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.

Watch Charles Barkley struggle to pronounce “Jonas Valanciunas” last season

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The Toronto Raptors were good last season, second best team in the East. That means the guys on Inside the NBA on TNT had to talk about them.

Which means Charles Barkley had to say “Jonas Valanciunas” a lot. Which is high comedy. While a lot of people struggle to say his name the guy is a solid NBA center who, with a little practice, you can say (and spell) his name pretty easily.

This comes from a YouTube user, via Reddit, with a hat tip to Eye on Basketball.

Watch highlights of USA’s 111-74 rout of Argentina in exhibition game

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Argentina isn’t considered a medal contender heading into the Rio Olympics. Their golden generation — led by Manu Ginobili — has picked up a lot of speed on the downhill side of their careers at this point.

They didn’t provide much of a challenge for Team USA in an exhibition game Friday night in Las Vegas, one won by the USA 111-74. Kevin Durant impressed playing with his new teammates in dropping 23 points, Paul George had 18, and the Americans had their way in the game.

Which is what we’re going to see a lot of in Rio — the USA’s talent level is just steps above any other team in the tournament.

Kevin Durant: Nobody has said something negative to my face about joining Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 07:  Kevin Durant speaks to the media during the press conference where he was introduced as a member of the Golden State Warriors after they signed him as a free agent on July 7, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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When Kevin Durant chose the Warriors, he received criticism from all angles.

Fans burned his jersey. Charles Barkley decried the decision. Markieff Morris said, “That ain’t right.” Durant’s former Thunder teammates leaked their displeasure with the process.

Durant was so reluctant to face the backlash, he stayed in his bed luxurious rental house for two days.

It, uh, worked.

Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

Though he has heard some criticism from Barkley and fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, various talking heads and people in social media who believe he has cheated the system and cut corners to a ring, Durant said the reaction to his choice hasn’t been too bad: “All that stuff happens on the Internet. I haven’t had one person come to me and say anything negative. … It’s easy for the critics on the outside to tell you what to do, to tell you how to play. I’m the one that’s going through it, so I can’t really worry about the outside noise. The work don’t stop. Everything stays the same.”

This is a good reminder how insulated NBA players, especially stars, can be.

And it adds to why Durant signing with Golden State makes sense. While we’re debating his legacy and discussing the backlash (and the backlash to the backlash and the backlash to the backlash to the backlash and the…), he’ll be playing high-level basketball with his friends in a desirable city for a max salary.

Sure, it’s not all rosy. Durant altered his relationship with his friend Russell Westbrook, and Durant will have to return to Oklahoma City for a game. There, he’ll face plenty of booing fans.

But, all in all, Durant should have little trouble tuning out the critics.

They’re too far away for him to hear them much.

US romps over Argentina in first Olympic exhibition

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Paul George #13 of the United States passes the ball up the court against Argentina during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) New team. Same old result.

Full of new star power – and dominant on the inside – the U.S. men’s basketball team opened its bid for a third straight Olympic gold medal Friday night with a 111-74 exhibition romp over Argentina.

A game that was over almost before it began showed the U.S. has to improve its shooting and conditioning. It also showed that there is plenty of talent among a group of players that seem to want to play well for each other and their country despite the absence of Olympic stalwarts Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

“There’s a willingness from these guys to work on anything we need and to work hard,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “These are very good guys.”

A U.S. team that hasn’t lost a game in 10 years had little trouble with Argentina, which some consider a medal contender in Rio. Paul George scored 14 first-half points, Kevin Durant added 12, and the U.S. blew open the game early before an appreciative crowd on the Las Vegas Strip.

Even with Bryant retired and James taking this Olympics off, there was no real talent drop off on a team heavily favored to win gold once again. The depth of the U.S. showed as coach Mike Krzyzewski rotated players in and out, searching for the right combinations on a team with 10 new players from 2012.

“Nothing is for sure,” Durant said. “We want to get this gold and right now we have a job to do. We have to prepare the right way.”

Count the Argentines among those who were impressed at the first real game for the Olympic team.

“Obviously, they have the best talent and the best size in the world,” Argentina’s Luis Scola said. “That’s a big difference in their favor.”

The game was the first of five exhibitions the U.S. will play before traveling to Rio to defend the gold medal. The U.S. team has spent the last week practicing in Las Vegas in preparation for the tour and the games.

There weren’t any opening night jitters, though the U.S. shot only 45 percent and missed all but 14 of 41 3-pointers. With DeMarcus Cousins pulling down 15 rebounds in just 16 minutes, the U.S. dominated inside, outrebounding Argentina 53-30.

“The big thing is getting in shape and they are not there where they will be,” Krzyzewski said. “But we really have an inside presence on the boards.”

For Durant the game was a chance to play with a pair of his new Golden State teammates, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. It was also a chance for Durant and Carmelo Anthony – the only two players from the 2012 team – to demonstrate that this will be their team in Rio.

Both players cheered from the bench as the minutes were spread around, jumping up to clap for teammates. Every U.S. player got quality time, with Green’s 12 minutes the least played by any American.

“We’re going to have fun and we’re going to enjoy ourselves,” Anthony said. “If it’s not fun it’s not worth it. We’re going to enjoy ourselves but at the same time we’re going to be focused in trying to get that gold medal.”

Durant finished as the game’s high scorer with 23 points, while George had 18 and Carmelo Anthony 17. Andres Nocioni had 15 for Argentina, while Manu Ginobili added 11 for Argentina, which lost to the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics.

Though at times little defense was played, there was plenty of offense to keep the crowd at the new T-Mobile Arena happy. The teams combined to put up 70 3-point attempts, 41 of them from the U.S.

Oddsmakers had made the U.S. a prohibitive 29.5-point favorite in what at times looked a lot like an NBA All-Star game. But while the U.S. team is loaded with 12 NBA players, the Argentines had only three on their roster and the talent difference showed.

While the team is full of new players, the gold medal run will be the last for Krzyzewski, the national coach for the last decade. His teams have lost only one game during his reign, which will end after the Olympics with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich taking over.