Mavericks utilize Guerrilla Warfare; spoil Nash and Howard debuts

52 Comments

Hanging out in the shadows cast by the debuts of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, the Princeton Offense and the return of Kobe Bryant was the Dallas Mavericks, a team everyone assumed would play the role of wrestling jobber — hang around for a few minutes, show off a few moves, and then take that fall late in the match. No Dirk Nowitzki, no Chris Kaman and no star should have meant no chance, but the beautiful thing about opening night is that all is equal, even when it isn’t.

The lasting image of the night wasn’t a Howard dunk or a Nash lob, but rather second round draft pick Jae Crowder, all 6-foot-6 of him, shoving a forearm into the back of 7-foot Pau Gasol, battling a fight on the block that he shouldn’t have had a chance in. That was the story all game long, as the Mavericks pulled off the upset, 99-91.

You see, there are just some things most NBA teams cede to their opponent. Usually a point guard can come up the floor with very little pressure — maybe they get turned once, or have to go through their legs, but the pressure is token at best.

And when a 7-footer has a chance at an easy dunk? Usually undersized forwards don’t hack at their arms like they’re chopping down a tree. You give up the two points and live to fight another day.

These are like the little unwritten rules of NBA basketball. Most teams observe them.

The Dallas Mavericks do not.

The Lakers should have known they had a fight on their hands the second Darren Collison began to implement a one-man full court press, making Steve Nash work just to get the ball across half court. When Pau Gasol lobbed three straight passes to Dwight Howard over the top of the defense — only for a swarm of Mavs to come-a-hackin’ — that should have been an indicator of the night that was in store for the Lakers. Nothing easy, everything earned.

It actually ended up being the Lakers who made it too easy for the Mavs. There’s a reason post play in the NBA has fallen off drastically — it’s not as effective against today’s quicker defenses. The Princeton Offense, in it’s most optimal state, is supposed to present the Lakers with multiple options. It’s not a set of rigid plays — it’s a way to enable players to read and react. Problem was, the Lakers didn’t read and react — they had already predetermined what what they wanted to do based on their opponent’s size.

The Lakers saw the height of the Dallas big men, and went there repeatedly. Nevermind that Elton Brand is one of the best post defenders in the league — the Lakers just kept marching straight forward with chaos surrounding them from all sides, seemingly impervious to the fact that Dallas was happy to engage in this type of battle. This was the Mavs utilizing Guerrilla Warfare at its best, and Darren Collison (17 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds) running his team and controlling the tempo much better than Nash did.

Of course, there are a few reasons Lakers fans shouldn’t panic. The whole “first game together in a new system” thing is one, but even more importantly, the Lakers still hovered around 50 percent shooting from the field all night. Point the finger at the free throw shooting before anything else, as the team went 12-for-31 (38%) from the charity stripe. Yes, Howard is dreadful from the line, but that probably won’t happen again.

It’s also hard not to imagine a player as smart as Nash figuring out the balance between getting others involved and running his game in the pick-and-roll. The Lakers could benefit from a more varied attack offensively than they displayed tonight, but the inability to get back on defense is the more pressing issue. Steve Nash can only serve as a speed bump stopping the break, and the Lakers defense suddenly loses a lot of wallop when Dwight Howard is on the wrong side of halfcourt.

Was it a rocky start for the Lakers? Yes, but let’s wait and see how the Lakers look when they get to play their own game — just as soon as they find it.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

Getty Images
Leave a comment

What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

Getty Images
1 Comment

It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

Getty Images
Leave a comment

We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

Getty Images
Leave a comment

A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.