Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game Six

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.

Terrence Jones scores 36, leads Pelicans past Cavaliers 124-122

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Terrence Jones filled in brilliantly for injured All-Star Anthony Davis, scoring a season-high 36 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking LeBron James‘ dunk attempt in the fourth quarter, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 124-122 on Monday night.

Jrue Holiday added 33 points and 10 assists for the Pelicans, and Langston Galloway capped a 12-point night with a clean steal on James’ drive in the final minute, preventing the Cavs from erasing a deficit they had trimmed from 22 late in the first half to three with 1:32 left in the game.

Kyrie Irving scoring 35 of his 49 points in the second half, but the Cleveland fell to its fifth loss in seven games. James had 26 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.

Two of Cleveland’s recent losses came against Western Conference leaders Golden State and San Antonio, but two others have come against teams currently outside the playoff picture in the West: New Orleans and Portland.

Kevin Love had 22 points for Cleveland, which could not quite keep pace with a Pelicans squad that tied a season high for 3-pointers with 16 and shot 49.4 percent (43 of 87).

Donatas Moteijunas scored 14 for New Orleans, while Dante Cunningham scored 11. Each hit a pair of 3s.

The Cavs drained 15 3s, eight by Irving, whose step-back jumper from long range had Cleveland within three with 21 seconds to go, but the Cavs got no closer until Love’s anticlimactic 3 in the final second.

Embarrassed in a 29-point loss to NBA-worst Brooklyn at home on Friday, the Pelicans were eager for a chance to redeem themselves with a competitive showing against the defending champs. That did not appear likely when New Orleans announced less than an hour before tip-off that Davis would be unable to play because of his right leg bruise lingering from a collision with the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie.

Coach Alvin Gentry inserted Jones for Davis as the starting center, and he responded with arguably the most dynamic half of play in the fifth-year veteran’s career. He hit all eight of his shots in the first half, scoring 22 points on an array of jumpers – including two 3s – weaving drives and feisty put-backs.

Holiday, meanwhile, got into an equally prolific rhythm, hitting three 3s and highlighting several impressive drives to the hoop with a two-handed dunk. Holiday’s pullup jumper from just inside the 3-point line with 6 seconds left in the second quarter gave him 22 points and New Orleans a 22-point lead, and Holiday pumped his fist while one of the biggest crowds of the season went wild.

In the last second of the half, James executed a long inbound pass to Love, who converted a quick-release layup to make it 70-50.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Coach Tyronn Lue was assessed a technical foul by official Leroy Richardson after the coach chastised Richardson for a late whistle giving Moteijunas free throws following a missed layup. … The Cavs won the teams’ only other meeting this season, 90-82 in Cleveland on Jan. 2. … Irving slung in what would have been a sensational, off-balance, one-handed shot from about 30 feet, but it didn’t count because it came too late after Irving was fouled by Tyreke Evans as the pair pursued a loose ball near mid-court.

Pelicans: New Orleans improved to 2-2 without Davis in the lineup. … G E'Twaun Moore, who is 6-foot-4, delighted the crowd by rejecting the 6-8 James near the basket in the first half. … New Orleans shot 60.5 percent (26 of 43) in the first half.=

 

Heat’s Dion Waiters drains game-winning three to knock off Warriors (VIDEO)

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Last week Golden State crushed Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and Houston.

But none of those teams had Dion Waiters.

The final three of Waiters’ 33 points came on a deep pull-up three with 0.6 seconds left to give Miami a 105-102 upset of the Warriors. Waiters shot 13-of-20 overall and 6-of-8 from three.

This was a night the Warriors just could not get the three ball to fall, shooting 8-of-30 (26.7 percent) from deep. This ended Golden State’s seven-game win streak and extended the Miami win streak to four.

Joakim Noah with as ugly a free throw as you’ll see. And he knows it. (VIDEO)

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Joakim Noah used to be a good free throw shooter, he’s hit 70 percent for his career. But he’s shooting just 42.9 percent this season.

And no miss was uglier than the one Monday night against the Pacers.

The best part of this airball was Noah’s reaction — he knew it was bad the second he let it go.

If you want to draw parallels with the Knicks’ season, go for it.

Stephen Curry finds Kevin Durant for tomahawks slam in transition (VIDEO)

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The Warriors in transition can be beautiful basketball.

And if you don’t stop the guy with the ball from getting a straight line to the hoop, there will be highlights. In the first half Monday night, the Heat did a good job making Stephen Curry give up the ball in transition (not letting him just pull up for a three), but he found Kevin Durant, who found a lane to the basket, and… highlight tomahawk dunk.

It was a two-point game at the half between the Heat and Warriors, after what was a second quarter both teams probably want to forget.