NBA Season Preview: The Dallas Mavericks

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Last season: 55-27, which was enough to nab the West’s second seed before losing a tight series to the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. It was Dallas’ tenth consecutive 50-win season, but also their fourth first-round exit over that same span.

Head Coach: Rick Carlisle, an excellent coach driven by detail, famous for both getting the most out of his roster and neglecting certain corners of it. Few coaches are as skilled in adapting their game plan mid-season, but Carlisle famously neglected to make Mavs rookie Rodrigue Beaubois a consistent part of the rotation despite his fantastic play, just as he neglected to let Tayshaun Prince sit at the adult table back in 2003.

Key Departures: Erick Dampier, Erick Dampier’s instantly expiring contract, Eduardo Najera, another year of production from an aging core.

Key Additions: Tyson Chandler, Dominique Jones, familiarity for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, and a more deserving role (and the accompanying minutes) for Rodrigue Beaubois.

Best case scenario: Dallas is the clear-cut No. 2 in the West for most of the season, and a Laker implosion vaunts Dallas into consideration as the conference’s “team-to-beat.”

For that to happen: Carlisle will need to find the optimal manner in which to combine all kinds of useful, versatile talents, and each of those pieces will need to perform up to their capabilities.

Dallas is so deep and talented that no one really needs to max out in order for the team to be successful this season, but each of the pieces does need to fit just so and fill in as Dirk Nowtizki’s second fiddle by committee. Tom Ziller of NBA FanHouse illustrated that last point beautifully in a September installment of The Works; the thing that separates the Lakers from the Mavs is not overall depth, but second-tier talent. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler, and Rodrigue Beaubois are effective and productive players, but they’re no Pau Gasol. Some aren’t even a Lamar Odom or a Ron Artest. Dallas has enough talent on its roster to finish the marathon regular season with an excellent time, but when things turn into an all-out sprint come April? The rotations tighten, the top players have to produce in spite of opposing teams teching specifically against them (and only them), and proper preparation allows opponents to exploit previously unknown (or ignored) weaknesses.

Say what you will about it being a two-superstar system or a three-superstar system or some alternative model, but Dirk Nowitzki needs a top-flight sidekick for the Mavs to be contenders, and no player currently under Mark Cuban’s employ was able to succeed in that capacity last season.

Then again, the same could probably be said of the 2006 Mavs, a team that battled through the West to make it all the way to the NBA finals, or the 2007 Mavs, a squad that won 67 regular season games before running into a match-up nightmare in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s Lakers provide a tougher opponent than anything the Mavs saw in ’06 or ’07, but overall, this Dallas team has more talent in all the right places.

They may not have Devin Harris, but they have a combination of Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois. They may not have Josh Howard, but they have a superior duo in Caron Butler and Shawn Marion. They may not have Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop (just in case you happen to remember the days in which Diop was an actually effective defensive big), but they have Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler. This team has enough going for it to mount an impressive playoff run, and the biggest point of differentiation between this year’s team and the most successful Dallas models is the mere presence of the Lakers.

Take L.A. out of the picture — by injury, infighting, or simply a premature playoff exit — and Dallas has a shot. I’m not sure how the Mavs would get past the Celtics, Magic, or Heat even if they did manage to make an unexpected surge to the finals, but getting there would be something in itself.

More likely the Mavs will: Win 50+ games yet again, improve their standing (but not their position in the standings, where Dallas finished 2nd in the West) relative to a year ago, and still watch the Lakers waltz to the finals.

It’s nothing against the Mavs. This is a solid team, through and through. L.A. is just very, very good, and the rest of the West is formidable as well. So even if Dallas does have a successful season by most standards, they could still see their run ended by the superior outfit. You can blame the differences in approach, the personnel acquired, or the Pau Gasol trade, but barring a huge (and I do mean huge) boost from Rodrigue Beaubois and rookie Dominique Jones, Dallas will hang out in the waiting room with San Antonio, Portland, and the other would-be contenders in the West.

You can expect Dallas to improve in plenty of areas, regardless. A full training camp and season experience for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood should help them feel more at home in Carlisle’s system, a point which shouldn’t be underestimated. Last year’s offense and defense — both of which ranged from ‘average’ to ‘good, not great’ — should improve with that familiarity and the additions of Chandler and Jones, but again, they likely won’t improve enough to significantly change the Mavs’ fate. Dallas will likely improve their rebounding rate from a season ago, if only because Dallas’ performance on the offensive glass last season was very disappointing (they ranked 26th in the league in offensive rebounding rate) even by this team’s standards, and Tyson Chandler happens to have a knack for hitting the glass on that end.

Also, Rodrigue Beaubois, and hopefully lots of him.

Ultimately, you’re looking at a squad that will be fairly similar to last year’s team in approach, but a tad superior in execution.

Prediction: 53-29. Good (better even, despite one fewer win from last season), but for those with eyes toward titles and titles alone, not good enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

PBT Extra: How big a threat are Pelicans to Warriors?

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Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We knew they were good, but they looked dominant on both ends sweeping the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers right out of the postseason (and into a somber period of reflection).

New Orleans looked like the best team in the West in the first round and now they take all that momentum to Golden State where… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In this PBT Extra I discuss how the Pelicans have found an identity, but the matchups against Warriors are dramatically more challenging than what they saw in Portland. And that’s before Stephen Curry returns to the fold.

The Pelicans are a great story, but the pecking order in the West is real for good reason.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.