Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki

Mavericks remake themselves (again) around Dirk Nowitzki, and this time it might work

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Vince Carter made the clutch shot. Monta Ellis led them down the stretch. Samuel Dalembert was the steady hand.

Who are these Dallas Mavericks?

Dallas nearly completely turned over its roster since its 2011 championship – only Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion remain – but the Mavericks have finally found the veterans capable of delivering their first playoff series win since then.

With Carter’s game-winning 3-pointer clinching a 109-108 Game 3 win, Dallas took a 2-1 series lead over the No. 1 seeded San Antonio Spurs. Unlike the NBA’s other potential 1-8 upset, this series isn’t just about whether the top seed blows it. At 49-33, the Mavericks are the one of the best No. 8 seeds ever.*

*Behind only the 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder and 2007-08 Denver Nuggets, both of whom went 50-32

Dallas wasn’t re-built conventionally. The Mavericks haven’t hit on a first-round pick since 2004 (Devin Harris). Instead, they’ve mined the scrap heap for veteran reclamation projects to accentuate Nowitzki’s unique skills – an uneven process that has resulted in more misses than hits. Rudy Fernandez, Lamar Odom, Delonte West, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, O.J. Mayo, Eddy Curry, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Troy Murphy, Derek Fisher, Mike James and Dahntay Jones have all come and gone.

But the veterans who remain are getting it done.

Carter, who led nine teams in scoring, has re-invented himself as a sixth man. He’s no longer tasked with dominating the ball, spotting up more often for 3s. His defense became surprisingly effective in Dallas, remaining decent as he’s aged. And he’s still capable of performing new tricks:

Ellis signed with the Mavericks as an uncontrollable and inefficient shooter, but Rick Carlisle has tamed Ellis’ wildness by better-positioning the shooting guard in the Mavericks’ offense. In the fourth quarter yesterday, Ellis shot 5-for-5 to score 12 points and lead the Mavericks back from a five-point deficit with two minutes remaining.

Dalembert, whose maddening punctuality has remained an issue in Dallas, got it together in the Mavericks’ biggest game of the season. With 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, Dalembert provided effective defense in a game where both offenses dominated. Dallas allowed 106.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court yesterday and 125.2 with him off it.

And then there’s Jose Calderon, the other addition to the Mavericks’ starting lineup. He threw the inbound pass to Carter and is doing what he always does – making pinpoint passes, shooting efficiently in limited volume and playing matador defense. He’s not a reclamation project. Dallas just recognized his skills when offering him a four-year, $29 million contract last summer. The Mavericks have also recognized his shortcomings, using Marion to guard Tony Parker and allowing Calderon to hide off the ball.

Will all that give Dallas the first-round upset? It would help if Nowitzki, who scored 18 points yesterday after posting 11 and 16 in Games 1 and 2, did a little more, but even that might not be enough.

As good as the Mavericks are – they would have been the No. 3 seed in the East – the game gap between them and the Spurs (62-20) in winning percentage is about as close to the average 1-8 gap as the smallest one.*

*Tie, Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (50-32) in 2010 and Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs.Denver Nuggets (50-32) in 2008

Gregg Popovich is still searching for ways to match up with Dallas, using 22 lineups in Game 3. San Antonio certainly isn’t done.

But after a couple years of relatively wayward years, getting swept by the Thunder in 2012 and missing the playoffs in 2013, neither are the Mavericks.

Aaron Gordon both legs over the mascot, ball-under-the-legs dunk (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Zach LaVine won the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but in an epic night for my money this was the single best dunk.

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon broke ground with this one — guys have jumped over mascots and other players before (and a Kia hood), but by splitting their legs apart. Gordon just put both legs over Stuff (that’s the mascot’s name, Stuff the Magic Dragon, I don’t make this up) — and took the ball off the mascot’s head, went under his legs, and threw it down.

Insane.

Gordon deserved a trophy for his performance in this dunk contest.

Zach LaVine edges Aaron Gordon in epic, insane Dunk Contest

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TORONTO — That. Was. Amazing.

In a dunk contest that will go down with the all-time greats — Jordan vs. Dominique, Dr. J from the free throw line — Minnesota’s Zach LaVine defended his dunk contest title. Barely. Because Orlando’s Aaron Gordon was doing dunks nobody had ever seen before.

And LaVine was bringing it just as hard.

The two men advanced to the finals — dismissing Will Barton and Andre Drummond, each of whom had good dunks — and that was when it got wild.

There were four second-round dunks, and four perfect scores of 50. (That was in spite of Shaq, who wanted to give nines for second attempts.)

“I was prepared for four (second round dunks),” LaVine said. “To tell the truth, he came with something that no one else has done. He did two dunks that were just crazy with the mascots, jumping over them. We just kept pushing each other until the last dunk. I’ve got to give it up to my boy Will “The Thrill” Barton. It’s because of him I think I won. Because he said try to go from the free-throw line. I’d never done that before, and I just tried it. So I guess it was a great dunk. I think it was the best one ever.”

The Air Canada Centre crowd was exploding with every dunk. The two men went to a dunk-off — and got two more 50s.

“If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would have been here dunking all night, going back 50 after 50 after 50 after 50,” Gordon said. “We would have been here all night. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I was just hoping Zach was going to miss, and it wasn’t going to happen. You could see as my facial expressions when Zach dunks it, it’s like okay, that’s a 50. Like I know we’re going to have to dunk again.”

So they went to a second-round of overtime, where LaVine put up another 50 and won the contest.

Gordon was close to perfect.

Zach LaVine can flat-out fly.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon with the over-the-mascot mad dunk

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TORONTO — Aaron Gordon was giving Zach LaVine all he could handle in the Dunk Contest.

He blew the lid off the Air Canada Centre with this dunk in the first round — and it wasn’t even his best dunk of the night. Never seen this before.

This dunk contest was awesome, so much more video to come.

Zach LaVine opens Slam Dunk Contest title defense with spectacular behind-the-back slam (VIDEO)

during the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 12, 2016 in Toronto, 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.
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TORONTO — Zach LaVine clearly heard all the talk that Aaron Gordon or Will Barton had a chance to upset him in the Slam Dunk Contest. He came out ready to prove his superiority right off the bat. This behind-the-back slam was his first attempt of the night:

Even better was the reaction, both from Andre Drummond and from LaVine’s Minnesota teammates: