Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat

Dallas is in the zone. Literally.

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The Miami Heat have just one loss in their last 16 games.

Courtesy the new and improved Dallas Mavericks. A team that has actually swept the Heat this season and racked up wins against the Thunder, Magic, Jazz (twice) and the Spurs. And that is all in basically the last month alone.

(Yes, the Mavericks lost Tuesday night to the lowly Toronto Raptors, but that was the second night of a back-to-back and having to play without Dirk Nowitzki. Yes, they probably still should have won, but even good teams get to write off a few isolated bad games a season.)

Maverick backers are starting to believe that this season is different. That the team’s early play proves the point.

Right now, Dallas is in the zone. Because they are in the zone. Literally.

Dallas’ offense this season is pretty much just as productive, just as efficient as last season. The defense is the difference. Dallas is giving up 3.2 points per 100 possessions fewer this season compared to last (according to Hoopdata), moving them from a middle-of-the-pack NBA defense to seventh right now.

The Mavericks have made two big defensive changes this season. One is bringing in Tyson Chandler who, when healthy, is one of the better rim protectors and defensive centers in the game. And he has stayed healthy (that sound you hear is Mavs fans knocking on wood).

The other is they have adopted playing a matchup-zone defense more than maybe any other team in the NBA.

Zone defenses have been considered an NBA gimmick — you could run it for a few minutes to throw a team off balance, but once they adjusted it was too easy to rip apart. However, teams have started to stick with it longer (see the Suns in the Western Conference finals against the Lakers last year).

What Dallas does (and other teams are starting to do also) is different. For basketball junkies, if that zone the Mavericks run looks familiar, it’s because it’s had a lot of success before — with John Chaney at Temple. You remember him and his askew tie from many an NCAA tournament. Mavs assistant coach Dwane Casey brought the defense with him, and he learned it from current Clippers assistant Dean Demopoulos who was a long-time assistant of Chaney.

Chaney’s zone called for constant ball pressure and help defense in ready positions on other men. It’s not a classic zone but sort of a melting pot of several zones designed to pressure teams. It takes some skill and practice because men are handed off to other defenders and the positioning can feel awkward.

Dallas runs an almost hyper-aggressive form of what Cheney used to at Temple — you can do that with the longer, better athletes of the NBA — and they’ve added traps and more.

During the regular season, there can be no doubt it is working. Combine the zone defense with an MVP-caliber player (Nowitzki) on offense and deep talent across the board and you get a lot of wins. You get 24-6.

Before the season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban boasted that the depth of the Mavericks made them a threat to the Lakers. That needs to be proven because in the playoffs, when bench rotations shorten, having a lot of depth matters less than quality players. We know the Lakers and the Spurs have quality, Dallas needs to prove it goes beyond Dirk. It also remains to be seen how the Mavs defense will hold up in a seven-game series where more weaknesses can be exposed and matchups exploited as teams delve deeper into game preparation.

Which is to say, the Mavericks still need to prove they are really contenders for a title. But right now they are very, very good.

They are in the zone.

Glenn Robinson III does his best to salvage Dunk Contest, gets victory in process

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NEW ORLEANS — This year’s NBA All-Star Dunk Contest was doomed to disappoint, it was never going to match last year’s epic battle. It started in a hole.

It never climbed out. Don’t take my word for it, check out what JaVale McGee thought.

Saturday was an underwhelming night of dunks punctuated by a couple of moments of brilliance.

The Pacers’ Glenn Robinson III had the most of those moments — which is why he won the event. His strong night started with his first dunk, which may well have been the best of the contest.

The final one from Robinson, the one that sealed the victory, may be the other best dunk of the competition — dunking over Paul George, the Pacers mascot, and a Pacers dancer.

“I originally planned for it just to be PG (Paul George),” Robinson said afterward. “I knew I had to bring out something special. We added the mascot and the cheerleader. I really just wanted to get up high and dunk that thing hard, man. My adrenaline was going. It felt like I was looking at the rim. All I knew was the crowd go crazy. I pointed like this because, man, everybody seemed to sleep on me, didn’t really think I was going to win this thing.”

Event favorite Aaron Gordon, who should have won a year ago, opened the contest with an innovative idea — a drone dunk — but he couldn’t execute it and there were a few attempts before he nailed it.

Gordon didn’t advance out of the first round, and his first dunk summed up the 2017 Dunk Contest — interesting ideas that didn’t quite pan out like planned. (To be fair, Gordon has been battling injuries recently, that may have thrown him off).

If it wasn’t going to be Gordon, a lot of people expected it to be the bouncy Suns forward Derrick Jones Jr. who won, and he reached the Finals in part thanks to this spectacular dunk that woke the Smoothie King Center up.

DeAndre Jordan was okay, but without Chris Paul throwing him lobs it didn’t quite feel the same. Jordan can dunk with such power in game, but we didn’t see that Saturday.

In the end, it was Gordon who was making the plays.

“I’m not really a known dunker,” Robinson said. “I practiced. I prepared. I know I’m a jumper. And like I said, I’m a guy that stays out of the way. But when it’s time to shine, that’s my thing. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew all along I had some things planned, and I just wanted to show the world.”

Glenn Robinson III wins underwhelming dunk contest on over-people, below-rim dunk (video)

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NEW ORLEANS — Glenn Robinson III won the dunk contest with the second-best dunk of the night, going over a few people and under the rim — a narrow path to slamming victory.

It would’ve rated as the event’s best dunk if he were truly under the rim rather than somewhat in front of it. And he did have the best body of work to win the contest.

But the best single dunk was still by runner-up Derrick Jones Jr., who went between the legs on a pass off the side of the backboard.

NBA stars shoot threes to raise $500,000 for Sager Strong Foundation in touching moment

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NEW ORLEANS — The spirit of Craig Sager is strong during All-Star weekend in The Big Easy and he’s going to get a spot in the Hall of Fame, deservedly so.

After Eric Gordon won the Three-Point Contest, he and the other finalists Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker stayed on the court to shoot threes to raise money for the Sager Strong Foundation — they would shoot threes for a minute and for each make the foundation would get $10,000. Then they brought out help — Reggie Miller, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, DJ Khaled, and others to knock down shots. That raised $130,000.

Stephen Curry tried to push that to $500,000, but it was Sager’s son that actually did it (with an assist from Shaquille O’Neal).

It was a touching moment for a great cause.

Derrick Jones Jr. catches pass off side of backboard, jams between-legs dunk (video)

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NEW ORLEANS — With defending runner-up Aaron Gordon eliminated in the first round, Suns forward Derrick Jones Jr. might be our best hope to save the dunk contest.