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.

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

Associated Press
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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.