NBA Playoffs: Mavs and Spurs deliver as promised, but Dallas draws first blood

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Butler_Dunk.jpgDallas and San Antonio both played well but not perfectly. That said, the most important word in that sentence is both, as every terrific performance was countered and every sloppy play met with another by the opposition. It was a game of brilliant, beautiful, and flawed (but balanced in its flaws) basketball, and we shouldn’t want it any other way.

The Mavs and Spurs played a tight game throughout, until the Mavs’ late-game execution allowed them to pull away to a safe, decisive margin. Dallas overcame some decent shooting from San Antonio thanks to taking slightly better care of the ball, parading to the free throw line (in part due to favorable officiating), and limiting the Spurs’ effectiveness in the pick-and-roll in the second half.

Front and center was Dirk Nowitzki, whose shooting was otherworldly. Nowitzki finished with 36 points on just 14 shots, but the most impressive part of Dirk’s evening was his 85.7% shooting from the field. Nowitzki simply refused to miss, as he supplemented his usual array of turnarounds and fadeaways with a few lucky bank shots and a series of makes after contact. There are nights where Dirk is dialed in, and then there are nights like this. If anyone ever questions just how special an offensive talent that Nowitzki is, I would simply pull up this game on the non-existent video monitor, cue a highlight reel of improbable shot after improbable shot, and rest my case.

Dirk was hardly alone, though, as Gregg Popovich made perfectly clear. ” There aren’t many nights where Dirk is not special. He was special tonight, but he had a lot of help,” Pop said. “A lot of other guys played really well; Butler killed us and both big guys were really good on the boads defensively. Jason [Kidd] was a gnat. He was a focused, driven individual, as usual. They had a lot of people well. They played sharper than we did.”

Pop is right: Butler’s 22 points, Kidd’s 11 assists, and Dampier’s 12 rebounds were all essential components of the Dallas’ victory. In a game so close, the importance of every contribution is magnified, and the Mavericks not wearing #41 were still incredibly valuable elements of a winning cause.

Naturally though, the Spurs wouldn’t have been competitive if not for superior performances from Tim Duncan (27 points, eight rebounds, six turnovers) and Manu Ginobili (26 points, six assists, four rebounds, five turnovers), the two stars whose success is absolutely fundamental to what San Antonio looks to accomplish. Their turnovers — some forced and some unforced — were a huge detriment to the tandem’s efficiency. That combined with the Mavs’ tightened defense on the screen-and-roll and Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood’s defense on Duncan in the post was just enough to surrender the momentum that Dallas needed to secure a victory.

Game one felt like a lifetime. Dirk was brilliant, Duncan persevered, Kidd’s was masterful in the half-court, Tony Parker (18 points, four assists) was moderately effective coming off the bench, Jason Terry had a mostly empty night (five points, three assists), George Hill departed early (just 18 minutes), Rick Carlisle altered his rotation (no minutes for Eduardo Najera, just 18 minutes for Brendan Haywood), and Gregg Popovich engaged in what can only be called shenanigans (three straight possessions of Hack-a-Damp in the third quarter). These two teams are just getting started, and if game one was any indication of what the rest of the series will be like, we’re in for a treat.  

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly tells organization he still wants playoff push

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When the Clippers traded their best player — Tobias Harris — right before the trade deadline, it was a move generally seen as throwing in the towel on this season’s playoffs, but it was applauded around the league because of the haul it brought back to L.A. It set the Clippers up with one max cap slot this summer and a reasonable path to a second one, plus the Clippers landed rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected) and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick unprotected.

Except then the Clippers not long after traded for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green — boosting the roster’s depth in needed spots. Not a move a team looking to fall out of the playoffs makes.

That’s because owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want them to fall out of the playoffs, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

Sources say Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has let it be known throughout the organization that he wants to keep making this playoff push. Never mind that such an accomplishment would cost them their first-round pick this season.

The coach and players should never be told to lose games, they need to go all-out every time they are on the court. That goes to the culture of an organization. If a decision is made to focus on the future, then it’s about roster decisions at the GM level. That is what the Clippers did, and there is nothing wrong — or even strange — about the owner telling them to push and try to make the playoffs.

Either way, it works for Los Angeles.

Make the playoffs as the eight seed and the Clippers are likely just the first-round appetizer for the Warriors as they chase a three-peat, but it shows potential free agents the role players on the team have grit and just need a star and leader. Their young stars would gain a little playoff experience. While the Clippers would lose this year’s first-round pick, giving up a late teens pick in what is considered a down draft (especially after No. 1) is not that painful a loss. It’s one less asset to throw in a potential trade (Anthony Davis anyone?), but it’s not devastating.

Miss the playoffs and they get a late-lottery pick and things go as expected.

Make or miss the playoffs, the Clippers are focused on July 1 and landing a couple of free agents, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of the list (and a lot of sources around the league think that’s where they are headed).