Western Conference Finals Preview: Mavericks vs. Thunder

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SEASON RECORDS
Mavericks: 57-25 (No. 3 seed in Western Conference)
Thunder: 55-27 (No. 4 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Dallas won the regular season series 2-1, but the most recent of the games was Jan. 6 — back before the Kendrick Perkins trade, and when Caron Butler was healthy. Nowitzki didn’t play in the Thunder win. So take these results with a grain or 12 of salt.

PLAYOFF SERIES
Mavericks: defeated the Portland 4-2, Los Angeles Lakers, 4-0
Oklahoma City: defeated Denver 4-1, Memphis 4-3

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)

Game 1 — Tue. May 17, at Dallas 9:00 PM
Game 2 – Thu. May 19 at Dallas 9:00PM
Game 3 – Sat. May 21 at Oklahoma City 9:00PM
Game 4 – Mon. May 23, at Oklahoma City 9:00PM
Game 5 * Wed. May 25 at Dallas 9:00PM
Game 6 * Fri. May 27 at Oklahoma City 9:00PM
Game 7 * Sun. May 29 at Dallas 9:00PM

All games on ESPN.

KEY INJURIES
Mavericks: Caron Butler likely will not play this series, even though they could really use him off the bench to check James Harden. He has been out with knee surgery since the middle of the season. Rodrigue Beaubois is technically healthy but don’t expect to see him.
Thunder: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Mavericks: Offense 107.6 (8th in NBA); Defense 102.3 (7th in NBA)
Thunder: Offense 108.6 (4th in NBA); Defense 104 (13th in NBA)

THREE KEY MAVERICKS

Dirk Nowitzki. Arguably, the single best player in the playoffs so far — 26.5 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting and 60 percent from three. Now he’s going to see another team with long, and this time more athletic defenders to send at him. Serge Ibaka will get the starts, but don’t be shocked to see the more physical Nick Collison to get time as well. Dirk has to continue to put up huge numbers for Dallas to win this.

Tyson Chandler. Back at the trading deadline in 2009, the New Orleans Hornets had agreed to trade Chandler to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Thunder doctor said he thought the risk of the injury recurring to Chandler’s already troublesome big toe was too great, so the trade was rescinded. Turned out, the toe is just fine and he is tearing it up for Dallas. The Mavericks big men were able to limit the Lakers big men’s points in the paint, but Oklahoma City gets theirs a different way — slashing to the rim with Westbrook and Durant. Chandler has to protect the rim and make them shoot more jumpers because it can’t become a Thunder layup drill.

Jason Terry. He represents the entire Mavs bench here — J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic, Brendan Haywood, Corey Brewer. All through the season they have made huge contributions, and last series was no different (who can forget Barea carving up the Lakers defense. The Mavs are going to need some big games from their bench if they are going to move on.

THREE KEY THUNDER

Russell Westbrook. He took a lot of shots and took a lot of flack for taking a lot of shots last series. Even though it wasn’t all his fault (Durant was not working hard off the ball to get open at times, so Westbrook just took it on). In this series he should dominate Jason Kidd, who is not nearly quick enough to stay with him. He has to get into the lane but he has to pass if and when Tyson Chandler slides over to cut off his path. He has to make the smart play (like he did in Game 7 against Memphis) but it will often start with him disrupting the defense because he has the mismatch.

Kevin Durant. Of course he is key to whatever the Thunder do on offense regardless of the opponent, but in this series he needs to be more consistent than he was against the Grizzlies. He has one advantage in that the Mavericks have no real good matchup for him, during the regular season meetings Caron Butler got most of the time. Now, expect Shawn Marion, but it’s doubtful he can play the kind of ball-denial and physical defense that slows Durant.

James Harden. He really represents the Thunder bench — the Thunder need to win the battles of the bench in this series to win. They need to keep Jason Terry in check and Harden needs to put up big points. This bench matchup includes what ay be my favorite matchup of this series — Eric Maynor vs. J.J. Barea off the bench. But Harden remains the key, he has got to put up big numbers, big enough to offset what Terry and the Mavs put up.

OUTLOOK

Last series against the Lakers, the Mavericks executed about as well as they possibly could. They found the Lakers soft spots and exploited them every chance they got. Oklahoma City’s execution was far less consistent, from game to game, quarter to quarter, possession to possession. But it seemed to improve.

That is where you have to start looking for an edge here — if the Thunder do not execute better, they are in trouble. For Dallas, they need to stay at that level of efficiency and not take a step back when faced with a more athletic squad.

That starts for Dallas with not turning the ball over and controlling the tempo. Oklahoma City has the better athletes and Dallas will not be able to stop Westbrook and Durant in transition. Other than not to let them get going.

For the Thunder, they need to find a way to defend Durant successfully in this series. So what Thunder player spent the most time hounding Dirk Nowitzki in the regular season? Jeff Green, it turns out. He and the rest of the Celtics are now golfing (he went East in the Kendrick Perkins trade). Look for Serge Ibaka to get the first crack, but Dirk’s bevy of fakes could have the shot-blocking Ibaka in the air a lot. And fouling a lot. One other guy to watch for is Nick Collison, who had a fantastic Game 7 for the Thunder and is long and strong enough to keep Dirk out of the positions he wants to be in on the floor.

Like was said above, not going to take too much away from the three regular season meetings these teams had, but there is one thing to watch — can Dallas keep Oklahoma City off the free throw line? In the regular season the Thunder lived at the line, getting an average of 28.8 free throws per game. But in the three games against Dallas, that fell to 24. If Dallas can continue to defend without fouling that will be a big plus.

One other thing Dallas did during the regular season was defend the paint — Oklahoma City was 9-34 on shots in the key. Dallas has to continue to do that, Westbrook in particular needs to shift that balance and get into the lane and finish.

Dallas is going to negate some of what Kendrick Perkins and Collison can do inside because they are a jump shooting team (35 percent of their points these playoffs have come in paint, the lowest of any team in the playoffs). The Thunder have to contest everything because once the Mavericks shooters get going they cannot be stopped.

PREDICTION

Honestly, this may be the hardest prediction of the playoffs. I can see it going either way. My guess is, however, that this will become a jump shooting contest as both teams are good at protecting the paint. And in that instance favors Dallas. But it will be close.

Mavericks in 7.

Raptors’ Norman Powell had a couple monster dunks Monday (VIDEO)

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“Give all praise to Norman Powell with his energy, his athleticism, his passion, just everything he brought to us this series.”

That was Kyle Lowry talking about what his Raptor Norman Powell, who put up a career playoff best 25 points in the Raptors’ Game 5 win. Powell played good defense on Khris Middleton and drained some deep threes to help Toronto pull away in this one. Lowry was so impressed after the game at a press conference he told the media to ask Powell questions, not him.

Oh, and Powell threw down some huge dunks, too. Just check out the video.

Pacers offseason plans has Paul George question hanging over it

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The questions started less than an hour after the Indiana Pacers season officially ended.

Will Paul George commit to playing for the Pacers beyond next season? Will Jeff Teague re-sign with his hometown team? What does Indiana really need to become a championship contender?

Nobody wants to learn the answers more than George.

“If we want to win, (Cleveland is) a team that we have to work toward stacking up against,” he said following Sunday’s 106-102 loss to the defending champion Cavaliers. “At some point, if we want to be serious as a team, we’ve got to look at how we can match up against them.”

Obviously, that starts with George. At 26, the four-time All-Star has already played in two conference finals, won an Olympic gold medal – and been eliminated in the playoffs by LeBron James‘ team four of the last six years. George is signed through next season and Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird has already promised George would get a max deal.

If George makes an all-NBA team, as expected, the value of that deal could jump by roughly $75 million.

That’s a lot of money to leave on the table if he decides to test free agency when his contract expires following the 2017-18 season.

But there was enough concern that George might go anyway that there were rumors he could be dealt at the trade deadline. And lingering uncertainty could affect what the Pacers do this offseason and there will certainly be more trade speculation about George, with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers likely in any discussion.

So far, George isn’t saying anything about his thoughts.

“I’m not even at that point yet,” he said.

The one thing Indiana can’t afford – getting nothing in return for their best player.

Bird declined to discuss George on Monday while in New York to deliver the Pacers’ bid to host the 2021 All-Star Game. Bird’s problem is this: He can’t do much until the NBA draft, which is two months away, or until free agency opens in July.

That gives George roughly two months to produce an answer.

While George hasn’t said what he wants to see from the organization, he seemed to enjoy being reunited with longtime friend and 2010 draft mate Lance Stephenson. And re-signing Teague may help, too.

But will it be enough to convince George the Pacers are moving in the right direction?

“You take a year like last year, with that group, we felt like if you added a couple pieces to that group we’d have something again,” George said. “We’ll see what moves the team makes and how it stacks up going forward.”

TEAGUE TIME

Teague has repeatedly told reporters all season how much he’s enjoyed playing in his hometown. He was the only player on the Pacers roster to start all 86 games this season.

Bird made it clear last summer after acquiring Teague that the Pacers were trying to sign him to a contract extension. But there’s still no deal and now Teague is on the verge of becoming a free agent and getting a lucrative contract because of changes to the salary cap.

“I love Indiana, man, you know me – born and raised. I’ve got the tattoos on my arm. I’ve wanted to play for the Pacers my whole life,” he said.

UNDER CONTRACT

Many expected the Pacers to be one of the top four teams in the East after making so many moves last season.

Instead, under first-year coach Nate McMillan, Indiana never really got in sync with the exception of a seven-game winning streak at midseason and the five-game winning streak that got them into the playoffs. He doesn’t anticipate going anywhere this offseason.

“I do have a contract for next season,” he said.

TURNING THE CORNER

The Cavs’ series exposed one significant flaw in Myles Turner‘s game – strength. Turner got shoved around inside through each of the first three games before finishing the series with a flurry Sunday.

McMillan made it clear even before Indiana’s final playoff game that Turner must get stronger so he can be a more physical player next season.

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Warriors put up historic 45 in first quarter on way to 128-103 Game 4 rout, sweep of Blazers

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This game was never in doubt. Much like the entire first-round series.

Golden State had Kevin Durant back and he hit a pull-up three to open the game, and pretty soon the Warriors had stretched the lead to 12-0 on a Klay Thompson three (and eventually were up 14-0).

That led to the Warriors putting up a historic 45 points in the first quarter, tying for the most points in an NBA playoffs first quarter ever. The Warriors were up 23 after one, and never looked back on their way to a 128-103 Game 4 rout, completing the sweep of Blazers.

There’s not much to analyze here, this game is was similar to so many games over the past couple seasons where the Warriors overwhelmed their opponents. Portland fought, but this was not going to be their game or their series. Here are some highlights.

Stephen Curry had 37 points, Draymond Green 21, and Klay Thompson had 18.

Damian Lillard had 34 points for Portland.

It may have been a disappointing ending to the season for Portland, but the team found a center late this season in Jusuf Nurkic who balances out what Lillard and C.J. McCollum bring on the outside. The Blazers have to figure out how to become a better defensive team this summer, but they took a step forward after the All-Star break that they can build on.

The Warriors will get some rest before taking on the Jazz or Clippers in the next round.

Hawks battle back to knot series with Wizards, 2-2

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Paul Millsap shoved Markieff Morris out of the way, grabbed an offensive rebound in the middle of the paint and pushed through a shot while Marcin Gortat bumped him to the floor.

The Wizards knocked down Atlanta. They didn’t stop the Hawks.

Millsap and Atlanta showed plenty of fight, topping Washington 111-101 in Game 4 Monday to tie their first-round series 2-2 after falling behind 2-0.

Have the Hawks seized meaningful momentum? History says no.

Teams that have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home then lost the next two on the road have won 81% of the time. The Wizards’ regular-season superiority still speaks loudly, and up to two more home games – starting with Game  5 Wednesday – also help.

Still, credit Atlanta for making the series competitive after digging such a big hole.

Millsap (19 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals) soundly outplayed Markieff Morris (nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, -10) in the latest round of their personal feud. Millsap also got plenty of help with seven Hawks scoring double digits.

Kent Bazemore (16 points, seven assists and three steals) played meaningful defense and hit a couple big shots. Jose Calderon (10 points, five assists, +29 in 20 minutes) provided a huge spark. Dwight Howard (16 points and 15 rebounds) asserted himself for the first time this series. Taurean Prince (11 points on 5-of-7 shooting) picked his spots well. Dennis Schroder (18 points on 6-of-15 shooting) had his ups and downs. Tim Hardaway Jr. (15 points) at least offset some of his defensive shortcomings.

This was a total team win.

Washington, on the other hand, got little outside its starting backcourt. Bradley Beal (32 points) thrived, and John Wall (22 points and 10 assists) was still good in an off-by-his-standards performance. But the Wizards crumbled when either sat – especially with both on the bench in the late third/early fourth quarters. Erasing those few minutes with staggering would’ve helped, though it wouldn’t have been the answer tonight.

This has become a far less certain series than Washington hoped, but the Wizards don’t need a wild fix. They just need their top players to play better. Maybe going home will help.