.

When told about Hoiberg’s comments, Thomas said, “That’s not the reason. It is what it is. I guess (Hoiberg) is just going to continue to say it. I’ve been dribbling that way my whole life, I don’t know what to say to that.”

Joe Johnson dominates late, Jazz beat Clippers 105-98 to even series 2-2

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Rudy Gobert was back at center, giving the Jazz an emotional boost and someone who can match up with DeAndre Jordan (although Gobert wasn’t moving like his normal self).

Gordon Hayward had to leave the game with food poisoning.

It didn’t matter, the Jazz had Joe Johnson. The veteran forward who knows how to get buckets scored or assisted on 20 straight points for Utah in the fourth, sparking a run that got the Jazz a 105-98 come-from-behind win.

The series is now tied 2-2, heading back to Los Angeles for Game 5 Tuesday.

When people talk about Johnson, the first thing that seems to come up is the oversized contract Atlanta gave him, but they forget this is a seven-time All-Star. He was nicknamed “iso-joe” because of how Mike Woodson’s offense used him heavily in isolation for the Hawks, but that was playing to the strength of his skill set. He can get buckets. Just ask the Clippers, as Johnson finished with 28.

The return of Gobert, a quietly strong game from Derrick Favors, plus maybe something else (like the heavy load last game) seemed to wear on DeAndre Jordan, who was not as sharp as normal in this one. The Clippers again leaned on Chris Paul — 27 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds — and Jamal Crawford who had 25 points off the bench. However, take those two out of the equation and the rest of the Clippers shot just 34.2 percent against that elite Jazz defense. In the fourth quarter, the entire Clippers’ team shot 31.4 percent total.

Utah got good performances from their role players, who stepped up with Hayward out. Rodney Hood had 18 points and some key buckets in the fourth. Then there was Joe Ingles, who defended CP3 for stretches, was a force getting where he wanted on the pick-and-roll leading to 11 assists, plus he had two key threes down the stretch.

The Clippers clearly missed Blake Griffin in some of these matchups, but Los Angeles is going to have to adjust to that in this series because he’s not returning.

This series is even and feels like it may well go seven. The Clippers have two out of the remaining three at home, and they have the best player in the series in Chris Paul. All that may not be enough if the Jazz role players keep stepping up.