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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.

Thunder get off to fast start, survive wild ending to win 98-97, even series with Spurs

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, center, scramble with San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, right, for a loose ball as time expires in the second half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. Oklahoma City won 98-97. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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When the playoffs are all over, and all the confetti has fallen at the parade celebrating the 2016 NBA champion, we are still going to be talking about this game. The Spurs and Warriors gave us everything — great shooting, leads and comebacks, and a wild, controversial ending.

What ultimately matters is the Thunder bounced back from a rough first game, were aggressive from the start and raced out to that early lead using their transition offense. They hung on through multiple Spurs comebacks and ultimately got a 98-97 win behind 29 points from Russell Westbrook and 28 from Kevin Durant (who played well at the four spot much of the night). The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to Oklahoma City.

All the controversy at the end doesn’t change that fact, or that the Thunder did some things much better in Game 2.

The Thunder have had moments like this throughout the season, where they defended better, got transition points, and Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter (or someone else) would step up and make plays — but they didn’t sustain that high level of play for very long. They still won 55 games because Durant and Westbrook are talented, but we will see if they can sustain a “beat the Spurs” level of play for most of the next couple weeks.

San Antonio helped out by having their offense not as sharp, and just missing shots — the Spurs started 2-of-15 from the field and finished the game shooting just 26.1 percent from three. The missed shots allowed the Thunder to get out in transition more and get the easy buckets that fuel their offense.

But that’s not what anybody is talking about, this is:

Those final 13 seconds, when the Spurs were down 1 and the Thunder were trying to inbound the ball, is the topic of the day. The referees swallowed their whistles to the point that a rugby scrum broke out.

The most discussed part of the play was the inbound — Dion Waiters reaches across the boundary line to shove Manu Ginobili back, which is a clear foul and a change of possessions. Ginobili had stepped on the end line, which could have been ruled a technical but was not as egregious as Waiters’ blatant foul. There were a host of other fouls in those final seconds: Kawhi Leonard grabbing Westbrook’s jersey, a Spurs fan grabbing Steven Adams when he fell out of bounds and not letting him back in the play, and Ibaka hacking LaMarcus Aldridge in the final seconds.

But that’s not what decided the game. The Spurs made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of clean looks before that, things they needed at the end. Aldridge had 41 points, and Leonard added 12. However, Tim Duncan was 1-of-8, and Tony Parker was 3-of-9 — those guys are not the top offensive options anymore, but the Spurs need them to be efficient. The hustling Thunder defense had something to do with this, but that doesn’t change that the Spurs need more from these two key players.

The Thunder offense worked not because they shared the ball — as per usual, it happens only in spurts — but because Westbrook and Durant hit their shots, and because they got transition buckets.

If they can do that for a couple more games at home, they will be in command of this series. But it’s not going to be simple or easy.

Referees miss Dion Waiters push off, multiple other calls in final seconds of Thunder’s win over San Antonio

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Manu Ginobili said it perfectly after the game: This one play, this one sequence is not why the Spurs lost Game 2 of their series against the Thunder.

However, I can’t remember a time the referees swallowed their whistles on so many calls in the final seconds of a game.

Oklahoma City was up one with 13.5 seconds left (after Serge Ibaka made a silly foul on LaMarcus Aldridge shooting a three), the Thunder just needed to inbound the ball, get fouled and hit their free throws. But it wasn’t that easy.

First and most notably, Dion Waiters was trying to inbound the ball and pushed off on Manu Ginobili guarding the inbound play. That’s a foul, or a technical depending upon which rule you want to apply. But the Spurs should have had the ball out of bounds, the referees just missed that one and both Chris Webber on the call and the TNT Inside the NBA crew harped on that one. They were right.

The officials admitted as much, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Ken Mauer, lead referee from tonight’s game: “On the floor we did not see a foul on the play. However, upon review we realize and we agree we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play we’ve never seen before, ever. We should have had an offensive foul on the play.”

The question Thunder fans are asking: Why wasn’t Ginobili called for stepping on the out of bounds line? In the final two minutes that’s a technical (the rule book says it’s a foul if he “crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line,” Ginobili has a toe on the line). Also Leonard had Russell Westbrook‘s jersey through that entire inbounds play.

Waiters did throw a leaping inbound pass as Ginobili stumbled backwards, and he threw it to Durant — who was held as he went for the ball by Danny Green. That should have been a foul call (although Waiters’ inbound foul would have nullified it if that call had been made).

The Spurs get the ball in a scramble for the rock and end up kicking out to Patty Mills for a corner three (not sure that was the best shot), but he missed. In the rebound scramble there could have been a few calls, but the most obvious was Ibaka hacking Aldridge trying to get a putback. It was another clear foul.

All that obscured some great plays — Ginobili with the no-look, behind the head pass to Mills in the corner, or Steven Adams with an amazing closeout to get a piece of Mills’ shot, to name a couple.

I get it, the referees don’t want to decide the game with their whistle, but when it turns into a rugby scrum there should be calls, and the referees shouldn’t be afraid to make them.

Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.