How they can win it all: The Dallas Mavericks

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Of all of this year’s contending teams, the Dallas Mavericks are perhaps the most improbable champions. Their trials begin in the first round, as the Mavs are rewarded for winning the West’s No. 3 seed with a tough matchup against the Portland Trailblazers. Should they take care of business against Portland, Dallas would likely have to fight through Los Angeles, followed by either San Antonio or Oklahoma City, only to meet perhaps their fiercest competition yet in the NBA Finals. The road to a title is a tough one for any team, but even more so for Dallas; the Mavs just don’t have the statistical résumé of their contending contemporaries, making them the underdog in pretty much every series beyond the first round (or possibly even in the first round, depending on who you ask).

Still, Dallas didn’t win 57 games by some fluke, and they aren’t merely referred to as contenders just to create cross-Conference symmetry. At various points in the season, the Mavs played at a championship-worthy level on both ends of the court. They just need to tap into what it is that made them great earlier in the year. We know Dallas is capable, even if they didn’t play their best basketball in the final weeks of the regular season; here’s how the Mavs can turn that capability into their first ever NBA title:

1. Align a productive offense with an effective defense

Dallas began the 2010-2011 campaign as a highly effective defensive team with a struggling offense, transitioned into a highly effective defensive team with a fairly efficient offense, became a middling team rendered powerless by injuries, and then settled in as an inconsistent defensive team with an efficient offense. It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least.

Yet all of the ingredients are there for the Mavs. They’ve shown they can lock down on D, and their latest successes have come by way of efficient scoring. They just need to find a way to play solid basketball on both ends at the same time, something the Mavs haven’t really been able to do for a significant stretch all season. Caron Butler’s absence certainly makes things far more difficult than they could have been, but this is the hand Dallas was dealt. It’s up to those healthy enough to play to return to the root of their early season success without compromising the integrity of their offense — a tall order, but hardly impossible.

2. Get the most out of Rodrigue Beaubois

Even though the defensive end has been more problematic for the Mavs of late, a shot in the arm on offense couldn’t hurt. Theoretically, that’s where we could throw in an “Enter Rodrigue Beaubois,” but the second-year guard clearly has no sense of theatrical timing. Beaubois made his long-awaited return from a lingering foot injury soon after Caron Butler had been ruled out for the remainder of the regular season, a fortunate development for a Maverick team in need of Beaubois’ offensive skills. Yet since returning, Beaubois has been largely underwhelming; while slotted at either guard position, Beaubois has wobbled between being overly tentative to trying to force the action. That inability to find a stable middle ground may have cost Beaubois a spot in the rotation for the playoffs, too, as Rick Carlisle opted to remove the erratic — but intriguing — guard from the starting lineup for the Mavs’ final regular season game.

Still, Carlisle will have to reverse course in desperation if the Mavs aren’t able to revive their depressed defense. Beaubois still has the potential to be a series changer if he can center himself, and Dallas will likely need him to bring tangible offensive benefit if they’re to go on a deep playoff run. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion have become the only stable scorers in the Mavs’ rotation, and if Beaubois could balance the struggles of Jason Terry or Jason Kidd with a productive outing once in awhile, it could go a long way toward relieving Nowitzki and Marion from excessive defensive pressure.

3. Keep Tyson Chandler on the floor

Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi are a fairly strong tandem as far as reserve centers go, but Tyson Chandler is just on another level in terms of his defensive impact. The reason Dallas was able to make such a substantial improvement on defense early in the season was mostly due to Chandler’s timely rotations; though Haywood and Mahinmi make honest attempts to protect the rim, neither is Chandler’s peer in regard to their ability to slide over and contest penetration. The difference between having Chandler in the lineup and either Haywood or Mahinmi is statistically palpable; not only are the Mavs 3.37 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Chandler in the game, but a more thorough look at their performance reveals that Dallas’ worst defensive showings coincide with Chandler’s lowest minute totals.

Rick Carlisle isn’t keeping Chandler’s minutes low by choice; because of his defensive role and physical style, Chandler tends to pick up fouls rather quickly. It’s essential that he avoids cheap, unnecessary fouls that would limit his playing time in the postseason, because the Mavs just aren’t the same defensive team without him on the court. However, it may also be prudent for Carlisle to be slightly less rigid in his approach toward Chandler’s fouls. In order to maximize his center’s minutes and effectiveness, it may not always be wise to pull him from the game, even when he picks up two personals in the first quarter or three in the first half. After all, doing so only creates an artificial cap on Chandler’s minutes when there needn’t be one.

The double-whammy: Chandler is also a far more useful offensive player than Haywood and Mahinmi, as he’s able to do both the little things (set better screens, catch the ball on the perimeter without being flustered) and the major things (convert offensive rebounds, finish alley-oops, hit the occasional elbow jumper) to facilitate the offense better than his center teammates. With that kind of two-way impact, foul trouble in a game or two could potentially turn a series. Dallas’ margin for error will be small even in the first round, and there’s no way the Mavs can live up to their potential with Chandler on the bench.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

Associated Press
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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.

Tyronn Lue doesn’t hold back with retort to heckling Pacers’ fan

Associated Press
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It’s a part of the NBA experience that most fans don’t get to hear — some fans courtside heckling opposing players and coaches, and those guys occasionally firing back. We only tend to hear about it when things cross a line.

Sometimes the interactions are just funny, such as this one passed along by J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Well played, Lue.

Although is Cleveland really a city at the forefront of fashion? Well, I suppose if you went to college in Nebraska…

Report: Pelicans picked up Alvin Gentry’s option for next season before sweep

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Last summer the buzz was all over the league: Pelicans GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry were given a “playoffs or bust” mandate by management. If the Pelicans were not in the postseason — and just barely getting in and then blown out in the first round might be good enough — there was going to be a housecleaning.

The Pelicans made the playoffs as the six seed with 48 wins despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles midway through the season.

That alone was good enough to get Gentry another season in New Orleans, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

As noted, this happened before the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers out of the first round and into a summer of re-evaluation. This option season is the last of Gentry’s original deal with the Pelicans.

Gentry has the Pelicans playing fast, using the elite defense of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to get stops, and right now Davis is leading an offense that is just getting it done, with guys such as Nikola Mirotic stepping up. Gentry has earned another year, and a shot to integrate Cousins into this style and level of play, to see where that could take New Orleans next season.

It will be interesting to see if Demps can add more shooting and versatility with a capped out roster.