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.

Phil Jackson goes on vacation, reportedly puts Knicks’ coaching search on hold

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Phil Jackson has stumped for Kurt Rambis, interviewed David Blatt, talked with Luke Walton and ignored Carmelo Anthony.

It must be exhausting.

So, it appears the Knicks president took off on a tour the American West:

No big deal. Everyone has cell phones. Jackson can still run the coaching search from afar.

Except….

Ian Begley of ESPN:

Jackson is on vacation at the moment. The interesting thing here is that league sources say that some involved in the Knicks’ coaching search have been informed that Phil is away at the moment, meaning the search is on hold.

This matters only if Jackson isn’t just going to hire Rambis anyway. But if the Knicks are interested in exploring candidates other teams – Rockets, Pacers and Kings – might want, Jackson is missing a valuable opportunity.

Reminder: The Knicks are paying him $12 million per year – money that could have lured someone with a record of front-office success or even just the commitment to delay a vacation until after hiring a coach.

Three Things to Watch in Heat/Raptors Game 2: Will Kyle Lowry’s jump shot return?

TORONTO, ON - MAY 03:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors attempts to help DeMar DeRozan #10 up off the floor late in the second half of Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 3, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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The first game went to overtime, and we should see a desperate Raptors team in Game 2, one that knows it can’t go down 2-0 and win this series. Here are three things to watch.

1) Did Kyle Lowry’s late-night shooting work pay off? To put it bluntly (as I did in the series preview): If Lowry isn’t playing at an All-Star level the Raptors are not winning this series. He was 3-of-13 shooting in Game 1. It wasn’t just that game, and it wasn’t just the first playoff series with George Hill draped on him, Lowry was not shooting well as the campaign wound down — his 57.8 true shooting percentage for the season dropped to 51.1 (below the league average) in April. That has to change fast.

It wasn’t just Lowry, however, a lot of Raptors players were missing wide open looks — as a team they were 4-of-17 on uncontested threes. Those shots need to fall.

2) Can Toronto defenders stay in front of Goran Dragic? The Miami point guard has felt more and more comfortable in recent months — since the All-Star break when Miami was pushed to small ball — and the Raptors did nothing to make him feel uncomfortable. Well, one Heat player did, Hassan Whiteside (Dragic was 3-of-9 finishing in the paint in Game 1), but if he keeps getting into the paint at will — both in secondary transition actions and in the half court — breaking down the Raptor defense this is going to be a rough series in Toronto. I expect a lot more effort and a better performance from the Raptors defensively, with Dragic as a focal point.

3) “We need more Jonas Valanciunas” — the Raptors must attack Hassan Whiteside and draw some fouls. Whiteside intimidated a lot of Raptors shooters in Game 1 — not only did Raptors guard struggle to finish inside, but they also pulled up and didn’t take shots in the paint at times just to avoid Whiteside. However, Toronto’s Valanciunas has the size advantage inside and put it to good use with 24 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks. The Raptors need to feed him early and try to get Whiteside in foul trouble — that also means attacking guards like DeMar DeRozan can’t pull up, he has to risk some blocked shots to go into the body of Whiteside and draw fouls. If Whiteside is allowed to dominate the paint, the Heat will take the series, the Raptors need to go at him.

Cavaliers’ 3-point shooting was excellent. THEN, they made 25 in a game

Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith (5) reacts after the Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 123-98 in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Cleveland. Smith hit seven 3-pointers in the game. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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The Cavaliers set a record for 3-pointers in a team’s first six playoff games on this Kyrie Irving shot:

Did you notice anything strange about that clip?

It came in Game 1 against the Hawks – Cleveland’s fifth playoff game.

That’s right, the Cavs needed just five games to set a record for 3s through six playoff games. Then, they piled on 25 3-pointers – a record for any NBA game – in their Game 2 win over Atlanta on Wednesday.

Cleveland’s 97 3-pointers through six postseason games absolutely crushes the previous record:

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The difference between the Cavs and second place equals difference between second and 88th.

In fact, Cleveland has already demolished the record for 3s through EIGHT playoff games (previously 90 by the 2014-15 Hawks). Again, the Cavaliers have played just six games this postseason.

Where is all this outside output coming from? The key long-distance shot makers:

Add it all up, and the Cavs are making 16.2 3-pointers per game – which would easily set a playoff record:

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Cleveland could make no 3-pointers in its next two games – and still rank first for 3s per game in a postseason.

Not that the Cavs appear likely to go cold from distance anytime soon.

Their stars generate open looks and make 3s themselves. Smith is an unrepentant gunner, and he’s feeling it.

These are the Cavaliers as scary as they get.

John Wall undergoes surgery on both knees, expected to be ready for start of next season

Washington Wizards guard John Wall speaks during a media availability before an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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John Wall tried putting the Wizards on his back and carrying them into the playoffs.

Washington fell short, but the process still took a toll.

Wizards release:

The Washington Wizards announced that guard John Wall underwent a successful procedure today to excise calcific deposits in his left patella tendon in order to eliminate pain and assist healing.  He will begin the rehabilitation process immediately and is expected to be available for the start of the 2016-17 season.  Wall also underwent an arthroscopic lavage on his right knee in order to remove loose bodies.

If the Wizards are just using the next date most fans care about, this might not be such a big deal. That would open the door for Wall being healthy at any point over the summer.

But if the start of next season is his targeted return, that’s more troubling. Sitting an entire offseason is a big deal, and that means potential complications are more likely to cause him to miss games. It’s also a worse indicator for his long-term health.

As the Wizards enter free agency primed to spend, the last thing they need are questions about the length of their franchise player’s prime.