NBA Finals Preview: Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS
Mavericks: 57-25 (No. 3 seed in Western Conference)
Heat: 58-24 (No. 2 seed in Eastern Conference)

SEASON SERIES
Dallas swept the season series 2-0. After a slow start to the season Miami went on a 22-2 streak — but both of those losses were to Dallas. That said, both games were before Christmas, so don’t read much into them.

PLAYOFF SERIES
Mavericks: defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 4-2, Los Angeles Lakers, 4-0, Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1
Heat: defeated Philadelphia 76ers 4-1, Boston Celtics 4-1, Chicago Bulls 4-1

SERIES SCHEDULE (times Eastern)

Game 1 – Tue. May 31 at Miami 9:00 PM
Game 2 – Thu. June 2 at Miami 9:00 PM
Game 3 – Sun. June 5 at Dallas 8:00 PM
Game 4 – Tue. June 7 at Dallas 9:00 PM
Game 5 * Thu. June 9 at Dallas 9:00 PM
Game 6 * Sun. June 12 at Miami 8:00 PM
Game 7 * Tue. June 14 at Miami 9:00 PM

All games broadcast on ABC

KEY INJURIES
Mavericks: Caron Butler likely will not play this series, he has been out with knee surgery since the middle of the season. Rodrigue Beaubois is back from injury, but it hasn’t mattered he isn’t playing. The Mavs have made the finals in spite of all that.
Heat: Mike Miller has injured two thumbs you couldn’t play NBA 2K11 with, but he will be out on the court.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE PLAYOFF RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Mavericks: Offense 114.1 (1st in NBA playoffs); Defense 106.1 (8th)
Heat: Offense 107.2 (4th in NBA playoffs); Defense 101.7 (3rd)

THREE KEY MAVERICKS:

Dirk Nowitzki. He has been a marvel, the single best player in the playoffs. He is averaging 28.4 points per game on 51.7 percent shooting grabbing 7.5 boards, and yet the numbers simply do not do his performance justice. He is efficient. His rainbow, one-legged, turnaround fadeaway is both the most devastating shot in the game today and completely ungaurdable. His passing has been phenomenal. In this series it will be interesting to see how the Mavericks use him on defense — hide him on Joel Anthony or let him cover Chris Bosh? Whatever he does, expect a monster series from him — like everyone else the Heat will have no good defensive answer for him.

Tyson Chandler. Through the regular season, the Miami Heat shot 66 percent when they got within three feet of the basket. But in two meetings with the Mavericks, they shot 52 percent. The key to beating the Heat is to turn them into jump shooters and not let them get easy baskets in transition and at the line. A lot of that falls to Chandler — he has to defend the rim without fouling. If he can do what he did in the regular season the Mavericks have a huge advantage. But it will not be as simple as it was back in December (the Heat’s ball movement and movement of players off the ball is far better now than the last time these teams played). Remember, at the end of Game 5 the Bulls did what they wanted and turned LeBron and Wade into jump shooters from three, and they knocked the shots down.

Jason Terry. He represents the entire Mavs bench here — J.J. Barea, Peja Stojakovic, Brendan Haywood. They have been key to the Mavericks success by providing scoring in a variety of ways, but now they face a very different challenge — the Heat have gone with a very small three-man rotation, keeping their big three on the floor for heavy minutes. The Mavs bench is going to have to match up to that — if they can it will mean rested Mavericks starters and a boost or them, but if the bench lets them down and Miami makes runs, it will be a big hole to dig out of.

THREE KEY HEAT

LeBron James. The Heat’s evolution through these playoffs into a team that trusts each other parallels James evolution. He has always had a well-rounded game in him, he’s always been willing to make the pass, but on his previous teams him shooting over a double team may have been a better scoring option than passing to some of his teammates. In the last few games against the Bulls James really seemed to settle into a facilitator role with the Heat. Of course, he’s still scoring 25.9 points per game and pulling down 8.7 rebounds per game during the playoffs so it isn’t all just making passes.

Dwyane Wade: He just did not look right last series, in the end shooting 40.5 percent and by Game 5 passing up open looks to feed more covered teammates. Well, that was until the game was on the line in the final four minutes when he hit three key sots. This series the Heat will need his offense — in the past Dallas has struggled to contain good two guards. Wade should be able to score easily on DeShawn Stevenson and he’ll need to. This is a matchup the Heat need to exploit.

Udonis Haslem. He brings a real toughness and energy to the Heat — this is one of the guys on this team with a ring (from the 2006 Heat). He also is here to represent the guys on Miami — Chris Bosh, even LeBron James — who have to cover Nowitzki. They need to be able to often single-cover Nowitzki because the Mavericks spread the floor with shooters and you can’t leave them. Haslem hounded Nowitzki and kept him in check during the 2006 finals and will be asked to reprise that role. The time off until next Tuesday and the amount of time between games in the finals should help keep him healthy (he had foot surgery early in the year).

OUTLOOK

This is going to be one entertaining finals. These teams are here because they were the teams executing at the end of games — both sides have tremendous come-from-behind wins and both have just simply out executed their opponents in the clutch. Both have seen their best players — Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James — win games with jump shots.

No lead will feel safe in this series, especially late. That said, both teams benefited from playing teams that helped out with tight play and poor execution under pressure last series. That will not be the case now, one team will need to step up.

One key so far is that Dallas has not played fantastic defense, they’ve been just pretty average through the playoffs. Dallas has won with their offense. Miami’s defense, on the other hand, has been impressive. Their athleticism challenges everything, takes away passing lanes and they have been physical with everyone. This will be a different kind of test because Dallas is a jump shooting team — pack it in to take away the paint like the Heat did against the Bulls and the Mavs will shoot and make right over the top, something Chicago failed to do. Either Miami’s defense or the Mavs offense has to give way, and that will be key.

Dallas needs to exploit the point guard play of Mike Bibby or the lack of size inside by the Heat — who go with a small lineup having 6’9” Joel Anthony at center — to win. The Mavericks need to hit the offensive glass hard, harder than the Bulls did, to get the series win. Rebounding will be another key.

Bench play also will matter — Dallas has gotten scoring from everyone it seems, but how will that bench fare against heavy minutes from the big three of the Heat.

PREDICTION

Dallas has been playing fantastic ball, but Miami has been playing better defense so far. Plus, the versatility of their three stars gives them more ways to attack and adjust as the series wears on. Dallas will put up a fight, and they have surprised us before these playoffs, but while this will feel different it will end just like it did in 2006.

Heat in 6.

Pistons consider shutting down Reggie Jackson for rest of season

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The Pistons have started Reggie Jackson. They’ve brought him off the bench. They’ve sat him entirely.

No role seems right for the point guard as Detroit has lost four straight and seven of eight.

Now, it seems the Pistons might just shut down Jackson, who missed the start of the season with a knee injury. He’s at least doubtful for tonight’s key game against the Heat.

Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy, via Fox Sports Detroit:

We’ve been thinking about this, actually for a long time, OK? And he’s been playing at — it’s just hard to put a percentage — but probably at about 80 percent. And as we get into this stretch of games in March where we’re playing a lot, the fatigue is just making it worse.

It wasn’t really fair to him. We were running him out there, putting pressure on him. He’s seeing things he should be able to do, and he just can’t do. He’s not feeling pain, but he just can’t make the plays he wants to make. And we’re trying to put him out there.

We were really struggling, and we just need to have guys who are at full energy and the whole thing. And as much as he wants to, he can’t right now. It’s honestly amazing what he’s done.

To his credit, he fought me on it. He wanted to keep going.

He needs some rest. We don’t know how long it will be. But he needs some rest and to be able to try to get his energy back and see if we can get him at full strength.

He’s been a warrior. He’s tried to fight through it. He’s been frustrated, because he sees openings and things on the court that he just hasn’t been able to get to. I think part of it is a confidence thing.

And I think the thing that we really look forward to, and he looks forward to, is getting a fresh start in the offseason and being able to go through the preparation for a season like he did last year. And not only get right physically, but really get his confidence back to be able to attack and make the plays he’s had.

Jackson hasn’t looked right this season, showing only fleeting moments of quality production. It’s unclear whether that’s his knee, confidence, regression to the mean after a breakout season last year, bad luck or some combination.

But it has the Pistons in dire straights. They’re 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position with tonight’s game against eight-place Miami crucial.

Detroit’s offense and defense have hummed better with Ish Smith, but despite the better chemistry he affords, the talent drop from Jackson is also glaring. It’s not as if the Pistons have soared with Smith. And relying on Beno Udrih for backup minutes is its own risk.

Van Gundy is talking a lot about next season when it comes to Jackson, which seems telling. The coach’s compliments seem designed to soften the blow.

The odds are against Detroit making the playoffs, but they might be higher without Jackson. The fact that that’s even considerable is also telling about Jackson’s season.

Joakim Noah says he’s cleared to play, which will allow suspension to begin

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The NBA suspended Joakim Noah 20 games — effective once he’s “physically able to play.”

Noah underwent knee surgery about a month ago, and though it seemed he’d miss the rest of the season, the Knicks said at the time he’d be reevaluated in 3-4 weeks. That gave the team cover to claim his suspension should begin this season.

So, Noah rushed to practice today, and no matter how unlikely he would’ve been to follow this timeline sans suspension, that will seemingly be enough.

Fred Kerber of the New York Post:

New York has eight games remaining, which would leave 12 for Noah to serve at the beginning of next season.

Obviously, the more of his suspension Noah serves during this lost season, the better. The Knicks might be a wreck next season too, but at least there’s a chance they’re ready to win (and a chance Noah can contribute). This year is confirmed hopeless.

 

After fun back-to-back wins, Kings deemphasizing veterans

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Break up the Kings.

No, really.

After consecutive thrilling wins — a historic comeback against the Clippers on Sunday and another one-point win over the Grizzlies, Sacramento coach Dave Joerger’s former team, yesterday — the Kings announced a changing of the guard.

Joerger, via CSN California:

This was maybe our last stand for the year, as far as you’re probably not going to see all those veterans play together the rest of the season.

Darren Collison, Garrett Temple, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver and Ty Lawson played major roles against Memphis. Expect their minutes to be cut down the stretch.

The Kings have “fallen” to the NBA’s eight-worst record. It’s unlikely, but a late-game surge could “drop” them to the league’s 10th-worst record.

That’s unviable for a team that put itself on the tanking track and loses its first-round pick (to the Bulls) if it falls outside the top 10. Sacramento must protect itself from bad lottery luck.

It might not require going full Suns, but the Kings should and will emphasize developing their young players — who, not at all incidentally, are less equipped to help the team win.

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Also:

“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.