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.

76ers: Joel Embiid doubtful for Game 3 against Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Joel Embiid remains listed as doubtful by Philadelphia for Game 3 of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference playoff series at Miami on Thursday night.

Embiid was on the floor with the 76ers for their morning shootaround practice, but coach Brett Brown says there’s no change in the All-Star center’s status.

Embiid has missed Philadelphia’s last 10 games while recovering from a concussion and surgery that repaired a fractural orbital bone around his left eye. He’s no longer in the NBA’s concussion protocol.

He took to social media after the 76ers lost Game 2 of this series to the Heat, saying he’s tired of being “babied.”

Embiid has averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds in 63 games for the 76ers during the regular season.

Rumor: Lakers, Kawhi Leonard share mutual interest

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The Spurs seem like they won’t trade Kawhi Leonard.

That won’t stop teams from trying.

There’s a clear disconnect between Leonard and San Antonio. Even the potential of a player as good as Leonard becoming available has teams salivating.

The Clippers are reportedly assembling a trade offer for the L.A. native. Los Angeles’ other team – the Lakers – are also apparently expected to factor prominently.

Sean Deveney of Sporting News:

“I think they go in hard for Leonard once the season is over and once the dust settles in San Antonio,” one executive told Sporting News. “(Leonard) wants to go to LA. There probably won’t be public demands on that, but he has leverage. He is going to be a free agent (in 2019). He’s an LA guy and he can just let teams know he won’t re-sign next year with anyone but the Lakers.”

But make no mistake, the Lakers are the favorite here.

“I would say that’s the most likely thing,” another general manager told Sporting News. “He’s going to be their target any way you look at it, this summer or next summer. There’s not many other ways to explain what’s been going on with that situation other than him trying to get out of San Antonio.”

Of course, every team wants Leonard. He’s an elite two-way player when healthy. But teams will go to differing lengths to pursue him. If the Lakers will “go hard for Leonard,” that means something beyond just desiring him.

Under Magic Johnson, the Lakers have made no secret of their plan to acquire stars. That has largely been centered on 2018 free agents, but with that well drying up, talk has turned to 2019 free agents. If the Lakers can get a top 2019 free agent – Leonard – sooner, why wouldn’t they?

One reason is the cost. Trading with San Antonio would require dealing at least some combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Signing Leonard outright in 2019 would be simpler.

But a trade is the only surefire way of getting Leonard. If the Lakers don’t trade for him, another team could. With promising young players and cap space, the Lakers have the tools to make an intriguing offer for Leonard.

Or, more likely, the Spurs could keep him. Their relationship isn’t necessarily beyond repair, and they can offer him a super-max contract extension this summer.

They might not offer it. Even if they do, he might not take it. If he doesn’t, he could pledge to re-sign with only certain teams – like the Lakers – and steer trade talks that way. You can see how the thinking develops:

Leonard might be unhappy in San Antonio. He grew up in Southern California. Therefore, he’ll engineer his way to the Lakers?

Maybe, and maybe these anonymous executives know something to that effect. But this mostly sounds lazily speculative.

PBT Extra: Disciplined Celtics highlight bad habits of Milwaukee Bucks

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Giannis Antetokounmpo has been every bit the top five NBA player in the postseason — 32.5 points per game on 63.2 percent shooting, plus with 11 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.

Yet the Bucks are down 0-2 to Boston.

The Celtics have had a strong series from Al Horford and Terry Rozier, but the real difference is in the discipline this team has shown all season — Boston knows who it is. Clearly, Milwaukee does not. They turn the ball over too much and make too many mistakes.

I get into all of that in this PBT Extra, and I wonder if that’s something the Bucks can really turn around mid-playoffs.

Ettore Messina to coach Spurs in Game 3 following death of Gregg Popovich’s wife

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, died yesterday.

That sad news was felt throughout the NBA, and it obviously affects San Antonio most closely. That includes for tonight’s Game 3 against the Warriors.

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

Ettore Messina was a longtime head coach in Europe. The Spurs lead assistant also took over for a few regular-season games Popovich missed. So, making – rather than advising – coaching decisions won’t be a brand new challenge to Messina.

But down 2-0 to defending-champion Golden State is a tough place to make an NBA playoff debut.

On the bright side, there will be no pressure. Not only has San Antonio been outclassed the first two games of the series, focus is rightly on the Popovich family. A win would be a pleasant surprise and help Messina – who’s up for the Hornets job – in his pursuit of a head-coaching position. A loss would be quickly forgotten with more important matters at hand.

To that end, hopefully the time away allows Popovich the space he needs to grieve. That matters far more than a basketball game.