NBA Finals: Heat, Mavericks five keys to victory

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Miami always seemed like they had a chance if they just came together — and they did at the right time.

Dallas has been a surprise. We all knew they were good but we had been conditioned to expect them to fall flat in the playoffs. Instead Tyson Chandler gave them defensive toughness and Dirk Nowitzki has been playing the most efficient basketball of a Hall of Fame career.

This is going to be one interesting finals with a lot of questions to play out. Here is what each team needs to do.

Five Keys For Heat

Slow Nowitzki. Dirk Nowitzki has flat out been the single best player in the playoffs, not only scoring 28.4 points per game on but also doing it while shooting 51.7 percent and 51.6 percent from three. He is too good a scorer to stop, but they have to make him less efficient. A lot of that may fall to Udonis Haslem — who was able to hound Nowitzki into being just good during the 2006 finals — but look for Joel Anthony, Chris Bosh and LeBron James to get shots, too. The Heat have to work to deny Nowitzki position, front him and generally just make him work. Nowitzki is a more complete player now and better at getting his spots on the floor than he was five years ago. The Heat have to find a way

Bosh on the perimeter. If this meeting is anything like the regular season games, Tyson Chandler will be assigned coverage of Chris Bosh. Look for the Heat to use Bosh to set high screens for Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and everyone else, then have him pop out for the shot. Chandler has to respect Bosh from the midrange and stay out on him, pulling him away from the basket. And when he’s not blocking shots at the basket and that falls to Dirk Nowitzki the Mavs defense is far less threatening. Look for the Mavs to counter with zone.

Wade at end of games. The Mavs bring Jason Terry off the bench to providing scoring that few teams can contain. Then Terry stays out on the court during crunch time and will be asked to guard Dwyane Wade. That is a matchup where Wade is taller, stronger and more athletic. Dallas coach may try to hide Terry on defense by having Jason Kidd on Wade, but Wade is far quicker. Either way, Miami needs to exploit that matchup in end game situations.

Get transition points. There is no more fearsome sight in the open court than LeBron James bearing down on you. Just ask Kyle Korver. Maybe second on that list is Dwyane Wade. The Heat are nearly unbeatable if they get easy points in transition and are in full attack mode. They need to get the turnovers and run on the older Mavericks off misses. They need the easy buckets.

Get to the free throw line. This is twofold. For one thing, this is like transition points in that if the Heat can get easy points off fouls they become difficult to beat. Second, you tend to get those fouls when you are attacking. The Heat need to attack — they won Game 5 against Chicago because Wade and James hit jump shots late, but they cannot play like that all series.

Five Keys For Mavericks

Get shooters open looks. Like Chicago, Dallas really only has one guy who can create his own shot any time he wants. The difference is what is around him — Derrick Rose had no consistent shooters around him, allowing the Heat to trap him in key moments. Dallas is loaded with shooters — Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, Jason Kidd. Miami is an athletic team that recovers quickly, but either Nowitzki has to make them pay for not doubling or quick ball movement and knockdown shooters have to make them pay. The Bulls could not do it, but the Mavs have been much better at it.

Zone defense. The Mavericks defense this playoffs has been average, but they are about to run into the best team they have faced and it has to be better than that. Because Chris Bosh presents matchup issues that could pull Tyson Chandler away from the basket, look for the Mavs to use their matchup zone at key moments. Wade and James struggled against the Mavs zone in the regular season, but this is a much better Heat team. Miami will figure out how to attack it, but the Mavs may be able to get key stops out of it for a while.

Do not foul — especially you, Tyson Chandler. If Miami gets easy points the Mavericks cannot beat them. Not turning the ball over is part of that. But if you let the Heat make a parade to the foul like you have done the same thing. Dallas did a poor job of this against Oklahoma City, they must do better here. Chandler in particular has to stay out of foul trouble, the Mavs defense is much worse when he sits.

Crashing the boards. During the regular season, Dallas was a good defensive rebounding team, eighth highest percentage of defensive rebounds grabbed in the league. They have not been nearly as effective in the playoffs. The Heat are not usually a great offensive rebounding team, but this goes back to the “do not give up easy points mantra” the Mavs need. They have to control the glass – and get some offensive boards themselves, Chandler is not somebody anyone on the Heat can contain. The Mavs need to recreate Game 1 of the Bulls series, when Chicago dominated the glass and won.

The J.J. Barea factor. The diminutive guard has become a cult hero in the playoffs with his curving cuts through the Lakers and Thunder defense. It is the kind of bench scoring the Mavericks must have, and his high pick-and-roll with Nowitzki has been very deadly. Against Miami Barea and the Mavs will run into the most athletic and active set of big men they have seen. Dallas still needs to get those points if they are to win.

Frustrated Gregg Popovich calls all three referees “f****** blind”

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The Spurs completed an amazing comeback win against the Thunder Friday night, coming from 23 down to knock off the Thunder when Carmelo Anthony‘s game-tying three was just a two because his toe was on the line.

Gregg Popovich was into this one.

So much so that when he didn’t like an out-of-bounds call he made sure all three officials knew exactly how blind he thought they were.

The best part of this is Popovich covering his eyes, just to really emphasize his point.

We’re really going to miss Pop when he steps away to live at a winery full time.

Lakers/Suns have minor skirmish, Lonzo Ball just walks away

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If you’re on the court when your team gets in an NBA “fight” — what the rest of us would call a shoving match where nobody really wants to throw a punch — should you run into the fray and help your teammates?

Friday night, with just more than three minutes to go in Phoenix’s eventual win, the Suns called a timeout, and Tyler Ulis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got in one of those silly shoving matches. Players from both teams raced into the fray to protect their teammate/break it up.

The Suns’ rookie Josh Jackson picked up a technical for his role racing in and escalating the matter.

Watch the video again, and you’ll see Lakers’ rookie Lonzo Ball just walk away from it all and head to the bench.

That has led to criticism of the rookie from some Lakers’ fans, who see a guy who didn’t rush in to protect his teammates — that’s seen as part of the sports locker room culture. A “band of brothers” or “us against the world” mentality. Ball, frankly, gave a more mature answer than that.

Ball is right, nothing was going to come of this. It was meaningless posturing. Walking away was the mature move.

However, the question is how is this perceived in the Lakers’ locker room? Do the players care that Ball shrugged and walked away? Do they think he needed to race in and try to look tough like everyone else? That can impact his standing on the team — as a guy Magic Johnson brought in to be a leader — more than anything.

Also, with all his shooting woes, is this the first sign of some Lakers fans starting to turn on Lonzo? It’s a little early for that.

Harrison Barnes offers advice for Dennis Smith Jr., Julius Randle

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For a guy in just his sixth NBA season, Harrison Barnes has seen a lot.

He has seen the mountaintop, having won a ring as a role player for the Golden State Warriors. He’s also has felt the devastation of being on a team that historically blew a 3-1 NBA Finals lead. He’s been a high school phenom — unfairly compared to Kobe Bryant — and a high draft pick (No. 7), he understands the pressures that come with all that. He’s played (and plays) with superstar future Hall of Famers. And he’s been the guy pushed aside by a team, despite playing well, to make room for one of those superstar players — the harsh business reality of the NBA.

Barnes is learning something new this season in Dallas — how to deal with losing. He never dealt with it before — not high school, AAU, college at North Carolina — but the Dallas Mavericks are 2-14, and while they struggled last year it was nothing like this.

“It’s been difficult,” Barnes told NBC Sports about the start of the season, “but I’ve definitely seen a lot of highs, seen a lot of lows, I’m just trying to get better and lead my team to some wins.”

With all that experience, Barnes was brought in to be a leader in Dallas, and he’s worked to do that on and off the court. Off the court, he has met with local high school players and donated gear he wears — Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves — to those programs. 

On the court this year, he’s tried to blend his game with rookie Dennis Smith Jr., who the Mavs see as the future at the point guard spot.

“Playing with Dennis has been great,” Barnes said. “He’s got a lot of tools that will help him be a great guy in the league for a long time. So the transition, in terms of playing together and developing chemistry, hasn’t been hard at all. I think he’s very mature beyond his years, and that makes it easy.”

As a leader, his advice to Smith Jr. has just been to not hold back, trust his instincts.

“My advice is to always be aggressive in your decision making,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s ‘should I pass?’ or ‘should I shoot?’ should I do this or should I do that, whatever it is, be aggressive. Because right now as a team, we’re in a little bit of a rut, we just need energy. Whatever it may be, even if you’re making the wrong play or the wrong decision, do it with conviction so there’s some inertia and the rest of us can feed off it.”

With the young high school players around Dallas his advice is similar — go for what you want on and off the court, give it your all — but he adds with them they need to protect their bodies in an increasingly physical game.

“Today I was able to go to Lincoln High School, meet with the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, and I was able to donate some Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves to the young kid, and talk to them about protecting your body when you’re out there,” Barnes said. “The game is becoming more physical and more competitive at a younger age, and the best ability is availability.”

If there’s one guy in the NBA who can relate to Barnes’ path, it might be the Lakers’ Julius Randle.

The fourth-year big has been up and down but has gotten better every season and shown promise with the Lakers, putting up 11.4 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting this season (both career highs, although his jumper still needs work), plus grabbing 6.7 rebounds, but mostly he brings energy and physical, strong defense  in just 20 minutes a game off the bench. He has transformed his body, gotten leaner but stronger, and has done a good job filling a role for Los Angeles as a physical, defensive player in a league going small and getting skinnier

Randle is coming up on the end of his rookie contract next summer and is due a payday, he thought he was part of the franchise’s future, yet he is likely the odd man out in Los Angeles as the Lakers chase big name free agents. Randle’s name is a staple of trade talks (about moving Luol Deng and his contract).

Harrison Barnes can relate. He was swept out of Golden State to make room for that team’s successful run at Kevin Durant.

What would Barnes tell Randle?

“My advice is to focus on what is going to be the best for you,” Barnes said. “Focus on where you can grow as a player, get better, where you would thrive in. Whether or not he ends up in the same place or a different place, just make sure you’re in a situation where you can grow. That’s the most important thing because a lot of things are going to be out of his control, who decides to go where and that type of stuff, but as long as he focuses on getting better with his craft that’s the one thing he can control.”

That’s what Barnes did a couple seasons ago, and he ended up in Dallas with a big contract, a big opportunity, and a chance to be a leader. He’s trying to do that on a team transitioning out of the Dirk Nowitzki era, but it hasn’t been easy.

And it’s come with some harsh new lessons. Like dealing with losing. One Barnes and the Mavericks want to move past as quickly as they can.

Watch LeBron James score 39 to lead comeback win over Clippers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James knows about the narrative bouncing around the NBA that Cleveland can be dethroned in the East.

He’s ignoring it, and slowly changing it.

“You know I could care less what people say,” James said. “I’m so far beyond that. I don’t care what people say.”

Just to make sure everyone understood him, James asked his two sons waiting for him in Cleveland’s locker room to chime in on whether he was concerned about outside voices.

The boys had dad’s back.

James had another of those games that he only seems capable of, scoring 39 points with 14 rebounds in 46 minutes as the Cavaliers continued to improve from a shaky start with their fourth straight win, 118-113 in overtime on Friday night over the skidding Los Angeles Clippers, who dropped their seventh in a row.

Kevin Love scored 25 and drained a pair of 3-pointers in OT, when the Cavs, who didn’t take the lead until the first minute of the extra session, outscored the Clippers 13-8.

Dwyane Wade gave Cleveland a huge spark, scoring 23 points with 11 rebounds in 37 minutes. The Cavs’ win wasn’t eye-pleasing, but it was another step in the right direction for the three-time defending conference champions, who went 3-1 on a just-completed road trip.

On Thursday night, James said he watched Boston beat Golden State to improve to 14-2, a stunning start that has prompted discussion about Cleveland’s vulnerability.

James dismissed any concern about the Celtics’ early burst.

“I’ve got too much to worry about around here right now trying to get our ship going in the right direction,” he said.

The Clippers’ ship is taking on water fast. Los Angeles has lost nine of 10 since a 4-0 start.

Blake Griffin scored 23 and DeAndre Jordan had 20 points and 22 rebounds for Los Angeles, which didn’t give up the lead until the first minute of overtime. The Clippers had chances to put the Cavs away in regulation, but they didn’t execute down the stretch and then had defensive breakdowns in overtime.

“They made some big 3s,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You have to give them credit. That’s why they’ve been in a lot of Finals.”

The Cavs spent all night chasing the Clippers and caught them at 105-all when Love grabbed an offensive rebound and fed James, who dropped an uncontested 3-pointer with 47 seconds left.

Griffin missed tough shots on consecutive possessions, giving Cleveland one last chance in regulation but James missed an off-balance left-hander just before the horn.

James made a free throw to open OT – he went 1 of 5 at the line – and give Cleveland its first lead. Then, after Love made his two 3s, James sealed the Cavs’ fifth win in six games with a jumper.

“Well defended,” Rivers said. “It’s LeBron James.”