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.

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant betting odds favorites to win MVP

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Unlike the early projections for the NBA title next season, the MVP race seems wide open.

Russell Westbrook put up ridiculous numbers on his way to the award last season, but now he is going to share the rock with Paul George. James Harden made a legitimate case and would have won most seasons, but now he will have the ball in his hands less with Chris Paul running the show.

Who is going to win? Westbrook and Golden State’s Kevin Durant are the early betting line favorites, with these odds courtesy of online gaming site Bovada.

Russell Westbrook (OKC) 7/2
Kevin Durant (GS) 9/2
Kawhi Leonard (SAN) 13/2
LeBron James (CLE) 15/2
James Harden (HOU) 8/1
Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 17/2
Steph Curry (GS) 11/1
Anthony Davis (NOP) 16/1
Paul George (OKC) 25/1
Chris Paul (HOU) 25/1
Isaiah Thomas (BOS) 25/1
DeMarcus Cousins (NOP) 33/1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 33/1
John Wall (WAS) 33/1
Blake Griffin (LAC) 40/1
Nikola Jokic (DEN) 40/1
DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 50/1
Joel Embiid (PHI) 50/1
Kyrie Irving (CLE) 50/1
Damian Lillard (POR) 50/1
Draymond Green (GS) 60/1
Ben Simmons (PHI) 66/1
Gordon Hayward (BOS) 70/1
Carmelo Anthony (NYK) 75/1
Jimmy Butler (MIN) 75/1
Andrew Wiggins (MIN) 75/1
Kevin Love (CLE) 100/1
Kyle Lowry (TOR) 100/1
Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) 100/1

Yes, it is far too early to discuss this. As a voter, I don’t even start to make a list of serious candidates until midway through the season (then that list evolves as the season wears on). But it’s fun to speculate about.

To me, the smartest bet on the board seems to be Kawhi Leonard — he could have won last year, and if anything the Spurs are going to ask more of him this season. I think Harden has a chance to win it this season even with CP3, same with Westbrook, but it feels less likely. It’s hard to imagine one Warrior being picked above the others for the award. If Giannis Antetokounmpo finds his jumper it could happen, but that feels more like something a couple seasons away. Same with Karl-Anthony Towns being in consideration.

If you’re going to bet on Kevin Love, just donate that money to charity where it will do some good.

If Jeff Hornacek doesn’t work out with Knicks, is David Blatt next in line?

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It’s not fair to judge Jeff Hornacek of his first season as coach of the New York Knicks. Phil Jackson made some poor roster decisions — don’t hire a coach that likes to play fast then go sign Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — and then there was the on again, off again, on again triangle offense looming over everything.

This season Hornacek will sink or swim on his own terms, and his ability to develop Kristaps Porzingis into a true franchise cornerstone and put Tim Hardaway Jr. and other young players in good positions around them.

If not, is former Cavaliers coach David Blatt lurking? Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says it’s something to watch.

Blatt, who has enjoyed tremendous success abroad, owns an impressive resume. No question about it. But you know the old saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And Blatt has connections with people in high places inside the Knicks front office, namely team president Steve Mills and newly hired front office executive Craig Robinson…

Mills is going to give Hornacek every opportunity to succeed in New York but Mills, who is said to have strong opinions about how the team should be coached, also wants to see results. That begins with Hornacek repairing his relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, who did not connect with the head coach last season and ultimately skipped his exit meeting with Jackson, Hornacek and Mills in April.

Repairing that relationship with Porzingis is crucial. We’ll see if Hornacek can do that and get this team moving in the right direction.

Blatt wants to return to the NBA, but his he the guy to connect with Porzingis? Blatt’s problems in Cleveland had far less to do with Xs and Os than it did relationships with players — Blatt was saying he wanted to team to play faster long before Tyronn Lue said that when he took over, but Lue could get players to buy in and listen. Blatt couldn’t. Blatt came in expecting to be handed respect, touting his European resume (that NBA players shrugged at), and demanding deference rather than building partnerships with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Blatt came off as needing to be the smartest guy in the room, always. Basically, Blatt could not handle the player/power dynamic in the NBA (coming out of Europe, where coaches have absolute power, like an American college coach). Has he learned how to deal with it?

Before we get to that question, Hornaced gets his shot. The real test for the Knicks comes after Christmas, when they spend most of a couple of weeks on the road (due to the Grammys coming to Madison Square Garden), it’s a tough couple of weeks, and the team could struggle in that stretch and not recover. Hornacek has to have the team playing well enough, and buying in enough by then, to survive that trip. Do that and he will stick around. If not, the sharks are circling.

Hawks commit more earnestly to rebuild, but enough?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hawks were pretty good without a clear path forward.

Now, they’re pretty bad without a clear path forward.

Luckily for them – and despite their best efforts – they might be bad enough.

Atlanta continued its descent from its 60-win peak two years ago by losing its two best players. The Hawks let Paul Millsap leave for the Nuggets and traded Dwight Howard to the Hornets in what could be described as a salary rearrangement more than a salary dump.

After multiple half-measures toward rebuilding – refusing to offer Al Horford the max, trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for first-round picks – Atlanta finally committed.

Kind of.

The Hawks hedged against full-on tanking by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. Those two big men – Dedmon in his prime, Ilyasova close enough to it – supply enough hustle and basketball intelligence to sabotage a proper tank. Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose teams tend to exceed the sum of their parts, won’t help Atlanta bottom out.

I can see breaking up a team with a playoff chance to torpedo high into the lottery. The Hawks aren’t doing that – not purposefully, at least. It appears they’re trying to remain credibly competitive, which could only undermine their rebuild.

Atlanta is rebuilding around Dennis Schroder, John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The Hawks also have all their own first-rounders plus protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers. But the Houston pick is the only one of those extras that can ever land in the top 10, and that’s just top-three protected this season, a season in which the Rockets project to pick in the low 20s.

Simply, this is not an encouraging asset pool to begin a rebuild with. Atlanta would benefit greatly from a high 2018 pick.

The Hawks just don’t seem interested enough in securing one.

They also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency. Like the 32-year-old Millsap, the 33-year-old Sefolosha had no place on a team mostly rebuilding. The 25-year-old Hardaway could have fit into the next era or even as a trade chip, but not on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Knicks signed him to. Though Atlanta wisely passed on matching, it’s a shame to lose an asset for nothing.

That’s really the story of the Hawks’ descent. Millsap, Horford, Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll all walked in free agency. Atlanta was always reluctant to trade those players for value while it could.

I’m trying to grade only this offseason, not prior decisions. General manager Travis Schlenk took over this offseason, and he has the runway for a patient rebuild.

The Hawks wisely got a first-rounder for taking and buying out Jamal Crawford. Could they have found similar deals rather than signing Dedmon and Ilyasova? Could they have signed younger players instead?

The Hawks might hope they can trade Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million) and Ilyasova (one-year, $6 million) for even greater value, but that comes with complications. Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option for next season, so if his deal goes south, Atlanta is on the hook for another year. (If it goes well, Dedmon will become an unrestricted free agent and – fitting the theme – could just leave.) As a returning player on a one-year contract, Ilyasova can veto any trade.

If the Hawks had re-signed Millsap (and maybe Sefolosha, too), they could have made a decent case to return to the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Atlanta has the NBA’s second-longest active playoff streak, 10 seasons. That isn’t nothing, and continuing it would have been fine.

If the Hawks tried to return to the playoffs and failed, they would have ended up in a similar position to where they are now – somewhere in the lottery, but not necessarily high in it. They could have even traded Millsap – whose Denver deal guarantees him just $61 million over two years – for value.

If the future is murky either way, I’d rather be better in the interim.

Perhaps, Atlanta just tired of losing in the first or second round (though ownership and management has recently changed). That would have been the team’s likely ceiling if it re-signed Millsap.

But I just don’t see winning about 30 games as more pleasurable than reaching the playoffs, even with an early-round exit. A 30-win season doesn’t bring enough value in the draft to offset the difference.

Here’s the good news: The Hawks’ hedging probably didn’t go far enough. They might be downright terrible, anyway – positioning them to draft the elite young talent they badly need to galvanize their rebuild.

This was a D+ effort that stumbled into a slightly more favorable position – i.e., a team that struggles more than it expects.

Offseason grade: C-

Dunker Max Pearce throws down another impressive one (VIDEO)

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These are the kinds of dunks that make me ask, should the NBA allow pro dunkers in the All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest. Some years you get the great Zach LaVine shows, but other years it’s down. NBA players need to focus on their game, not highlight dunks.

Guys like Max Pearce on the other hand…

Here is his latest.

But head to his Instagram page and you get to see a lot of dunks like this.

Stay creative 👍🏽 #Flynance 🏆

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