Mavericks’ dramatic comeback falls just short, Spurs even series with win

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Dallas came tantalizingly close.

Down 20 in the third quarter they fought all the way back to take a lead late in the fourth — they did it with defense, they did it with Monta Ellis making shots, they did it thanks to DeJuan Blair being everywhere.

But in the end a desperate Spurs team made plays — Boris Diaw hit threes, Manu Ginobili knocked down free throws and Diaw contested a potential Ellis game-tying lay-up and got a miss — and they got a win 93-89.

The win evens the series 2-2 heading back to San Antonio for a crucial Game 5.

Mavs fans thought they had this one, they were going nuts in the arena. They might blame the loss on another cold shooting night for the loss (Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki were a combined 13-of-39, 33.3 percent). They might want to blame the referees for ejecting DeJuan Blair with three minutes left. They might… oh, who are we kidding, Tony Romo was in the building and you know if it’s a close loss in the playoffs it is his fault.

San Antonio’s offense is simply not as consistently sharp as we are used to seeing it — the offense lacks the movement and crisp passing we were saw when they racked up the best record in the NBA. Give some credit to the feisty defense from the Mavericks trying to create turnovers, but part of this is just execution from San Antonio. We saw it in a stretch during Monday’s game.

Dallas had raced out to 10 point lead early, but starting late in the first quarter and into the second the Spurs took charge of the game, They were getting the shots they wanted, contesting everything on defense (the Mavs started the second quarter 1-of-12 shooting , getting easy buckets thanks to ball movement. Manu Ginobili was a big spark for this and finished the game with 23 points on 14 shots — he has been the best Spur player in this series and was +11 in this game.

Dallas, on the other hand, had won the last couple games because while the Spurs had shut down Dirk Nowitzki (he was 7-of-19 shooting for the game, once again Tiago Splitter did a fantastic job guarding Nowitzki) other guys had stepped up. Not this time. Monta Ellis was 2-of-8 in the first half. Other Mavs followed suit.

Early in the third quarter the Spurs lead grew to 20 — and that’s when Blair started outworking everyone on the court. That’s when shots started falling for Ellis. That’s when the other Mavs started to find a way to contest and get some balls they could turn into transition plays.

By the middle of the fourth quarter the Mavs had closed the gap completely, Dallas opened the quarter This game was going to be close the rest of the way.

But then Blair got ejected with three minutes left for this play:

The refs said it was done in hostility. You can argue that the kick wasn’t intentional, that Splitter was on his legs and he reacted — but you can’t kick a guy in the head. It’s an ejection every time.

That is it changed the game. It’s kind of amazing to say but yes, losing DeJuan Blair was a huge blow to the Mavericks.

San Antonio won the game thanks to its French Connection.

Tony Parker and Diaw had been playing a pick-and-pop at the top of the key all game with some success. With the game on the line in the final minute they did it again — Parker attacked off a Diaw pick and got into the lane, then kicked it back to Diaw who had time to set and fire and he knocked down the three that proved to be the game winner.

It took more, of course. Nowitzki made it a one-point game on an offensive rebound and putback. Ginobili was fouled but hit just one of two, making it a two-point Spurs lead.

Monta Ellis got the call and drove for bucket off Nowitzki handoff, a great play design… but he misses the shot. Give Diaw credit for contesting and making Ellis work for it, but that’s one he hits more often than not.

San Antonio sealed the win from the line and now goes home for what is now a best-of-three. San Antonio has had to work harder for this than expected, but if the Spurs from the second quarter of this game shows up they are going to be partying on Riverwalk again.

Deandre Ayton misses coronavirus test, arrives late to underway Suns-Thunder game

Suns center Deandre Ayton
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Another testing issue for Deandre Ayton.

This one comes at a terrible time for the Suns.

Phoenix is trying to complete a longshot run to the playoffs and playing the Thunder in a key game today. But Ayton arrived late to the arena after missing a coronavirus test yesterday.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Like many Suns, Ayton has played well in the resumption. Phoenix doesn’t have another big-man option like him, especially with Aron Baynes sidelined. The Suns started Dario Saric in a small lineup today.

Ayton arrived to the arena and is warming up on an exercise bike. He could still get into the game and make a difference.

Already locked into the 4-6 range in the Western Conference and perhaps trying to keep its top-20-protected first-round pick, Oklahoma City is playing without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder. None of those will players will make a late entrance into the game.

Also: It’s ridiculous this wasn’t publicly disclosed sooner. The NBA continues to tout transparency while trying to draw more gambling revenue. Yet, a major lineup issue like this remains secret? That opens the door for some bettors to get inside information, which would be so damaging to the league’s integrity.

Kings now sole owners of second-longest playoff drought in NBA history

Sacramento Kings
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The Kings’ 2018-19 season ended with optimism.

Facing a meager over/under of 25.5 wins, Sacramento surged to 39 wins – its best record in 13 years. Under Dave Joerger, the Kings played a fast and fun style. De'Aaron Fox made historic improvements. Buddy Hield broke out. Several other young players showed promise.

Sure, the Kings missed the playoffs for a 13th straight season – matching the second-longest playoff drought in NBA history. But they were on track to end the skid soon enough.

Except, of course that’s not how it went in Sacramento.

The Kings were eliminated from the postseason chase yesterday, ensuring a 14th straight season outside the playoffs. That alone is now NBA’s the second-longest-ever postseason drought, breaking a tie with the Timberwolves (2005-17). Only the Buffalo Braves/San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers’ 15-year non-playoff streak (1977-91) is longer.

Here are the longest postseason droughts in NBA history:

The Suns could still reach 10 straight years outside the playoffs, but they’re still in the race this season.

The Kings might not be far from climbing this list, either.

Their future looks far bleaker than a year ago. Sacramento fired Joerger to hire Luke Walton, who has underwhelmed. Buddy Hield signed a lucrative contract extension then had a rough season. Fox progressed, though he didn’t make the desired leap into stardom. Other young players had ups and downs. Luka Doncic casts an even larger shadow from Dallas. The Kings’ organizational turmoil continues.

This was a feel-bad season in Sacramento, anyway. All the preceding losing only adds to the misery.

The Kings enter next season with one last chance to avoid the longest playoff drought in NBA history, and they do have a chance. But there’s only pessimism now.

Damian Lillard throws pass away from basket, off Tobias Harris, into hoop (video)

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Damian Lillard was making everything yesterday.

EVERYTHING.

Lillard, who scored 51 points in the Trail Blazers’ win over the 76ers, even got a bucket on this wild pass off Tobias Harris.

Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. It’s even better to be both.

LeBron James admits he’s still adjusting to playing without fans

LeBron James
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LeBron James has played to overflowing gyms and arenas since he was a sophomore in high school. There is always a crowd around him to watch him play. Or a massive crowd of reporters around him after the game. Or throngs of fans when he travels through China on a shoe tour. LeBron has always packed the house.

Until now. There are no crowds, no fans at the NBA’s restart at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. It’s now games in a stripped-down, made-for-television gym. And LeBron admitted to reporters after the latest Lakers’ loss he is still adjusting. Via Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I am getting more and more used to being out there. It’s a very weird dynamic. I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time,” James said following the Lakers’ 116-111 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. “It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in…

“I’m getting more and more comfortable playing in an empty gym,” James said. “Just having the backdrop here is a lot different from playing in a high school gym or a college arena where you’re playing in the summer time, whatever the case may be. It’s very dark, extremely dark. You can literally hear a feather hit the ground. I’m just getting more and more comfortable playing with my game here in the bubble.”

LeBron has still been very good in the bubble — 21.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists a game — but he has not been quite the otherworldly, MVP candidate level player he was before the shutdown. His true shooting percentage of 51.9 at the restart is down from 57.7 before the break (and it has been below the league average since the restart). The Laker offense overall has scored less than a point per possession in the bubble and has been the worst offense in Orlando (leading to a 2-4 record so far). It’s not all LeBron, the Lakers as a team have struggled to get their pre-hiatus traction back, the chemistry is not quite right. But we know who leads this team.

LeBron and company also know they need to find that rhythm soon. They will enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and face and eight seed — likely Portland or Memphis — that had to battle its way into the postseason. That team, whoever it is, will come in battle-tested and motivated.

The fans will not be there to pick up LeBron and the Lakers.

“I definitely love playing in front of the fans. The fans are what make the game,” James said. “Without the fans, I wouldn’t be who I am today. To all the fans out there that come watch me play, I miss you guys and hopefully someday I can get back to that interaction.”

Someday we all hope for that.

In the short term, LeBron and the Lakers need to find their groove in a fanless world.