Can the Dallas Mavericks repeat as NBA champions?

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After a trying, decade-long run that consistently placed them along the title’s periphery, the Dallas Mavericks finally claimed their first ever NBA championship last June. The fact that Dirk and the Mavs are the reigning champs still seems like a hazy dream — a vision almost too similar to a storybook to be real, and an image obscured just enough by the lockout to give it that ethereal glow. But the trophy itself is no fantasy, and the Mavs will set out this season to defend their right to another one just like it with every resource at their disposal.

It won’t be easy. Even with an impressive run of low-cost off-season additions, the Mavs are hardly in a position to repeat as the league’s champions:

Losing the “best offense”

Contrary to their offense-first reputation, the Mavericks were a surprisingly balanced team last year, as they finished the regular season ranked eighth in both offensive and defensive efficiency. It was that two-way effectiveness that really pushed Dallas over the top in the NBA Finals; although Dirk Nowitzki was a certifiable terror all throughout the Mavs’ playoff run, it was the team’s defensive flexibility that allowed them to corral LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with the title on the line.

Dwane Casey, the former Mavs assistant who now sits at the head of the bench for the Toronto Raptors, was a big part of that. It was Casey’s system that put Dallas’ many defensive elements into their appropriate context, and turned Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Tyson Chandler into versatile, switchable, and highly deployable defensive weapons. Dallas just had so much size and mobility across the board, and that positional flexibility gave the Mavs an uncommon success in defending the pick-and-roll.

Things could get slightly tougher without Casey, even though his system has been handed off to assistant coach Monte Mathis. Yet they’re assuredly going to be more difficult without Tyson Chandler, who didn’t receive the long-term security or financial commitment he desired from the Mavs in free agency. Chandler is now a New York Knickerbocker, leaving some combination of Brendan Haywood, Ian Mahinmi, Dirk Nowitzki, Lamar Odom, and Brandan Wright to fill in minutes as Dallas’ defensive anchor. Haywood is still quite underrated in that regard, but even at his best he’s a few steps below Chandler. He’ll battle opponents in the post, do his best do hedge screens, and generally make the right rotations, but Haywood consistently lags behind Chandler in terms of overall defensive efficacy.

It’s the depth at center that could give Dallas more significant problems, though. As is usually the case, Chandler’s one-time backup is ready to step in and produce. But what of the players behind him? Ian Mahinmi may be the most talented fouler in the NBA. Nowitzki and Odom would give Dallas a virtually unmatchable offensive alignment if they played center, but don’t have the same rotational value as Chandler or Haywood. Wright is athletic, but is undeniably a work in progress. Yet that group will have some huge responsibilities when Haywood is resting or plagued with foul trouble, and it’s hard to imagine them living up to last season’s benchmark.

The never-ending quest for improvement

Even though the Mavs will enter the 2011-2012 season having accomplished their greatest goal the year prior, they still face the same pressure that falls on every defending champ: the burden of being even better. Dallas can’t just be as good as they were last season; in order to counter all the moves that have been made, the development of young players around the league, and the more nuanced understanding opposing coaches now have of how to use their respective rosters, the Mavs will need to find some legitimate means toward actual improvement.

And looking up and down this roster, it’s hard to find compelling reason why Dallas would actually be a better team this season. Chandler’s departure obviously hurts quite a bit, as do the losses of Caron Butler and J.J. Barea. But above all, it was Dallas’ decision to value financial flexibility over all else that’s put them in their current position.

The Mavs have done an incredible job of upgrading their roster under these circumstances; the additions of Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, Delonte West, and the aforementioned Brandan Wright are downright gaudy considering their minimal financial costs. But how does the shift in personnel impact Dallas’ ability to field competitive lineups? They’ve bolstered their depth virtually across the board, but what have they given up at center in order to make that possible?

I think at best, you’re looking for a Mavs team that would essentially be a wash in terms of overall quality, as they compensate for some defensive slippage with offensive gain. Yet it’s hard to see — even in that best-case scenario — how the defending champs would meet their burden for improvement beyond their performance last season. Dallas’ moves to date have done well to mitigate some of the team’s free agent losses, but aren’t quite robust enough to completely erase them.

If you keep rolling the dice…

On the Mavs’ Media Day, new Maverick Vince Carter may have summed up Dallas’ playoff run best.

“[The Mavs] just made it happen,” Carter said. “It takes a lot of luck and opportunity, and they seized the moment. Could people honestly say they were going to win it at the beginning of the year? No, not really. Not even in the middle of the year. When you put a team like this together that’s committed and when you get a bunch of veteran guys, anything could happen.”

With a team like the one the Mavs had last season, anything could happen. Dallas put itself in a position to succeed time and time again, and rolled the dice. On the ropes against the Portland Trailblazers? Rolled a six. Comeback victory against the Lakers on the road thanks to a favorable call? Rolled a six. Need a knockout punch in Game 4 against the defending champs? Six. A complete blitzkrieg en route to an impossible comeback against Oklahoma City? Another one.

You get the idea, because we all witnessed it: Dallas got every single break they needed in every single series of last year’s postseason, and while that made their championship run one for the ages, it also makes it incredibly difficult to replicate. Dallas is a very good team, but thanks to surges and breaks and explosions at the best possible times, they — if only temporarily — became a truly amazing one. You, I, and the history books will never forget it.

As Carter says, anything could happen. But it’d be silly to expect the same result, even after the Mavs again put themselves in a position to roll the dice with quality regular season performance.

Cavaliers, Warriors sweeps mean time to rest, get mental breather

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Durant can take some pressure off that tender left calf. LeBron James has extra time to recoup after barely leaving the floor in the first round.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr scheduled some medical appointments as he deals with debilitating symptoms still affecting him nearly two years after complications from a pair of back surgeries.

The two star-studded teams expected by many to face off once more in the NBA Finals each swept through their respective first-round playoff series in four games, leaving ample time for the Cavaliers and Warriors to rest up, heal up and prepare for the next opponent.

“It gives me a mental break. As far as physically, I am who I am,” James said. “I’ve played so many games over the years, the best break for me is probably when I’m done.”

Of course guys like James and Draymond Green are already eager to get back on the court.

Cleveland now knows its next opponent is Toronto, while the Warriors were still waiting out the Clippers-Jazz series.

“Definitely have gotten antsy to play,” Green said Friday. “But you see that break and you’re excited about it, just to get that time to rest and get everybody back as close to 100 (percent) as possible for the next round. At the same time you do get antsy to get back on the floor and back in the rhythm of things. I think it’s been a good week for us to sweep and get this time off.”

Durant, still receiving treatment on his left leg and knee, spent Thursday at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue threw a huge watch party Thursday night so players and members of the organization could see the Raptors close out the Bucks in six games.

Golden State scrimmaged Friday to stay sharp, while Cleveland players have competed in such ways as racing on cardiovascular machines in the weight room to stay fresh and motivated.

James led the league in minutes during the regular season then played nearly 44 per game in the first-round sweep of Indiana – familiar territory after the Cavs also swept Detroit in the first round last season, then followed by eliminating Atlanta in the minimum four games.

“I’m ready to get this thing going, but obviously I’m not going to rush the process,” James said. “… But, yeah, I don’t like the way I feel when we’re not playing.”

In 2015, when the Warriors captured their first championship in 40 years, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving suffered a freak Game 1 injury when he fractured his left kneecap, and Kevin Love was already lost to a dislocated left shoulder.

Last June, Stephen Curry had returned from a knee injury but never fully got healthy and the thought was the Warriors wore down after chasing and breaking the Chicago Bulls’ regular-season wins record with 73 victories.

“If you could sweep every series that would be perfect,” Durant said, “because you just want to play well and then you’ll worry about the rest afterward. That’s the situation we’re in. We’ve got a lot of guys banged up, so it’s good to have a few days to get your bodies right and your mind right and just get back to the drawing board in terms of individual work, team work.”

In the Warriors’ case, it also has meant more time working with Mike Brown as acting head coach while Kerr is away. The reigning NBA Coach of the Year missed Games 3 and 4 at Portland because he was in such discomfort, having dealt with headaches, neck pain and nausea that recently became worse.

While Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is most known for sitting several star players at once without regard to anything but his team’s best interest, others have caught on and replicated the strategy of spelling players in order to pace for the long haul.

In March 2015, the Warriors lost at Denver with Curry watching – along with Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut – in the first game of a back-to-back. Oh, did Kerr take heat for it, even personally answering a few emails. And the Warriors reached out to other upset fans and sent along care packages.

“As a coach your responsibility is to keep your players healthy and there are times when guys need a night off,” Kerr said.

In December, Cleveland caused an uproar by resting James, Love and Irving in a loss at Memphis. Lue then sat several starters for the final game of the regular season against Toronto, and the teams will meet again in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Monday.

Now, the Cleveland coach insists, James can handle the heavy minutes when it matters most.

“His body can take it,” Lue said, “so I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

 

Chris Paul told Paul Pierce: “You’re not ending your career in Utah”

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When the Clippers lose their final game this season — maybe Sunday, maybe not for weeks — the Hall of Fame career of Paul Pierce will come to an end.

It’s not why Doc Rivers was leaning so heavily on Pierce Friday night, that’s more desperation on a shorthanded (and not that deep to start with) lineup. The Clippers got away with 20+ minutes of Pierce on Friday and still got the win.

He even served as an inspiration for Chris Paul, as CP3 said in his postgame press conference.

The best part of that video? DeAndre Jordan‘s reaction.

You can be sure Utah Jazz fans will take this comment as a slight and let CP3 hear about it next season. As for the Jazz players, they are heading into Game 7, how much more motivation do they need.

John Wall’s chasedown block of Dennis Schroder, layup saved game for Wizards (VIDEO)

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Washington had been up 22 points in the third quarter and seemed to be cruising to a win in Atlanta, and with it a trip to the second round… but it would not be that easy. The Hawks made their push back, knocking down threes and chipping away at the Wizards lead until it was all the way down to 93-90, a one possession game.

Then John Wall took over.

It started with the big play you see above — a chasedown block on Dennis Schroder, which turned into a Wall layup on the other end.

That play changed the momentum. Washington closed the game on a 22-9 run where Wall scored the final 13 points on his way to 42 for the night on just 25 shots. The end result was a 115-99 Wizards win to close the Hawks out 4-2.

Steve Ballmer loses control after Austin Rivers three, creates another meme

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Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer has been a meme machine this series. First, there was the sad face after the Clippers Game 5 loss at home.

Then Friday, there was his reaction to an Austin Rivers three.

Ballmer’s reactions may be the best part of the Game 7 between these teams Sunday.