NBA Playoffs: Dallas is just better than the Lakers

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The Dallas Mavericks are better than the Los Angeles Lakers.

It is a weird thing to type, but it’s true. They may not have been for 40 minutes, 30 seconds on Friday night — the Lakers were up eight points with 7:30 left in the game — but the Mavericks offense dominated the rest of the way. Dallas won 98-92, on a huge, late comeback.

Dallas will move on. These two teams will play at least one more game or three because the rules demand it — but this series is over. Not because no team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit before in the NBA playoffs, but because right now Dallas is better than Los Angeles.

Kobe Bryant was rightfully frustrated afterward, talking about the Lakers’ mistakes; there were plenty. But Dallas is forcing them. This is about Dallas doing the things a contender does and the Lakers being unable to this year.

Dallas has the single best player in this series in Dirk Nowitzki (he had 32 points in this one on just 19 shots). Each game someone else has stepped up and made the key plays to be the other scorer Dallas needs (Peja Stojakovic with 11 in the fourth quarter Friday). Dallas is executing better in the fourth quarter. Dallas is getting better coaching (or at least the Dallas players are executing what the coach wants).

When the Lakers led by eight in the fourth quarter, Dallas started to rain threes down — the Mavs shot 60 percent in the fourth quarter. It was not the two-time defending champs, it was Dallas that closed.

The Lakers played a much better defensive game in the second and third quarters, the best they played in this series. Their spacing, their aggressiveness on closeouts were better. At least it got better after a first-quarter shootout, with the Mavs knocking down open 3-pointers and the Lakers working hard on getting the ball inside.

Andrew Bynum was a beast inside; it may have been his best game as a pro. He finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but he was by far the most energetic and motivated Laker on the floor. His steal out at the 3-point line and finishing dunk was a signature play… or would have been if the Lakers had won.

But the Lakers never pulled away. Dallas has been too good all series to let the game slip away. This is where Jason Terry’s 23 points came in, he was the scoring spark the Mavs needed.

Then in the fourth quarter the Mavs started to rain threes on the Lakers. The Lakers stopped helping the helper — one Lakers defender would get beat, another Laker would slide in the paint to help stop penetration but nobody would rotate over to help out the helper. The result was Stojakovic getting wide-open threes. Even Nowitzki got wide-open threes. Kobe was as guilty as anybody. This was the “trust issue” Bynum talked about, and if you define trust by your defensive rotations, then the Lakers still have trust issues.

The use of Stojakovic was brilliant by Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle — the Lakers had gone with three bigs (Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Bynum) but by putting Peja in, it forced Odom to come away from the paint and cover. It spaced the Lakers out and created room for others — which the Mavericks used well.

Dallas executed. The Lakers stopped executing.

As they often do at the end of games, the Lakers threw the triangle out the window and went to isolation or pick-and-roll plays. The result was Bynum not touching the ball once down the stretch. Not once. It was Kobe shooting over double-teams while Odom stood open 12 feet away. It was terrible inbound passes from Fisher. It was a bad foul by Fisher 28 feet from the basket.

Meanwhile, Dallas just kept doing their thing and hitting shots (11-of-28 from three, 39.7 percent).

This is not the end of the Lakers dynasty. The core of this team — Gasol, Bynum, Kobe, Odom, even Ron Artest — are all young enough to make another run. The team needs work, but the core is there to make another run.

But not this year. This year they are done.

The Mavericks are the better team.

PBT Extra: Does Larry Bird stepping down change Paul George question in Indiana?

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When the Woj bomb dropped that Larry Bird was stepping down as president of the Indiana Pacers, two questions came to mind. First was, “Is he healthy?” Reportedly he is, this was not a healthy-related decision. Which is great news.

Second, what does that mean for Paul George?

Is Indiana more likely to trade him now? Less?

George speculation has ramped up around the league and — while no doubt new GM Kevin Pritchard will say he would love to keep PG13 when he speaks to the media — there is a sense Bird walking away could be a sign that the Pacers are moving into rebuilding mode. That said, Pritchard is known for driving a hard bargain, he’s not going DeMarcus Cousins trade here.

I talk about all of that and more in this latest PBT Extra.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert, back from injury, shutting down paint against Clippers

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Jazz feared the worst when Rudy Gobert was carried off the court by teammates 17 seconds into the playoffs.

Two weeks later, the 7-foot-1 defensive player of the year candidate is a huge reason the Jazz have taken control of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Gobert has been a force in the middle for the Jazz all season and since the Frenchman’s return to the lineup, Utah has won the rebound battle against Los Angeles and outscored the Clippers in the paint.

“I’ve just tried to do the same things I’ve done to try to help the team,” Gobert said. “Do what I’ve been doing all year. At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. There’s a level of focus that’s a little bit higher in the playoffs, but it’s the same.”

The Clippers have scored 94.9 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor and 112.4 with him off in this series. They’ve attempted 19% of their shots in the restricted area when he plays and 34% when he’s off.

Gobert has averaged 13 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in his two full playoff games.

“Rudy erases a lot of mistakes,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “And he cleans up a lot of bad offensive possessions by rebounding the ball. It’s great just to have him back.

“He’s been making plays out of pick-and-roll, finding guys in the corner, finishing for himself or dunking and things like that. We’ve got to continue to find him because that’s a weapon for us.”

Gobert was diagnosed with and hyperextension and bone bruise in his left knee, but the MRI showed no structural damage and no danger of long-term repercussions. From that point on, Gobert knew he’d return.

The Jazz have won two in a row since he’s been back and Utah has outscored the Clippers in the paint in both games by a combined 92-64. The team that has scored the most points in the paint has won each game.

Utah also has won the rebounding battle in the two games since Gobert has returned by a combined 85-65 after the Clippers had an 80-60 advantage in the previous two games.

“His competitiveness and his presence on the defensive glass, as much as anything,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder about Gobert’s biggest impact. “He changes some things with his rim protection. But what he’s given us on the boards on both ends of the floor … he’s had a number of games this year where he’s had some big offensive rebounds late in the game. Can’t say enough about him on the glass.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers has repeatedly said the presence of Gobert doesn’t impact his team’s offense. The absence of Blake Griffin, who’s out for the remainder of the postseason with a toe injury, has certainly made a difference in the Clippers’ offense. Combine that with Gobert’s return, and Los Angeles’ offensive production certainly has dropped.

The Clippers shot 52.4 percent and 54.7 percent in wins in Game 2 and 3. They shot 44.0 percent and 42.0 percent in losses in Game 3 and 4.

“Where Rudy really impacts the game is when we’re playing defense because of his ability to get behind a defense,” Rivers said. “So you have to be far more careful in your pick and roll coverage. What we do offensively, we’ve basically played the same way all year and we’re not going to change that for anyone.”

Gobert has downplayed the individual matchup between he and Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, but Snyder called it one of the marquee matchups of the playoffs. The two have seen plenty of each other this season, starting with the 2016 Olympic Games when Gobert represented France and Jordon was on Team USA. Jordan earned his first All-Star nod this year, something Gobert certainly wanted.

Jordan averaged 17.5 points and 14 rebounds and was dunking at will in Games 2 and 3. He averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds in Games 4 and 5. Gobert being able to play Jordan 1 on 1 helps the entire defense since there’s no need to send extra bodies to defend or box out.

The Jazz are hoping for that kind of effort again on Friday.

 

Report: Cavaliers GM David Griffin ‘the top candidate’ in Magic’s front-office search

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A week ago, David Griffin was just someone the Magic were researching to run their front office.

It seems the Cavaliers general manager has since moved up in the search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

For now, Cleveland Cavaliers GM David Griffin remains the top candidate in the Magic’s search, but Orlando hasn’t yet asked for permission to speak with Griffin, largely because of the Cavaliers’ playoff status, sources said.

This could end a couple ways.

Here’s betting Griffin – who has LeBron James‘ endorsement – leverages the Orlando interest into a bigger offer from Cleveland. Griffin was just too integral to the Cavs’ first championship to discard him.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has shown much more willingness to spend than The Devos Family, which owns the Magic. If this is a bidding war, I’ll take Cleveland. If it isn’t a bidding war, the Cavs have a far more attractive roster than Orlando.

Thunder’s Andre Roberson entering free agency after impactful playoff series

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The Rockets were starting to pull away from the Thunder in Game 5 of their first-round series, and the Houston crowd was looking for a reason to erupt. The Rockets provided one by intentionally fouling Roberson despite holding Oklahoma City without a basket for the previous five minutes. The Thunder wing stepped to the line in the loudening arena and, of course, missed both free throws.

But Roberson didn’t go down quietly.

On the ensuing defensive possession, he picked up James Harden in the backcourt and hounded the Rockets star on the perimeter. Harden passed to Nene, and Roberson doubled the center in the post and stole the ball. Roberson passed to Russell Westbrook then laid out Patrick Beverley with an open-court screen, freeing Westbrook to score.

Of course, that wasn’t enough. Oklahoma City fell in five games, Westbrook’s supporting cast unable to keep up enough with its MVP candidate.

“That’ll definitely be one thing that haunt me, Roberson said of his free-throw shooting against Houston, “and something I’ll work on extremely hard this summer.”

Roberson’s postseason confirmed everything we thought we knew about him: He’s a defensive dynamo, and he can’t shoot.

But understanding Roberson’s skill set is only a small step in evaluating him. Teams are better than ever at exposing perimeter players who can’t shoot, and that makes Roberson’s price point difficult to read as he enters restricted free agency. The Thunder delayed the decision – extending Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo last year while allowing Roberson to complete his rookie-scale contract without an extension – but time is practically up.

For better or worse, it was all there in the playoffs.

Roberson made just 3-of-21 free throws (14%), the worst percentage by anyone with so many attempts in a postseason series (since 1964, as far as Basketball-Reference go back). Here are the worst free-throw percentages in a series since 1964 (minimum: 100 attempts):

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This was hardly out of the norm for Roberson, who made just 42% of his free throws during the regular season.

His postseason 3-point percentage (41%) was way better than his regular-season baseline (25%), but he attempted just 17 3-pointers in 185 playoff minutes. Not only is that a small sample, it speaks to another problem. The Rockets typically left him open, and he was reluctant to shoot. That allowed Houston to defend 5-on-4 elsewhere with only minimal repercussions. Despite playing more than 90% of his minutes with Westbrook, the Thunder still scored worse with Roberson on the court.

So why did Roberson receive such a prominent role in the series?

He’s a defensive stud. Roberson ranks fourth among players who regularly defend opposing guards in defensive real plus-minus:

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Roberson shadowed Harden for too much of the series to gauge on-off splits, but adding regular-season Thunder-Rockets games reveals a clearer (though still limited) picture:

James Harden Roberson on Roberson off
Minutes 320 16
Points per 36 minutes 25.3 51.8
Turnovers per 36 minutes 6.0 0.0
Free-throw attempts per 36 minutes 10.9 22.5
2-point percentage 50.5% 60.0%
3-point percentage 21.1% 60.0%
Effective field-goal percentage 41.9% 75.0%

Harden, arguably the NBA’s best offensive player, was held in relative check with Roberson on the floor. When Roberson sat, Harden went wild.

There has to be a place for a defender like Roberson in this league.

Is it in Oklahoma City?

Roberson was effective in last year’s playoffs as a small-ball big. He cut and crashed the offensive glass. That got harder with two of Adams, Taj Gibson and Enes Kanter occupying the paint. The Thunder maximizing Roberson’s production might mean losing a big man or two. Gibson will be a free agent and said he wants to return. Adams and Kanter are locked into lucrative long-term deals.

When it comes to Roberson, it’s always complicated.