NBA Playoffs: San Antonio will not be deterred, finished of Dallas in six

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Nowitzki_floor.jpgWith the Dallas Mavericks down, the Denver Nuggets on the brink, the Phoenix Suns decidedly mortal, and the Utah Jazz dinged up, the San Antonio Spurs would like to respectfully enter their name for consideration as the non-LA team to beat in the West. They looked every bit of it in their resilient game (and series) against the Mavs, and though the Spurs surrendered a 22-point lead and let Dallas back into the game, San Antonio is clearly a team ready to roll through the playoffs.

Dallas deserves tremendous credit for clawing back into the final game of the series despite shooting blanks in the first quarter, and their trademarked ability to make a game out of what should have been a lopsided contest turned in a bit of an instant classic. It didn’t come down to game-winners or overtime, but the Mavs turned things around in the second half and made this a hell of a basketball game. The series may not have gone to seven games, but it unfolded as advertised: both teams were highly competitive, evenly matched, and played each other spectacularly. San Antonio just executed a bit better, fought a little harder, and protected their home court with a bit more tenacity.

As much as Game 6 featured the usual suspects — Dirk Nowitzki finished with 33 points on 13-of-21 shooting, Manu Ginobili had 26, and Tim Duncan had a solid 17 and 10 — the most prominent storyline featured each team’s up-and-coming guard: the Spurs’ George Hill and the Mavs’ Rodrigue Beaubois.

Hill was pegged as a potential difference-maker in the series, especially with Tony Parker a bit less reliable than usual. Hill started the series off slowly, scoring just seven points on 22.2% shooting in the first two games combined, but quickly became a vital source of scoring for the Spurs in Game 3 and beyond. He finished off his terrific series with 21 points and six rebounds in Game 6.

“Down the stretch we had our chances and you have to tip your hat to George Hill, he was the x-factor in the entire series,” Nowitzki said. “You live with Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan making plays, but George used his freedom and made amazing plays. You have to give him credit, he is going to be a good player in this league.”

Opposite Hill was the Mavs’ dynamic rookie, Rodrigue Beaubois. Rick Carlisle turned to Beaubois in the second quarter when things looked darkest for the Mavs, and in his desperation Carlisle unearthed Dallas’ buried treasure. Beaubois’ ability to penetrate and score around the Spurs’ defenders provided more than a spark, he was nearly a savior. All of a sudden the Mavs were within 13 at halftime despite only scoring eight points in the first quarter, and Rodrigue’s play was a huge part of that.

His strong performance continued through the third quarter, as Beaubois’ quickness clearly caused problems for the Spurs’ perimeter defenders. Rodrigue’s only roadblock — as has been the case throughout this series — was his own coach, as Rick Carlisle inexplicably left Beaubois on the bench for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter. San Antonio smelled blood in the water as the Mavs failed to score on a few consecutive possessions, and what had been a neck-and-neck game was suddenly a decent lead for the Spurs.

“I was kind of happy because it took away another scorer that was playing well,” George Hill said of Rick Carlisle’s decision to sit Beaubois. “That’s how it goes. People are going to go with people they’re very comfortable with. I think Beaubois did a really great job of giving them a spark,” Hill said. “I think that at the end of the day we made plays that we really needed to close it out.”

Carlisle’s rotations throughout the series could certainly qualify as curious, and some of his decisions have been more successful than others. In Game 3, Carlisle opted to sit Caron Butler for the entire second half and Shawn Marion for most of it, in favor of running a three-guard lineup including Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and J.J. Barea. It worked…for a spell. But when the three guards tired out from extended burn in the second half and the zone defense broke down, the Spurs were able to pull out a victory. In Game 5, Carlisle gave Erick Dampier, who had started in every game in the series to that point, a DNP-CD. Brendan Haywood started and shined in his place, and the Mavs looked ready to compete until the very end.

Then in Game 6, Carlisle abandoned his “roll with what works” mantra to grant a fourth quarter stint to Jason Terry, who has a history of fourth quarter heroics but had struggled in this particular game (JET finished 1-for-7 and just two points). Although the Mavs still managed to keep the game relatively competitive, there’s no question they could have used Beaubois’ ability to drive in order to put added pressure on the Spurs’ defense. Dirk Nowitzki was able to keep Dallas afloat, but even a superstar like Dirk has his limits.

In this case, Dirk could only score 33 points, while every other Maverick not named Beaubois or Caron Butler (who was fantastic in his career-high follow-up, and finished with 25 points on 50% shooting) struggled to score. Nowitzki, Butler, and Beaubois scored 74 of the Mavs’ 87 points, which is unacceptable given the considerable talent on the Mavs’ roster.

This isn’t to deny any credit to the Spurs, who took the game by the throat whenever they were given the opportunity. Ginobili and Hill hit some huge shots to prevent the Mavs from riding their momentum to a win, and Tony Parker (10 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) was no slouch. The Spurs just played like the better team in this series, probably because they were. Seven seed or not, a healthy San Antonio team is a force to be reckoned with, and though Dallas fought hard and provided a worthy foil, this was no upset.     

Kevin Durant keeps building up superstar accolades with second All-Star MVP

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CHARLOTTE – When Kevin Durant won All-Star MVP in 2012, he was asked whether he considered himself a star, a label he had resisted.

“I wouldn’t say that just yet,” Durant said. “Hopefully. Hopefully soon I can say that.”

The notion was silly then. Durant had already made two All-NBA first teams and finished second for MVP.

But that All-Star MVP started to change how Durant presented himself. He made another All-NBA first team, again finished second for MVP and led the Thunder to the NBA Finals that season.

“In 2012, I started to feel like I started to hit that elite level,” Durant said. “All that stuff in one year was pretty exciting to me.”

The hits have kept rolling since.

Durant has added an MVP, two titles and two Finals MVPs. Tonight, he claimed another All-Star MVP. The Warriors star scored 31 points on 10-of-15 shooting to lead LeBron James‘ team to a 178-164 win.

“I just keep trying to rack them up, I guess,” Durant said.

That’s seven years between his All-Star MVPs. Few players sustain that elite level – starring among stars – so long. Only LeBron James (12 years), Michael Jordan (10 years), Kobe Bryant (nine years), Oscar Robertson (eight years) have gone so long between their first and last All-Star MVPs.

Durant, 30, appears to have plenty left in the tank.

Of course, the impending question: Where? Durant can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and this weekend included plenty of speculation.

Tonight’s game gave Knicks fans reason to fanaticize. New York’s presumed targets with its double-max cap space, Durant and Kyrie Irving showed strong chemistry. Half Durant’s baskets were assisted by Irving, who sent five of his six assists to Durant (the other an alley-oop to former teammate LeBron).

Asked which of his All-Star teammates he best meshed with, Durant refused to name one.

“You don’t really have to do too much when you’re playing with so many great players,” Durant said. “You can do what you’re just best at.”

Team LeBron starts playing defense first, comes from 20 down to win All-Star Game

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s All-Star Game, Team LeBron started to care.

Down 20 at one point early in the third, Team LeBron came out of a mid-quarter timeout with a different energy. The “bench” guys on the court started defending with the kind of relative intensity usually reserved for the final minutes of this exhibition (when it’s close), the players on the bench were standing and cheering like it was a playoff game, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal started knocking down everything, and the game just shifted. It culminated when Damian Lillard tied the game up with a 35-foot three.

Team LeBron kept up the momentum, owned the fourth as Durant went 3-of-3 from beyond the arc in the quarter, and Team LeBron got the win 178-164.

“It was our second unit that came in — Dame, Klay, Brad Beal, LaMarcus, Ben Simmons, KAT,” LeBron said after the game about what turned the momentum. “They came in and just changed the whole complexion of the game. We got stops, and, obviously, Dame and Klay caught fire from beyond the arc, and that allowed us to get back in the game.”

Durant was named MVP, a clear choice with his second-half play in particular.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 38 points and 11 rebounds, while Paul George showed anyone that hasn’t seen him this season how well he’s playing — MVP conversation level — on his way to 20.

This All-Star Game opened with the level of defensive intensity we have come to expect in All-Star Games. Which is to say none.

Well, except when Stephen Curry was guarding Klay Thompson.

The one guy who was intense from the start was Antetokounmpo, who scored the first six points for Team Giannis. He didn’t slow down on his way to 20 first-half points, plus he had one of the game’s great highlights on a bounce pass alley-oop from Curry.

Antetokounmpo wasn’t the only Buck hot to start, Khris Middleton entered the game midway through the first quarter and drained three shots from beyond the arc in a row. In the first nine minutes of the game, the Bucks were beating Team LeBron 28-27.

The favorite crowd moment of the first half was when future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki walked on the court and splashed a couple of threes.

Dwyane Wade was the other Commissioner addition to the game, which means for one last time we got Wade throwing the alley-oop to LeBron.

Curry struggled late, going 3-of-11 in the fourth, but he still got to rub it in Thompson’s face a little.

“It was good to see Steph knock that shot down over Klay, because Klay is always talking trash to him,” Durant said after the game.

Team Giannis was in control most of the first half and was up 13 (95-82) at the half, not that 13 points is much of a deficit in the All-Star Game. Not when one team started to care.

Stephen Curry gets four-point play after Klay Thompson foul, Curry does some taunting

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Curry is enjoying going against Klay Thompson. Maybe a little too much.

In the first half, Curry was matched up on his Warriors’ backcourt mate and enjoyed that Thompson missed the shot.

Then in the fourth quarter, with the game tight, Curry drained the contested three and drew the and-1 on Thompson — and did a little taunting.

That’s some All-Star fun.

Stephen Curry bounces alley-oop way above rim, Giannis Antetokounmpo slams it down (video)

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CHARLOTTE – Stephen Curry bounced this so high!

I suppose it helps that Giannis Antetokounmpo has such ridiculous reach.