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.     

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.