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.

Watch Gordon Hayward, Chris Paul get double technical fouls after wrestling for ball (VIDEO)

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I said earlier on Tuesday that the double technical foul handed out to Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley during Game 5 of the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder series was the weakest of the playoffs so far.

All I had to do was wait about two hours. The NBA fixed that right up for me.

Late in the game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz, Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward got tied up on a jump ball. The two ended up on the floor, and neither wanted to let go of the ball.

Hayward and Paul wrestled for the ball, with Hayward eventually winning. Paul then gave him a little shove in the back. Both, somehow, wound up with a technical foul.

I … what?

Utah won an exciting game at the wire, 96-92, to take a 3-2 series lead.

Hayward, Johnson, good ball movement lift Jazz past Clippers 98-94, Utah up 3-2

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LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul is the best player on the floor in the Los Angeles vs. Utah first round series. He’s also the best playmaker on either team, a guy who can survey the court and quickly decide whether he should score or what teammate he can set up. He also gets the Clippers points and plays solid defense.

However, for lengthy stretches of the game, he’s the only playmaker on the court for the Clippers. He has to be Mr. Everything.

Utah has multiple guys they can lean on to create looks — George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson — and with that has come better team ball movement and open shots.

It also came with a crucial Game 5 win over Utah, 98-94, putting the Jazz up 3-2 heading to Utah for Game 6 on Friday night. Utah has the chance to advance past the first round for the first time since 2010, when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were at their peaks, and Jerry Sloan was still patrolling the sidelines.

Gordon Hayward is Utah’s big star now, and he returned from missing Game 4 with food poisoning. This time he made the Clippers sick, with 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus he made the little plays like a tip-out offensive rebound to Johnson late in the game that turned into a key made three for the Jazz.

“Hayward killed us early,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought Hayward set the tone tonight in the first six or seven minutes of the game (Gordon had 11 first quarter points on 4-of-6 shooting).”

The Clippers often use Blake Griffin as a secondary playmaker, because he has good handles and is a strong passer. However, with Griffin out for the rest of the series with a foot injury that will require surgery, the Clippers are stuck. Backup point guard Austin Rivers returned to the Clipper lineup, but he could only play 16 minutes. Too much of the time it felt like CP3 against the world to create shots for the Clippers. That’s rough against a long, disciplined Jazz defense.

Meanwhile, the Jazz were moving the ball and getting better looks — if guys such as Joe Ingles (0-of-4 from three) or George Hill (1-of-7) had knocked down their shots, this game may have been decided much earlier. Utah’s drive-and-kick game was in full force, and with Griffin out the Jazz have nobody who can check Joe Johnson effectively.

“That’s beating us off the dribble way too much and making us rotate,” Rivers said. “Also, we did a good job — we took the ball out of Joe (Johnson’s) hands… by doing that they’re going to get open threes. And listen, we were fortunate tonight with them being on the road, their role players didn’t make some of those.”

That’s what the first half felt like. The Jazz pushed the pace at times, moved the ball well in the half court, exploited mismatches, and largely got better looks than the Clippers, but missed enough good shots that the game was always close. It was 21-19 Clippers after one, led by six points from Paul Pierce nailing a couple open threes. By the half the Jazz had a small 46-43 lead behind 14 from Hayward on 5-of-8 shooting. But neither team was able to take control.

The third quarter was just ugly basketball — it was slow, physical, and Utah missed shot after shot. So did both teams — Utah “won” the quarter 18-15 to have at 64-58 lead after three. Still, it just felt like Utah was playing better and just missing looks.

Utah pushed the lead to 11 in the fourth after some threes started to fall, but the Clippers went on their own 11-0 run sparked by Paul to tie the game up 69-69. Staples Center was getting loud. But out of a time out the Jazz scored five quick points off well-designed plays, and order was restored (as far as Utah was concerned). From there Utah just held on.

Hayward finished with 27 to lead the Jazz, followed by Rodney Hood who came off the bench with 10. Utah had six players in double figures.

There was little pretty about this game, or for that matter the series. It’s become slowed down and grinding. It’s not a style the Clippers thrive in, but they’re going to have to find a way — or pick up the pace — by Friday night, or their season will come to an end. Then the questions will begin.

Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley get weak double techs for trash talking (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley had no love lost during Tuesday night. The Houston Rockets closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-99, but that didn’t stop Brodie and Beverley from getting one of the weakest double technical foul calls we’ve seen during these playoffs.

The two squared off midway through the fourth quarter, with both players seemingly OK and a bit incredulous after getting techs for what amounted to trash talk.

I’ll let you be the judge for yourself whether it was worth of a tech.

Via Twitter:

The double technical foul is definitely one of the dumbest calls in the NBA.

Houston goes on to face the winner of the series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills lead Spurs by Grizzlies for 3-2 series lead

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard had 28 points and the San Antonio Spurs rebounded from two discouraging road losses to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 116-103 on Tuesday night and take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series.

San Antonio shot 14 for 28 on 3-point attempts, two off its postseason record, including 5-for-7 shooting by Patty Mills.

Mills finished with 20 points and Tony Parker added 16.

Mike Conley had 26 points and Marc Gasol added 17 for the Grizzlies, who have lost nine straight postseason games in San Antonio.

With each team winning on its homecourt, Game 6 is Thursday night in Memphis.

The Spurs went on an 11-0 run shortly after switching Leonard onto Conley defensively, holding the Grizzlies scoreless for 2:46 midway through the first quarter.

But it was the few times either team had success defensively.

San Antonio shot 53 percent from the field and Memphis shot 52 percent in a surprisingly explosive game between teams renowned for their defense.

Conley had seven points during a 17-3 run bridging the third and fourth quarters to pull Memphis within 87-83 with 9 minutes remaining.

The teams exchanged baskets over a 3-minute span before consecutive 3-pointers by Mills helped break the game open for San Antonio.

After failing to score in the first four games, Manu Ginobili had six points in 33 seconds in the first quarter and finished with 10 points.

James Ennis III had 11 points and Andrew Harrison added nine, as both took advantage of Leonard leaving them to help defensively during the second and third quarters.

TIP-INS

Grizzlies: Conley and Gasol are the only Memphis players to score in double figures in all four games. . Zach Randolph had nine points and six rebounds Tuesday after averaging 17 points and 9.7 rebounds in the previous three games. Randolph was held to six points and three rebounds in Game 1. . Tony Allen remained out with an injury to his right leg after being kicked in the calf during Memphis’ regular-season finale against Dallas. . Ennis was 4 for 9 from the field in scoring 11 points after averaging 7.0 points in the previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio’s franchise record for 3-pointers made is 16 against Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 25 straight playoff games, the longest streak in franchise history since Tim Duncan had 26 from 2011-2013. . The Spurs have lost three straight only once this season, dropping their final three games of the regular season after clinching the second seed. They have lost two straight on four occasions, including back-to-back losses in Memphis in this series. . Dewayne Dedmon returned after missing Game 4 due to an illness. . Ginobili’s eight points in the opening quarter are the most he scored in any quarter of a playoff game since scoring nine in the 2014 NBA Finals.