Heat, Mavericks go opposite directions after last year’s finals

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Last June, the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat were the two teams left standing on top of the NBA mountain. They were the two teams that made, it, that advanced to the NBA finals. Dallas, as we all recall, came out on top.

Last July, these two teams started traveling very different paths that lead to where they are right now.

Miami is rolling, up 3-0 in the first round on a Knicks team that was supposed to push them a little. They brought in depth, they’ve modified the system and the players bought into it, and for stretches now they play just suffocating defense. Still, they feel like a Maserati in fourth gear — they could be even more impressive.

Dallas is getting rolled, down 3-0 in the first round to a Thunder team they took out in five games last playoffs. Dallas’ owner Mark Cuban decided to look long term rather than chase a ring with the same cast, and that combined with some bad luck has them on the verge of an embarrassingly quick elimination.

It’s quite a contrast.

And it’s all about decisions made during the summer, while the NBA was locked out and soon after it returned.

Miami’s flaws were exposed in the finals — not enough depth, plus their three big stars — Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — did not fully mesh. LeBron, in particular, was more passive during the finals and nobody could step into those shoes.

Coach Erick Spoelstra spent the summer coming up with a system that better fit his three stars — pressure defense and transition. If you have the best athletes and the best finishers, put them in positions to do what they do best. The Heat pressure and gamble on defense, they force mistakes because of their athleticism, then they turned those into highlight transition dunks. As the season wore on the Heat strayed from that plan, but they still bring it back in spurts and have done more of that in the playoffs. The Knicks have been overwhelmed when they do.

Miami also added depth — Shane Battier, Norris Cole — and got guys like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem healthy.

Right now, especially after Derrick Rose’s injury in Chicago, the Heat look like they could steamroll back to the finals.

Dallas will not be facing them.

Mark Cuban made a decision to focus on the long term — he did not bring back Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, J.J. Barea. He did not offer contract extensions to others. The result is a good long-term plan — this summer they will have the free agent money to offer a max deal to Deron Williams (or whoever else they choose). If they can move Shawn Marion, they may be able to bring in another big star.

This was not a strip-it-to-the-bone, move, this was trying to rebuild on the fly. It was a calculated risk.

It hasn’t worked out as planned and now they are paying the price. While Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are still there, this team does not have the depth or the depth of talent it did last year. Part of that is because of the Lamar Odom meltdown — they made a good gamble they could get the former Laker to come around with them, but he never did. That is a versatile, quality player who could have helped on a lot of fronts.

But it might not have mattered. The Thunder were going to get better. The Lakers have improved, as have the Grizzlies and Clippers. The West was going to be harder to get out of and Dallas took an intentional step back with its eye on the long term. Two years from now we may praise Cuban’s move as visionary — this is the kind of “make a move early rather than late” decision Jerry Buss has been making with the Lakers for years.

But it came with a price — these Mavericks are not as good as last year’s.

They are on an opposite trajectory from the team they knocked off in the finals last year. What a difference one year can make.

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.

Clippers win likely playoff preview 108-95 over Jazz

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jamal Crawford scored 28 points off the bench, and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Utah Jazz 108-95 on Saturday to clinch a playoff berth for the sixth straight year.

The Clippers trail the Jazz by a half-game in their race for the No. 4 playoff seed in the West. The teams are likely to face in the first round of the postseason.

Blake Griffin added 15 points and DeAndre Jordan had 15 rebounds for the Clippers.

Rudy Gobert had 26 points and 14 rebounds for Utah, and reserve Joe Johnson added 17 points. The Jazz have dropped four of five.

Utah rallied in the third, putting together a 20-6 spurt to trim Los Angeles’ lead to 72-70 heading into the final period. Gobert had nine points and Johnson scored seven during the run that included 10 straight points for the Jazz over one stretch.

Chris Paul and Crawford both got technicals while the Clippers struggled to score and defend.

But Los Angeles turned things around in the fourth, scoring the first eight points for an 80-70 lead. Crawford had 17 points in the quarter, scoring six in a row to push the Clippers’ lead to 103-84. He was 9 of 9 at the free-throw line for the game.

The Clippers grabbed control early on, shooting 52 percent in the first quarter while building a 15-point lead.

The Jazz got within seven to start the second before the Clippers restored their 15-point margin and eventually led 49-41 at halftime.

Utah’s top two scorers, Gordon Hayward and George Hill, struggled. Hayward, who averages 22 points, had 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Hill, who averages 17.1, had nine points while shooting 4 of 11.

TIP-INS

Jazz: Gobert was coming off a career-high 35-point, 15-rebound performance against the Knicks on Tuesday. … G Sheldon Mack missed his 11th straight game with a left ankle sprain. … F/C Derrick Favors remains out with a left knee bone contusion.

Clippers: Their six-year playoff run is the longest in franchise history. … They have won 18 of 20 against the Jazz dating to Feb. 1, 2012. … They won the season series 3-1.

 

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Sixers’ Joel Embiid officially has knee surgery, expected to be back on court in summer

Associated Press
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“The… follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid‘s left knee appears to reveal… the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan.”

When Philadelphia’s chief medical director Dr. Jonathan Glashow said that in a statement announcing Joel Embiid was being shut down for the season, the chance of knee surgery to clean up that meniscus was possible. Friday it became a reality, the team announced.

CSNPhilly.com had the details.

The team expects Embiid to resume basketball activities during this summer, according to Sixers director of performance research and development Dr. David T. Martin. Embiid will begin his rehab in Los Angeles with specialists and Sixers medical and training staff members.

“The overall status of Joel’s lateral meniscus and his cartilage is very good,” surgeon Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache, M.D., who performed the surgery, said in a statement. “Today’s procedure focused on removing a small portion of the meniscus that was responsible for his symptoms.

“The recovery program that has been established targets Joel transitioning back to full weight-bearing in approximately two weeks, at which point a conservative approach to his rehabilitation will be introduced.”

After Embiid missed two seasons with foot issues, there is a tendency to lump everything together and call him injury prone. This, however, was a minor surgery with a relatively short recovery period, even as the Sixers bring him along slowly. There is reason for concern, but this shouldn’t be an issue by next training camp.

Embiid averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game despite a minutes restriction all season. He was incredibly efficient in getting his numbers — he had an All-Star level PER of 24.2 — and when he was on the court the Sixers outscored their opponents by 3 points per 100 possessions. He’s still likely a top three finisher in Rookie of the Year balloting despite playing in just 31 games.