ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Dallas Mavericks

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Last season: For the first time in his career, Dirk Nowitzki missed a chunk of the season due to major knee surgery. Dallas started 12-15 without their star German then promptly dropped 8-of-9 after his return, putting them in a deep hole. The result was the players grew “.500 beards” they let grow like they were on Duck Dynasty until they fought their way back to .500. It took most of the season but thy got there, eventually finishing 41-41, however that was not good enough to make the playoffs. It was the first time since 2000 Dallas missed the postseason.

Signature highlight from last season: It has to be Darren Collison’s ridiculously lucky game-tying three against the Thunder.

Key player changes: For the second straight summer the Mavericks swung for the fences and went after the biggest star available (Dwight Howard) — and the good news is he did decide to come to Texas… just to Houston.

So, Plan B: Monta Ellis. Not a great plan, but a plan that can put some points on the board. They also bring in Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Devin Harris (he’s baaaaack), DeJuan Blair, and Gal Mekel.

Gone are Elton Brand and Chris Kaman from the front line, Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo from the perimeter.

Keys to the Maverick’s season:

Can the Mavericks stop anybody from scoring on them? They were 20th in the NBA in defense last season allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, then they added Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon (not guys exactly known as defensive stoppers). Samuel Dalembert can be a solid rim protector in the paint when healthy, but nobody else along the front line (sorry Dirk) is much of a defender. This is not going to be a great defensive team. Still, if coach Rick Carlisle can’t get them to scrap on that end and finish closer to the league average it could keep them out of the playoff hunt.

Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki… can that work? For the past 13 seasons, Dirk Nowitzki has led the Dallas Mavericks in scoring average per game. This is the year that could be threatened because Monta Ellis is a fearless gunner, a volume scorer — but he is a far less efficient scorer and is not the guy who should be putting up more shots than Dirk. It’s an interesting little experiment down in Dallas — Ellis has never really been on a team where him scoring any way he could was not option No. 1 (maybe young, often injured Stephen Curry in Golden State changed that but it wasn’t that clear cut those first years) so how will he adjust? Can the steady and more conservative style of Jose Calderon combined with all the touches Nowitzki should get rein in Ellis’ bad shot selection?

So far this preseason the Ellis/Nowitzki pick-and-roll has shown some real promise — Nowitzki flairs out (or rolls) and that opens up lanes for Ellis to attack. Throw Calderon (also a very strong pick-and-roll point guard) in the mix and there is real offensive potential on this team. Still Nowitzki has to be the guy; I expect a big bounce-back season from him (I’m saying put him on your fantasy team).

What shakeups to the roster are coming? Mark Cuban still has Dallas big game hunting — they would love another star to pair along side the aging Nowitzki to make one more run. They have the expiring contracts of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, plus some other nice young role players to throw into a deal. Expect Dallas to try to make moves and obviously if they can bag another star player that changes everything.

Why you should watch the Mavericks: Monta Ball! Well, sort of. This isn’t exactly going to be the Don Nelson/Steve Nash era Mavericks but this team is going to put up a lot of points and be entertaining. Nowitzki is still a pure scorer, Ellis will get his, Calderon will make Marion and Vince Carter look better than expected. This team is going to be fun to watch and it’s going to put up points.

Prediction: 46-36 and fighting for that eighth playoff slot in the West. This team has flaws and their defense could end up sending them to the lottery for a second straight year. However, I think this team gets that last spot (I’m not as high on the Lakers as some of the others here at PBT) and I believe on offense the Ellis/Nowitzki pairing is going to work better than some expect. This team is not as good as Mark Cuban seems to think it is, but it’s good enough to return to the postseason if everyone stays healthy.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.