NBA Playoffs: San Antonio will not be deterred, finished of Dallas in six

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Nowitzki_floor.jpgWith the Dallas Mavericks down, the Denver Nuggets on the brink, the Phoenix Suns decidedly mortal, and the Utah Jazz dinged up, the San Antonio Spurs would like to respectfully enter their name for consideration as the non-LA team to beat in the West. They looked every bit of it in their resilient game (and series) against the Mavs, and though the Spurs surrendered a 22-point lead and let Dallas back into the game, San Antonio is clearly a team ready to roll through the playoffs.

Dallas deserves tremendous credit for clawing back into the final game of the series despite shooting blanks in the first quarter, and their trademarked ability to make a game out of what should have been a lopsided contest turned in a bit of an instant classic. It didn’t come down to game-winners or overtime, but the Mavs turned things around in the second half and made this a hell of a basketball game. The series may not have gone to seven games, but it unfolded as advertised: both teams were highly competitive, evenly matched, and played each other spectacularly. San Antonio just executed a bit better, fought a little harder, and protected their home court with a bit more tenacity.

As much as Game 6 featured the usual suspects — Dirk Nowitzki finished with 33 points on 13-of-21 shooting, Manu Ginobili had 26, and Tim Duncan had a solid 17 and 10 — the most prominent storyline featured each team’s up-and-coming guard: the Spurs’ George Hill and the Mavs’ Rodrigue Beaubois.

Hill was pegged as a potential difference-maker in the series, especially with Tony Parker a bit less reliable than usual. Hill started the series off slowly, scoring just seven points on 22.2% shooting in the first two games combined, but quickly became a vital source of scoring for the Spurs in Game 3 and beyond. He finished off his terrific series with 21 points and six rebounds in Game 6.

“Down the stretch we had our chances and you have to tip your hat to George Hill, he was the x-factor in the entire series,” Nowitzki said. “You live with Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan making plays, but George used his freedom and made amazing plays. You have to give him credit, he is going to be a good player in this league.”

Opposite Hill was the Mavs’ dynamic rookie, Rodrigue Beaubois. Rick Carlisle turned to Beaubois in the second quarter when things looked darkest for the Mavs, and in his desperation Carlisle unearthed Dallas’ buried treasure. Beaubois’ ability to penetrate and score around the Spurs’ defenders provided more than a spark, he was nearly a savior. All of a sudden the Mavs were within 13 at halftime despite only scoring eight points in the first quarter, and Rodrigue’s play was a huge part of that.

His strong performance continued through the third quarter, as Beaubois’ quickness clearly caused problems for the Spurs’ perimeter defenders. Rodrigue’s only roadblock — as has been the case throughout this series — was his own coach, as Rick Carlisle inexplicably left Beaubois on the bench for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter. San Antonio smelled blood in the water as the Mavs failed to score on a few consecutive possessions, and what had been a neck-and-neck game was suddenly a decent lead for the Spurs.

“I was kind of happy because it took away another scorer that was playing well,” George Hill said of Rick Carlisle’s decision to sit Beaubois. “That’s how it goes. People are going to go with people they’re very comfortable with. I think Beaubois did a really great job of giving them a spark,” Hill said. “I think that at the end of the day we made plays that we really needed to close it out.”

Carlisle’s rotations throughout the series could certainly qualify as curious, and some of his decisions have been more successful than others. In Game 3, Carlisle opted to sit Caron Butler for the entire second half and Shawn Marion for most of it, in favor of running a three-guard lineup including Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and J.J. Barea. It worked…for a spell. But when the three guards tired out from extended burn in the second half and the zone defense broke down, the Spurs were able to pull out a victory. In Game 5, Carlisle gave Erick Dampier, who had started in every game in the series to that point, a DNP-CD. Brendan Haywood started and shined in his place, and the Mavs looked ready to compete until the very end.

Then in Game 6, Carlisle abandoned his “roll with what works” mantra to grant a fourth quarter stint to Jason Terry, who has a history of fourth quarter heroics but had struggled in this particular game (JET finished 1-for-7 and just two points). Although the Mavs still managed to keep the game relatively competitive, there’s no question they could have used Beaubois’ ability to drive in order to put added pressure on the Spurs’ defense. Dirk Nowitzki was able to keep Dallas afloat, but even a superstar like Dirk has his limits.

In this case, Dirk could only score 33 points, while every other Maverick not named Beaubois or Caron Butler (who was fantastic in his career-high follow-up, and finished with 25 points on 50% shooting) struggled to score. Nowitzki, Butler, and Beaubois scored 74 of the Mavs’ 87 points, which is unacceptable given the considerable talent on the Mavs’ roster.

This isn’t to deny any credit to the Spurs, who took the game by the throat whenever they were given the opportunity. Ginobili and Hill hit some huge shots to prevent the Mavs from riding their momentum to a win, and Tony Parker (10 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) was no slouch. The Spurs just played like the better team in this series, probably because they were. Seven seed or not, a healthy San Antonio team is a force to be reckoned with, and though Dallas fought hard and provided a worthy foil, this was no upset.     

Phil Jackson says his goal for Knicks last season was 35 wins

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Phil Jackson predicted the playoffs for the Knicks in 2014-15, and he’s again drumming up postseason buzz for 2016-17.

Between, he was much more cautious.

The Knicks president didn’t make any bold proclamations entering last season. But, somewhat after the fact, he revealed his goal for the team.

Jackson in a March interview with Charley Rosen of Today’s Fastbreak that was published this month:

I’m also still hopeful that we can win the 35 games I had said was our goal before the season. That would be a vast improvement. More than twice the number that we won last year. We need to go 7-5 to get there.

“I know the guys don’t care about winning 35. They’re not marking it as their own goal. They just feel better about winning.

That’s a pretty pathetic aspiration – and the Knicks still didn’t meet it. They finished 32-50.

Jackson can say the players didn’t care about 35 wins, and they probably didn’t. It’s hard to see Carmelo Anthony appreciating aiming so low (though he might not resent it enough, which is anther issue).

But part of Jackson’s job is setting a tone for the organization. If he’s shooting for merely nearing mediocrity, that trickles down.

Jackson said entering the season he changed the Knicks’ culture. I’m not nearly as convinced.

51Q: Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 27:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets waits on the court before the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center on November 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will returning home to Atlanta rejuvenate Dwight Howard?

It’s hard to remember an NBA star whose perception has changed as much in five years as Dwight Howard’s has. He hasn’t really helped matters — his messy exits from the Magic and Lakers, as well as his rumored feud with James Harden in Houston and declining production due to injuries have clearly lowered his standing. It’s easy to forget that five years ago, he was a three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate and had recently been the best player on a team that went to the Finals.

As insane as it is to think about, the three-year deal Howard signed with his hometown Atlanta Hawks this summer is something of a reclamation project for a once-perennial All-NBA player. And the Hawks may be the perfect situation for him to rehabilitate his career.

From a pure talent standpoint, Howard in 2016 is a downgrade from Al Horford, who left Atlanta for Boston in free agency. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is predicated on spacing, and Howard offensively is useless from outside five feet. But he does undeniably fill holes. Last season, the Hawks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, with the third-lowest rebound rate, per NBA.com. Rebounding is one of the things that Howard can still do consistently at an elite level.

Howard also brings enormous value as a pick-and-roll finisher, when he wants to accept that role. In Los Angeles and Houston, he was still under the impression that his best use was as a post-up big, likely in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal’s nonstop criticisms of his game on Inside the NBA.

If Howard is willing to play the pick-and-roll and doesn’t demand touches, he can still be an impact player in Atlanta. The hope would be that after leaving three teams on bad terms, Howard accepts that at this point in his career, he isn’t a first option on offense anymore, and he’s willing to play a role similar to what Tyson Chandler was on the Mavericks’ 2011 title team: a rebounder and rim protector who feasts offensively on putback dunks and scores in the pick and roll.

If Howard can do that, the Hawks have enough talent to stay in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference despite losing Horford. They have other question marks on their roster — they still haven’t found a full-time replacement for DeMarre Carroll, and the transition from the just-traded Jeff Teague to Dennis Schroder is going to be rocky.

But they have the pieces, the coach and the culture for Howard to be successful in Atlanta if he wants to be.

Little kid in silly green hat eliminates Avery Bradley in knockout (video)

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, left, gestures as Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) steps on the court in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Sacrament Kings, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Boston. The Celtics won 128-119. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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Tired of NBA players dominating kids during the summer?

Here’s the video for you.

Celtics guard Avery Bradley loses in knockout – thanks to the smallest kid in the clip, who’s wearing a shirt way to big for him and a silly green hat.

Brian Robb of Celtics Hub:

Children in NBA player camps everywhere, you have been avenged.

Marc Gasol says he nearly played in Olympics, his foot seems fine

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 24:  Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates against the Oklahoma City Thunder during  Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on April 24, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Marc Gasol missed the final two months of last season and Olympics with a foot injury.

When will the Grizzlies center return?

Gasol in L’Esportiu, as translated by Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype:

On his foot injury:

“I’m really well and looking forward to starting (the season). I miss the competition, playing and enjoying basketball. All indications are that the foot is fine. I’ve practiced with the (Girona basketball club) juniors all I could, especially half-court sets.”

On almost making it to the Olympic Games:

“I was a couple of weeks away.”

After hurting his foot, it always seemed highly improbably Gasol would play in the Rio Games. But maybe he wasn’t that far off.

It’d be a huge boost to Memphis if Gasol is healthy as he sounds. The Grizzlies kept their window for winning open by re-signing Mike Conley and signing Chandler Parsons this summer, but Gasol is central to that. If healthy, Gasol is in the running for the NBA’s best center.  Memphis went 30-22 with him and 12-18 without him last season (though other injuries contributed to the downfall).