Dallas Mavericks vs. Golden State Warriors: Three things to watch in West Finals

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The Dallas Mavericks were not expected to be here. They were 15-17 at Christmas, then sitting as the eighth seed at the trade deadline when they shipped Kristaps Porzingis out in a move meant to provide financial flexibility this summer. Even after beating the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, they were not favorites against the 64-win Suns in the second round. Yet here they are.

The Golden State Warriors expected to be here. A full season (mostly) of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, the return of Klay Thompson, plus the emergence of Jordan Poole gave the Warriors the sheen of their championship teams. However, in getting here past the Nuggets and Grizzlies in the playoffs, the Warriors have alternated between a team that looks like it could win a title and one that is sloppy and out of sync. If the Warriors are inconsistent against the Mavericks, then Golden State’s season ends before June.

The Dallas Mavericks vs. the Golden State Warriors have reached the Western Conference Finals in what should be a fascinating chess match. Here are three keys that could decide the series.

1) How do Warriors defend Luka Doncic?

It’s easy to say the Warriors don’t have a good option to defend Doncic, but name a team that does. Doncic is close to unstoppable the way he has played this postseason. However, the Warriors’ best playoff lineup — with Poole, Curry and Thompson in a three-guard set — is undersized and Doncic will hunt those smaller players and feast. This is a rough matchup for the Warriors, especially with Gary Payton II and Andre Iguodala out, at least to start the series.

The Warriors’ historical pattern — dating back to dealing with Rockets’ era James Harden through matchup their playoff matchup with Jokic last month — is to switch everything on pick-and-rolls. That presents challenges. Andrew Wiggins will start with the assignment, but Doncic is patient and will hunt the weakest link, which could make Poole nearly unplayable in crucial moments (expect Doncic and the Mavs to hunt Poole mercilessly).

The Warriors generally will let a star go off and put up a big point total but work to shut down everyone else — Jokic had amazing games in the first round, but no other Nuggets player found their footing. That’s a challenging tactic to pull off against Doncic, and it puts pressure on Jalen Brunson, Maxi Kleber, Spencer Dinwiddie and others to step up and make plays for Dallas.

If Doncic is racking up assists and points, and if the Mavericks role players are going off, Dallas becomes very difficult to beat. Whatever happens, expect Doncic to put up big numbers in this series.

2) Is Dallas’ defense ready for Stephen Curry and the Warriors’ motion?

Dallas’ defense was like a boa constrictor against the Suns, growing tighter and tighter each game until by Game 7 it just strangled Phoenix, cutting off every avenue they trusted to score.

However, the Suns — and the Jazz before them in the first round — are somewhat conventional in their attacks. Golden State is not. The motion and flow of their offense wears teams down. Stephen Curry wears teams down. It’s one thing to close out on a couple of shooters, but the Warriors have more of them better spaced, and the ground a defense needs to cover on closeouts is farther against the Warriors. They wear teams out.

Is Dallas up to the task? Maybe, they held the Warriors to a season-low 82 points in one meeting this season. Also, in meetings this season, the Mavericks didn’t hesitate to trap or blitz Curry, not letting him get off a shot.

When teams put two on the ball, Draymond Green can shine on the short role as a facilitator, and players like Klay Thompson or Poole often get hot. Dallas plays defense on a string probably better than any team still going in the postseason — the Mavericks aren’t stacked with great individual defenders, but they have a lot of solid ones all on the same page and not making mistakes. The viral clip of Jason Kidd exhorting his defense in Game 7 against the Suns is a great example — everyone is focused on Kidd’s words but watch the players execute.

Dallas is still playing this deep in the postseason because they are an elite defense (well, that and Doncic). But can they keep that up for six or seven games against the motion and shooting of the Warriors?

One key to watch this series: Fast break points. Can the grind-it-out, slow-paced Mavericks keep the high-flying Warriors out of transition and easy buckets? Slow the game down enough and Dallas has a real chance to rack up four wins in this series.

3) Whose bench steps up?

Does this become a Jordan Poole series or a Spencer Dinwiddie series?

Who is hot between those two may be the best bellwether of who wins this series.

Poole has become a key cog for these Warriors and the Poole Party three-guard lineups have been unstoppable. But if Doncic hunts Poole off the floor, the Warriors lose a weapon and have to play bigger lineups.

Dinwiddie runs hot and cold, but when he is hot and is a second or third shot creator and scorer (Jalen Brunson is the No. 2 option), the Mavericks’ offense becomes unstoppable.

For all the star power of Curry and Doncic, the team that gets the better bench play will win this series.

Prediction: Mavericks in six. This is a coin flip series, one the Warriors can undoubtedly win, but Golden State has been sloppy and inconsistent in the first two rounds while the Mavericks have had to play at a higher level to get here. I trust that, but if the Warriors from the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Memphis show up for every game and every quarter this series, they will win.

Brianna Stewart heads to New York on first day of WNBA free agency

Las Vegas Aces v Seattle Storm - Game Four
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Former MVP Breanna Stewart is headed to New York.

The most coveted free agent this offseason, who won the WNBA MVP award in 2018, announced on social media that she was going to New York with a photo of her in a Liberty shirt. Stewart had spent her entire career in Seattle since the Storm drafted her first in 2016. She won two championships with the team in 2018 and 2020.

The 28-year-old wing has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in her WNBA career. She missed the 2019 season with an Achilles injury.

By coming to New York it brings Stewart closer to home. She grew up in Syracuse which is an hour flight from New York. It also is an easier flight to Spain to see her wife Marta’s family.

New York representatives, including coach Sandy Brondello and owner Clara Wu Tsai met with Stewart in Turkey last week. Stewart had narrowed her choices down to Seattle and New York before choosing the Liberty.

The move turns the Liberty into an instant championship contender. New York is one of the WNBAs original franchises, but has never won a championship. The Liberty already added 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton through a three-way deal to complement 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.

The news was met with elation on social media by Jones, Ionescu and Nets star Kevin Durant, who said on a podcast that he had reached out to Stewart to get her to come to New York.

Stewart was the second big-name free agent to announce her intentions to play for another team this season. Candace Parker said last weekend that she was going to sign with the Las Vegas Aces and officially did.

“As I’ve gone through free agency this time around, of course I’m thinking of where I can compete for my third championship, but the words home and family are what I kept coming back to,” Parker said. “After evaluating the landscape together with my family, we’ve decided the Las Vegas Aces are the right organization for us at this point in our lives. To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

Wednesday was the first day that free agents could sign with teams. Other moves announced included:

— Brittney Sykes with Washington

— Lexie Brown and Stephanie Talbot with Los Angeles

— Teaira McCowan with Dallas

— Alysha Clark with Las Vegas

Many free agents were waiting for Stewart to make her decision, including Courtney Vandersloot.

Vandersloot announced on social media that she wasn’t returning to Chicago, where she had spent her entire career. She has led the league in assists six times during her 12-year career and helped the Sky win the 2021 WNBA championship.

“To the Sky organization who drafted the little guard from a mid-major and believed in me from the jump, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Vandersloot wrote on Instagram. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have realized my dreams because of you. Although I never planned for this day to come, I have decided it is time for me to pursue a new beginning.”

Stewart and Vandersloot are currently playing together in Turkey.

While Stewart and Vandersloot will be playing for different WNBA teams this season, Brittney Griner, who is also a free agent, announced in December when she returned home from her 10-month ordeal in Russia that she planned to remain with the Phoenix Mercury. Her long-time Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi is also a free agent, but she too is expected to go back to Phoenix.

Weather strands Pistons in Dallas, forces postponement of Wednesday game vs. Wizards

Winter storm, Minneapolis, December 2022
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The Detroit Pistons talked smack to Luka Dončić and paid the price, watching him drop 53 on them Monday night.

Then the Pistons have been stranded in Dallas ever since. In recent days, freezing temperatures have grounded more than 2,000 flights out of both the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field, impacting thousands of passengers. The weather also has hit the Pistons, who were supposed to fly home to Detroit to take on the Wizards on Wednesday night. The league has officially postponed that game.

“Due to severe weather conditions in the Dallas area, the Pistons have been unable to fly back to Detroit after their game on Monday at American Airlines Center,” the league said in its official release. “The date for the rescheduled game will be announced at a later time.”

The Wizards have won six in a row and are 12-5 in their last 17, jumping them back into the play-in picture in the East.

This is not the only game that could be lost due to the weather in Dallas, the Pelicans — fresh off a loss to the Nuggets on Tuesday — may not be able to fly into the city for their Thursday game.

Freezing temperatures are expected to continue in Dallas through Wednesday, warming up slightly on Thursday, but by Friday getting up to a relatively balmy 50 degrees and sunny.

Watch Dennis Schroder hit the most casual half-court buzzer beater ever

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Act like you’ve done it before.

The Lakers’ Dennis Schroder drained a half-court buzzer-beater against the Knicks — turning his back on the shot and being completely non-pulsed when it happened.

The Lakers had been 2-of-16 from 3 before that shot, and they ended up needing those points. Despite a historic triple-double from LeBron James, the Lakers had to go into overtime to beat the Knicks, 129-123.

Three things to Know: Is Nikola Jokić going to win third straight MVP?

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Is Nikola Jokić going to win third straight MVP?

That’s a weird headline to write just days after Joel Embiid outplayed Nikola Jokić head-to-head. Embiid absolutely is in the MVP mix again this season — 33.6 points and 10 rebounds per game with strong defense will do that — and that 47-point game is the kind of thing that sticks in voters’ minds. Jayson Tatum, Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in there, too (not sure Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry will play enough games to win the award).

But Jokić is averaging a triple-double this season — 25.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10 assists — and his team is in first place in the West. It’s a season worthy of a third straight MVP. If someone is going to dethrone him, well, you come at the king, you best not miss.

Jokić had 28 points, 16 rebounds and 15 assists on 10-of-14 shooting in the Nuggets’ win over the Pelicans on Tuesday night — Denver is now 16-0 this season when Jokić has a triple-double.

Heading into the season there was a sense MVP voters would be hesitant to make it a historic three straight MVPs for Jokić — putting him in Larry Bird and Bill Russell territory — when the Nuggets haven’t been to the Finals yet. However, Denver sits atop the West and looks like a contender with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. healthy.

Plus, Jokić’s numbers are undeniable — the Nuggets are 20.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season. They win because of him, Denver gets outscored by 8.5 points per 100 when he is off the court. And we’re not going to dive into EPM, VORP and the rest of the advanced stats, just know they love Jokić like no other, too.

Jokić may not win his third MVP, there are other deserving guys in the mix and we have 30+ games to go this season. Just don’t be shocked if he does, he has been that good.

2) LeBron has historic night as he chases big his historic night

LeBron James is now just 89 points short of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He probably passes KAJ next week, Abdul-Jabbar has 38,387 career points, LeBron is now at 38,299.

First he made some history on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. LeBron had a triple-double of 28 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, making him the first player in NBA history to have a triple-double in his 20th season.

More impressively, with those 11 assists he moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into fourth on the NBA’s career assists list. Think about that for a second, the league’s all-time leading scorer is fourth in assists, too.

The Lakers couldn’t hold on to a late lead in regulation — LeBron missed a couple of long jumpers that could have sealed the win — and Los Angeles needed overtime to get the 129-123 victory. They needed it after dropping two games to start this road trip. Anthony Davis moved back into the starting lineup and the Lakers need to string together a few weeks of wins to climb back into the play-off — or even the play-in mix — or all this history by LeBron will be squandered by the franchise.

3) Banchero, Henderson lead group that will make Rising Stars worth watching

The Rising Stars challenge is often the forgotten child of All-Star weekend. It takes place on Friday night and isn’t all that interesting.

This year may be different — a deep cast of talent will play in the new format that was a hit last season. The 28 players will be divided into four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score of 40 — something that last season led to the young stars defending and playing hard. It was entertaining.

Here’s the list of who will be playing:

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic), Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons), AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks), Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons), Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz), Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers), Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings), Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers), Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets), Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs), Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans), Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors), Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder), Jalen Green (Houston Rockets), Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks), Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets), Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers), Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans), Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets), Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite), Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite), Mojave King (G League Ignite), Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle), Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats), Leonard Miller (G League Ignite), Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

It’s a group worth watching on Friday night (Feb. 17) of All-Star weekend.