Posts Tagged ‘DeJuan Blair’

Showdown Sunday for final four first-rounders

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The first round’s final four teams are doing whatever they can to avoid going fishing

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Four quarters.

That’s it!

Four quarters.

It all comes down to this.

Four quarters, or more if need be, for the final four teams still alive on the most epic weekend ever in the first round of the NBA playoffs. From the emotional roller coaster of Saturday’s wild, three-game ride to — the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, all three higher seeds — we finish with today’s two-part saga.

The Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors finish what they started in the Eastern Conference while the defending Western Conference champion and No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs defend the Alamo against those pesky No. 8-seeded Dallas Mavericks.

It goes without saying, no one wants to Go Fishing!

So the time for posturing is over. All that’s left is this double-header for all the marbles.

The final four must deliver on the promise of what we’ve already seen from this historic weekend of Game 7s. No pressure fellas, just epic finishes to epic series on an epic weekend …

NETS @RAPTORS, 1 p.m. ET (ABC) 

It has to be a comforting feeling for both of these teams knowing that a rested and focused Miami Heat team, the two-time defending champions, await the winner in the conference semifinals.

Either way, the Nets and Raptors couldn’t be better suited for one last battle.

As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann points out, just one point (967-966) separates them in the 10 games they’ve played this season, with each of them winning five times. This is a much-needed rubber match that pits one of the most well-seasoned teams in the Nets against a Raptors crew that is swimming in the deep end of the playoff pool for the first time.

But there are more than just numbers at stake today at the Air Canada Centre. There are legacies on the line for the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who were brought to Brooklyn for moments like this, and for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, whose careers will continue to be built on defining moments like this one.

As a group those four stars have a combined 23 Game 7 starts under their belts … so at least one advantage, the experience edge, goes to the visitors from Brooklyn. Just don’t tell the Raptors, who have the sensational and dynamic DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry duo (they are averaging a combined 44.8 points in this series) on their side.

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MAVERICKS @ SPURS, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)

No one loves Game 7 like the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki.

No one.

His spotless 4-0 record in Game 7s — that’s right, spotless — no doubt makes him love this big stage even more. All he’s ever known in Game 7 is success, as Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com points out:

He knows nothing but the thrill of victory in the winner-takes-all series finales. Nowitzki is 4-0 in Game 7 action throughout his career, and his numbers in those games border on ridiculous.

You think joining a trio of Hall of Famers – Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit and Hakeem Olajuwon – in the exclusive career 25-point, 10-rebound club is impressive? Nowitzki has averaged 28 points and 14.8 rebounds in Game 7s, with all of that experience coming between 2003 and ’06.

How silly is it that the big German was stereotyped as a “soft Euro” until he led the Mavs on a 2011 championship march without a series going seven games?

Dirk registered a points-rebound double-double in each of his four swings at a Game 7. The only other active players with four such Game 7 double-doubles in their career are Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.

Nowitzki has three 30-10 Game 7 lines. He’s the only guy who can make that claim in the basketball-reference.com database, which dates to 1986. The only two-timers in that time span: LeBron James and Karl Malone.

Of course, Duncan is mentioned among those Game 7 greats. The Spurs superstar big man has been at this so long that you knew he’d have this on his resume, too.

You know Duncan remembers well that Game 7 loss to the Mavericks from May 2006 in the Western Conference semifinals, an overtime defeat that saw Duncan torch the Mavericks for 41 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks in a failed effort. The Spurs are 3-5 all-time in Game 7s, boasting a rich history of highs and lows in those games, 2-2 record under the watch of Duncan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

A new chapter in this storied rivalry will be written later today.

It’s Showdown time for all involved in the final four of the best first round of the NBA playoffs we’ve ever seen!


VIDEO: The Game Time crew discusses the battle for Texas between the Spurs and Mavericks

 

No fluke Mavs have Spurs on the ropes

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

VIDEO: Isiah Thomas and Sam Mitchell preview Game 7

DALLAS – The Mavericks have pushed the reigning West champion and top-seeded Spurs to a decisive Game 7 because they’re working their game plan to near-perfection. Dallas is improbably winning the 3-point battle, getting widespread contribution, nearly matching San Antonio’s defensive efficiency and Monta Ellis has become a very big deal.

“It’s called speed,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, asked why Ellis is so effective attacking the rim.

Only San Antonio point guard Tony Parker has more drives to the basket in the playoffs than Ellis, according to the SportVU tracking system, and Dallas’ defensive scheme is practically begging him to do so as the Mavs concentrate on choking off the 3-point arc.

The Spurs’ Achilles heel is locking down athletic squads such as Oklahoma City and Houston. San Antonio didn’t beat either one in eight regular-season games. Dallas won’t typically fall into the “athletic” category with Dirk Nowitzki, 35, Shawn Marion, 35 and Vince Carter, 37, so relied upon, but Ellis, 28, is penetrating with attitude and altering that dynamic.

He’s making life miserable for 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and anybody else trying to stay in front him. Ellis pumped the Spurs for 29 points — 22 in an electrifying second half — during Dallas’ stay-alive Game 6 win Friday night, his second game with 29 in the series.

“When he scores like that, he is to tough to stop,” Parker said. “We are going to have to control him.”

Ellis is Dallas’ leading scorer at 21.8 ppg. Only one other time in 12 previous playoff appearances has Nowitzki not led the team in scoring. That was a disaster, a 2007 first-round ousting as the No. 1 seed by Golden State, exactly what Dallas is attempting to do to San Antonio. Ellis played with decisive force in recent fourth quarters, and has helped to crumble a typically unbreakable end-of-game Spurs defense.

The Mavs’ success extends throughout the lineup. From Carter to Devin Harris to DeJuan Blair‘s inspired, revenge-minded hustle, Dallas’ depth has grabbed a much larger role in this series than a bench that was so important to San Antonio all season long.

Ginobili had his first poor game of the series in Game 6, having averaged 19 points in the first five games as San Antonio’s best player. Starting shooting guard Danny Green finally shot it well in Game 6 with 19 points after averaging 3.4 through the first five games.

Boris Diaw has come on in recent games, but Marco Belinelli has been a virtual no-show, averaging less than one 3-point attempt a game. Patty Mills is shooting 23.5 percent from deep. He’s 4-for-17 in the series after dropping six 3s on Dallas in their final regular-season meeting in April.

“I don’t know, it just happens,” Ginobili said of the Spurs’ bench struggles. “Some matchups are good for some players and some matchups are good for others. We’re 3-3 with home court advantage. I don’t think we’re in an awful position. We’re not a team that needs the bench to score 45 points. We take what the opponents give us.”

Dallas is doing all it can not to give up the 3-pointer. The Spurs have devastated the Mavs with the 3-ball for two consecutive seasons, but so far in this series they are losing that key battle. Only once has San Antonio made more 3s, and that was an irrelevant 10-8 advantage in Game 2, which Dallas won in a blowout.

The Mavs’ defense, ranked in the bottom 10 in efficiency all season, has limited the Spurs to 17.3 attempts a game, fewer than any team in the playoffs other than Washington and Memphis. They’re averaging nearly two fewer 3-point baskets than Dallas, which is shooting the 3-ball at 37.9 percent, slightly higher than San Antonio’s 37.5 percent. The Spurs led the league in the regular season at 39.7 percent.

It’s no fluke that Dallas has its longtime nemesis on the ropes.

San Antonio will be favored to win Game 7 on their home floor, but several concerning patterns could make end this playoff run much sooner than anybody could have expected.

Mavs push Duncan, Spurs to the brink

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mavs top Spurs to force Game 7

DALLAS – Tim Duncan started this unpredictably wooly series with 27 points and talking about doing this playoff thing a couple more times. In the middle of it, he turned 38.

By the end of Friday night’s Game 6, his goatee seemingly sprouting a few more grey hairs, Duncan was left explaining how former kicked-to-the-curb teammate DeJuan Blair dominated a fourth quarter that now has the top-seeded and reigning Western Conference champions staring down another improbable Game 7 long before they figured they would.

“We’re here to win four games, it doesn’t matter how many games it takes,” Duncan said, his voice terse. “We’re not worried about being disappointed. This is a very good ballclub over there. There’s eight, nine and 10 good teams in the West, so we’re here to win four games. We have one more at home to do that. We played great in the regular season so that we would be in this position to have homecourt. There’s no disappointment there.”

There certainly was no joy in the visitors’ locker room following a sloppy fourth quarter that led to Mavs 113, Spurs 111, to set up Sunday’s Game 7 back in San Antonio. The last one they played didn’t go so well last June in Miami after the Spurs somehow let Game 6 and another championship slip away in the final 28 seconds. It’s only the first round, yet suddenly the stakes are as equally high for this tight-knit group that regrouped so brilliantly this season to win a league-best 62 games.

Coach Gregg Popovich, being pushed to the limit by the scheming of Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, won the Coach of the Year award for their efforts. Now his team finds itself in the same precarious spot as the East’s No. 1 seed, the embattled Indiana Pacers. Both get Game 7 on their home floor.

“Well, you wouldn’t give it away, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything,” Popovich said of playing the finale at home. “We’ve won Game 7s and we’ve lost Game 7s.”

San Antonio led the eighth-seeded Mavs 87-82 with 9:15 to go. It seemed this would be a methodical ender for the Spurs, 52-1 during the regular season when leading after three quarters, a slow death for the home team like a boa crushing the final, desperate breaths from its prey.

But then we should have known better. The gutty Mavs have spent this series escaping danger and reinforcing their resiliency. Even in Game 5 when the Spurs seemed to be in total control from the start, there were the Mavs hustling to within four points in the final minutes, and a missed Dirk Nowitzki jumper from making it two.

This time, a 16-4 Dallas charge sparked by a scrambling defense and two steals by Blair, who had four on the night to go with 10 points and a game-high and career-playoff best 14 rebounds, led to a flurry of buckets in the 37-point quarter. By the time Dallas’ leading scorer in this series, Monta Ellis, who dropped 29 points for the second time, hit an eight-foot driving jump shot with 2:59 left, the Mavs, buoyed by a boisterous, believing crowd, went up 102-94.

A pair of late 3s accounted for the extra-thin final margin, but Blair, who stole Tony Parker‘s interior pass with 29.9 seconds left, then made enough free throws to skate away out with the win.

Earlier in the day on his local radio program, Carlisle fumed that he wasn’t proud of anything his team had accomplished to this point. “We should be the ones up, 3-2,” he said. “That’s how I see it.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe if Blair, whose energy flipped the Game 4 momentum in Dallas’ favor, hadn’t of kicked Tiago Splitter in the head in the fourth quarter of a one-point game, drawing a “hostile act” violation and automatic ejection, maybe the Mavs win that one to go up 3-1. Blair was subsequently suspended for Game 5.  The Spurs won by six.

On their three home games, San Antonio has been less than dominant, getting blown out in Game 2 and winning Games 1 and 5 by a combined 11 points.

“Of course it’s disappointing, but it is what it is,” said Manu Ginobili, just 1-for-8 for six points after averaging 19 in the first five games. “We have to go and fight and try to get it in seven.

“I don’t think we’re in an awful position.”

Blair would certainly enjoy putting them in one. He’s held a grudge against his former club all season for being ousted from the rotation first spot by Splitter, suddenly the Spurs’ best inside scoring threat, and then Boris Diaw, and finally being set free last summer.

“Of course,” Blair answered when asked if his massive Game 6 served as sweet revenge after watching Game 5 sequestered in his San Antonio hotel room. “It ain’t over yet, we’ve got Game 7 on their court. Winning on their court would be the best revenge.”

Nowitzki, a solid 22 points on 11-for-20 shooting, knows that feeling. The last time these two longtime rivals went seven games in the 2006 conference semifinals, Nowitzki bludgeoned the Spurs with 37 points and 15 rebounds. He and re-acquired guard Devin Harris are the only Mavs left from that series, but Popovich and the Big Three remember it well.

It kept them from challenging for a repeat, and possibly a three-peat after they won it all again in 2007. New Knicks president Phil Jackson recently reminded the Spurs that their three titles in five seasons do not constitute a dynasty.

Now they’re just desperate to avoid a second first-round exit in four years as the No. 1 seed.

Sunday is about one thing: survive and advance.


VIDEO: Ellis discusses Dallas’ Game 6 victory

Dallas Must Have A Wide-Eyed Dalembert


VIDEO: Jose Calderon finds Samuel Dalember for an easy dunk vs. Orlando

DALLAS – All the latest statistical computations reveal the same thickening plot for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference: Dogfight!

Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Minnesota and Memphis are all separated by 4.5 games. Each team can point to one significant key that could put them over the top. For the hottest team in the group, the 23-16 Mavericks point to good-natured and well-intentioned, but not always, ahem, eye-opening center Samuel Dalembert. They don’t ask him for him to be a force, but rather, a consistent presence on defense and on the boards.

“You know, we don’t ask a tremendous amount from our 5-men,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “We ask them to bring what they can bring to our team at their best possible level. For [Dalembert], we need him active, we need him rebounding, we need him screening, rolling; he’s been making free throws. We ask those guys to play to exhaustion and then we’ll get them out.”

Exhaustion is an interesting choice of words.

The 6-foot-11 Dalembert has had something of an issue getting out of bed, already twice punished for oversleeping and showing up late. He’s paid for it by being benched and even losing his starting job for a spell. Dalembert is a starter again, in the lineup the last three games and eight of the last 11 because there are too many mismatches that hurt the hustling (but defensively liable) 6-foot-7 DeJuan Blair. The lanky, 6-foot-10 Brandan Wright is an offensive commodity off the bench, but he’s not a strong defender or rebounder.

“We start [Dalembert] because it’s the best thing for our team,” Carlisle said. “The last three or four games I like what he’s done. His focus has been good. It’s evident what he brings to the team. It’s good.”

Dalembert says he’s dealing with a sleep disorder, but it’s not as if this kind of thing hasn’t frustrated coaches and front office-types at his previous three stops over the last three seasons. Mavs owner Mark Cuban recently said he doesn’t know if Dalembert has a sleep disorder or not, but he’s seen enough know to he needs the big man playing with both eyes wide open.

“I told him he’s All-Star caliber when he’s laying it out there,” Cuban said.

After both oversleeping episodes, Dalembert, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract last summer, expressed guilt and remorse. On Nov. 25, his oversleeping made him late for a morning shootaround and led to a first-quarter benching in Dallas’ eventual 110-96 loss to Denver. Afterward, he somberly offered up this classic, no-pun-intended analysis: “It was a wake-up call for us.”

Dallas sorely needs an engaged Dalembert to compete against the West’s bigger frontcourts. The Mavs are a poor rebounding team (27th in rebound percentage) and are porous defensively (19th in defensive rating, 22nd in opponent field-goal percentage) and sport with a soft perimeter defense that must have back-up from an active rim protector.

The Mavs’ defensive rating is 101.3 with Dalembert on the floor. He owns the second-best individual rating among rotation players behind reserve forward Jae Crowder. With Dalembert on the bench, the Mavs’ defensive rating soars to 106.3, the second-largest jump on the team, again behind Crowder. Dalembert is never again going to be a 30-minute-a-night player. So the 20 he gets — or should get — have to be good.

Wednesday brings a massive road test when Dallas puts its three-game win streak up against the Los Angeles Clippers (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). L.A. has won three in a row since All-Star point guard Chris Paul suffered a right shoulder separation on Jan. 3 in Dallas. The Clippers rallied to win the game behind this combined stat line from power forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan: 50 points (18-for-32 shooting, including nine dunks), 33 rebounds (11 offensive), six assists and four blocked shots. Dalembert started the game, played 21 minutes and had nine points, five rebounds and one block.

On Friday, Dallas plays at Phoenix (9 ET, League Pass). The Suns trounced the Mavs on Dec. 21. Dalembert didn’t start, played seven minutes and Dallas got outrebounded, 45-36.

During Dallas’ three-game win streak, Dalembert has logged a total of 60 minutes, his second-highest minutes total over a three-game span since late November. He’s averaged 5.0 ppg on 58.3 percent shooting, 7.7 rpg with four blocked shots.

It’s all nothing terribly eye-popping. But with Dalembert, it’s all about presence.

“I go by the recent trends and the recent trends are that he’s been ready and he’s been into it and that’s what we need from him,” Carlisle said. “It’s pretty clear. We’ve laid it out to him: We want it simple and do what you do.”

One Team, One Stat: Mavericks Shoot Bad Shots Well

From Media Day until opening night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann will provide a key stat for each team in the league and show you, with film and analysis, why it matters. Up next are the Dallas Mavericks, who are, once again, putting new pieces around Dirk Nowitzki.

The basics
DAL Rank
W-L 41-41 17
Pace 96.2 8
OffRtg 103.6 11
DefRtg 104.0 20
NetRtg -0.4 16

The stat

32.7 - Percentage of their shots that the Mavs took from the restricted area or the corners, the lowest rate in the league.

The context

Shots from the restricted area and in the corners are the two most efficient shots on the floor, both worth about 1.2 points per shot across the league last season.

The Mavs have been unique in passing them up and mostly getting away with it. With Dirk Nowitzki leading the way, they’ve been a good and high-volume mid-range shooting team. And they had a top-10 offense for 12 straight years, beginning with Nowitzki’s second season in the league and ending with their championship season in 2010-11.

The season after the lockout, the Mavs fell to 20th offensively, but were still a top-five mid-range shooting team. The same was true again last season, but they had very little scoring inside. Shawn Marion‘s 188 baskets in the restricted area led the team, but ranked 63rd in the league. And in addition to Nowitzki (437/62), they had two bigs — Elton Brand (206/133) and Chris Kaman (296/193) — that took more mid-range shots than shots from the restricted area.

Both guys can knock ‘em down, and it certainly pays to have bigs who can step outside and shoot. But while there’s a positive correlation between offensive efficiency and mid-range shooting percentage, there’s a stronger negative correlation between offensive efficiency and the percentage of shots you take from mid-range.

Mavs shooting by area, 2012-13

Area FG% Rank %FGA Rank
Restricted area 60.9% 12 27.1% 29
Other paint 42.7% 3 17.8% 3
Mid-range 42.2% 3 31.4% 8
Corner 3 36.5% 23 5.6% 20
Above-break 3 38.0% 2 17.8% 11

Basically, it’s good if you can shoot 2-point jumpers well, but it’s bad if you depend on them too much. As we learned from Evan Turner, even if you shoot mid-range shots well, you can be more efficient by taking better shots.

The following video is from an April 2 game in L.A., one the Mavs really needed to have a shot at making the playoffs (they were just a game in the loss column behind the Lakers at the time). They shot a decent 42.4 percent from mid-range, but those shots accounted for 33 of their 81 shots (41 percent) . They took just 15 shots in the restricted area, just four from the corners, and just 12 free throws. So, even though their shooting wasn’t awful, they got held to 81 points by what was a below-average defensive team.


The Mavs were one of three teams — Cleveland and New York were the others — that shot better on above-the-break 3-pointers than they did on corner threes last year. So again, they shot the bad shots (above-the-break threes being bad relative to corner threes) well.

But that’s probably not sustainable. And the guy that led the Mavs with 64 attempts (71st in the league) from the corners was O.J. Mayo, who is now in Milwaukee.

It’s another fascinating supporting cast that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson have brought in this season. Monta Ellis ranked ninth in the league with 475 mid-range shots last season, and shot them worse than anyone else in the top 20. Jose Calderon, meanwhile, was one of the best mid-range shooters in the league and also a great 3-point shooter, but doesn’t shoot from the corners much.

Devin Harris will get to the rim, and there’s no worry about DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert taking too many jump shots. But neither big will dominate down low .

More important will be how the bigs defend. After ranking in the top 10 in defensive efficiency each of the previous two seasons, the Mavs ranked 20th defensively last season. (Not breaking news: Kaman is neither Tyson Chandler nor Brendan Haywood on that end.)

If Nowitzki is healthy all season, the Mavs should be OK offensively. And they can be better than OK if they find ways to get better shots.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Mavs’ Carlisle Rolls With Plan B, Revolving Roster

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DALLAS –
 Rick Carlisle earned his reputation as one of the game’s top coaches by bending, flexing and adjusting all the way to a six-game championship take-down of the Miami Heat in 2011.

Recall 5-foot-10 point guard J.J. Barea as an NBA Finals starting shooting guard?

The Dallas Mavericks have since gone 77-72 and haven’t won another playoff game. And despite a roster that’s read like a well-worn Rolodex, Carlisle has seemed only to enhance his image as an elite tactician and motivator. Carlisle’s agility will be put to the test again this season in guiding a team that again barely resembles the one that preceded it.

From the 2010-11 championship team only Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion remain. From the revamped squad insufficiently stocked to defend the title, add only Brandan Wright and Vince Carter as keepers. And from last season, add draft picks Jae Crowder and Bernard James. It’s doubtful any coach, especially one that won a ring with the same franchise just three Junes ago, has witnessed such roster upheaval in three consecutive offseasons, and particularly so in these back-to-back summers.

“Back-to-back, probably not,” Carlisle admitted. “But look, we’re living in a different time. We’re living in a time now where there’s going to be more one-year deals, there’s going to be more turnover, so everybody adjusts to the dynamics of the new CBA, and I don’t know that that’s going to happen for another year or two, at least. That said, if you’re going to be a head coach in this league you’ve got to be very open-minded, you’ve got to be open to change and adaptation. You always want continuity, but you’re not always going to have it.”

The Mavs suffered the indignity of a lockout and the ratification of a game-changing collective bargaining agreement on the heels of their championship parade. On the fly, owner Mark Cuban championed new roster-building strategies that entailed allowing key members of his title team to walk. Plan A, to create cap space and lure max-dollar free agents to crowbar Nowitzki’s championship window, hasn’t panned out and Dallas has instead scrambled the last two summers to produce competitive rosters.

That can be a disheartening road for a coach who is just one of four currently in the league with a ring. Carlisle, though, has consistently endorsed his boss’ decisions. Entering his sixth season in Dallas and the second year of his second four-year contract, Carlisle seems to embrace the challenges he inherits under Plan B. Of the four active championship coaches — including Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers, now in charge of the Clippers – Carlisle’s task is by far fraught with the most uncertainties.

“I just made a conscious decision that I’m not going to be a coach that’s limited to a certain system,” Carlisle said. “I’m hanging my hat on my ability to adapt each year to potentially a roster that’s quite different, and with the new CBA we’re going to have more of that in this league. I’ve done a lot of it in my career leading up to now anyway, so it’s always challenging in those situations, but it’s also exciting.”

Just look at the players that have come through Dallas since the lockout ended: Kalenna Azubuike, Yi Jianlian, Lamar Odom, Delonte WestSean Williams, Eddy Curry, Troy Murphy, Elton Brand, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman, Jared Cunningham, Derek Fisher, Mike James, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Morrow, Chris Wright, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Justin Dentmon and Josh Akognon.

And here’s the players new to Dallas for this season: Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Wayne Ellington, Samuel Dalembert, DeJuan Blair, Gal Mekel, plus draft picks Shane Larkin and Ricky Ledo.

Last week Cuban set the bar for this team: The playoffs, and capable of doing damage once there. Carlisle didn’t flinch.

“I think you have to view it that way,” Carlisle said. “And, you’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to eliminate the external noise and the doubters and the naysayers and all that kind of stuff. You’ve got to have just a real positive enthusiasm and focus on your group, and you’ve got to see in your mind how they can get better. Then you’ve got to facilitate that.”

Among Dallas media, at least, Carlisle was hailed as a Coach of the Year candidate for guiding last season’s mismatched squad out of a 13-23 hole, one dug mostly without Nowitzki. Dallas finished 28-18 and was in the thick of the playoff chase almost until the end.

“Actually, I think Rick’s system is just very comprehensive and he lets the players pick up as much of it as they can and so I think rather than try to force-feed things that they might not be able to do, Rick, I think, is more accommodating,” Cuban said. “But I don’t think he really changes his system, per se, or changes what he does. I think he just recognizes the skill set of his players. Like, he went from calling plays to just playing ‘flow’ all the time [with Jason Kidd]. That’s his preference more than anything else, just let guys play basketball, and hopefully that’s what we’re going to be able to do a lot more of whereas last year we had to call plays every possession. This year I don’t think we’ll have to.”

Last season’s backcourt of Collison, who couldn’t hold down the starting job, and Mayo never clicked. Fisher ditched the team after a month and James was erratic. Cuban believes this team offers Carlisle more raw material with which to work.

He believes it will be collectively smarter and less turnover-pron with Calderon at the controls, Harris backing him up and the speedy Ellis being able to get to the hole with a frequency the Mavs just haven’t seen. All that, Cuban surmises, should play into the hands of a healthy and motivated Nowitzki.

“Each team is different, each team has different needs, each team develops differently and has to make different kinds of adjustments mid-stream,” Carlisle said. “All that stuff is one of the real intriguing things about coaching. It’s one of the reasons I love it. And one of the reasons I love working in this organization is we’ve got an owner with a fertile mind that likes the right kind of change.

“I’m down with that.”

Spurs: Where Everyone Knows His Role

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LOS ANGELES – Two examples of what makes the Spurs — unselfish, deep, humble, precise, unwavering — the Spurs: Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair.

Both players have been shoved out of the rotation at different times. Tiago Splitter reduced Blair to mostly spot duty this season. Boris Diaw severely cut into Bonner’s minutes. Yet, whenever the two reserves are needed most, there they are ready to serve. And produce. Both are now needed even more now with Diaw recovering from back surgery and Splitter sidelined for at least Sunday’s Game 4 against the Lakers (7 p.m. ET, TNT) with a sprained left ankle.

Bonner, the lone Spur outside the Big Three on the last title team in 2007, has been a nuisance to Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, doing whatever’s necessary to corral him, including implementation of the “Bonner Bear Hug,” a maneuver surely passed along by former Spurs defensive genius Bruce Bowen. The move has been particularly effective against Howard, who gets frustrated that he can’t get a shot up and must march to the free throw line where he’s 24-for-40 in the series.

In 80 minutes of action in the first three games in which the Spurs have taken a 3-0 lead, Bonner has 26 points, 12 rebounds, three steals, three blocks and 10 fouls. His plus-minus is a whopping plus-56, including plus-29 in Game 2.

He was so effective that Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni actually said that the Lakers’ goal was to get Bonner out of the game. Imagine that?

“I don’t even know what to say to that,” Bonner said prior to Game 3.

Bonner, also known as the “Red Rocket” for obvious reasons, averaged just 13.4 mpg in the regular season and played in just 68 games. But with Diaw out, Bonner’s minutes have been ramped up to 26.7. He’s 9-for-14 from the floor and 5-for-7 beyond the arc. At one point in Game 3’s 120-89 beatdown of the Lakers, Bonner received a pass at the top of the arc and the L.A. crowd actually let out a collective groan, anticipating the inevitable swish.

“Matty’s a character guy, he’s a team person, he’ll do whatever’s asked of him,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “If he starts, if he doesn’t play, his work ethic will stay the same. He’s just a high-character individual who will give everything he has no matter the situation. So we’re fortunate to have him.”

Similarly on the outs was Blair, who averaged 14.0 mpg in 61 games. He didn’t score in 12 total minutes in Games 1 and 2, then came through with 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting to go with seven rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes in Game 3. Howard even brought up Blair’s shooting in his postgame comments, somewhat suggesting that Blair’s Tony Parker-like teardrop shot was a bit lucky.

Blair refuted such a notion on Saturday.

“I practice that shot before every game,” Blair said. “I call it the T.P. Tear Drop.”

Blair is the most logical candidate to get the Game 4 start in place of Splitter. He’s looking forward to the increased minutes because, obviously, every player wants to play in big games. But also the 6-foot-7, 270-pound center out of Pittsburgh admitted that he sees the opportunity to open the eyes of teams across the league. A free agent this summer, Blair said he loves San Antonio, but would welcome a chance to play more somewhere else.

“It’s just about knowing where you’re at and what your situation is,” Blair said. “In front of me is Tim Duncan and I would never mind in my life sitting behind Tim Duncan, or anyone else on the team. We’ve got great players and everybody accepts their role perfect. So all of that [about] I’m not getting minutes and stuff like that, that really doesn’t bother me. My duty is to do all the dirty work and be the junkyard of this team, so I’m going to do that. I have no problem with that. If I get in a better situation I think a lot of people will see more of my game.”

Blair has long been a name on the trade block, but through four seasons in which Blair has averaged as many as 21.4 mpg and started 62 and 65 games in consecutive seasons, the Spurs never pulled the trigger.

Right now they’re happy they didn’t.

“We haven’t played him as much as he’s wanted to play,” Popovich said. “To his credit, DeJuan has been a true pro.”

Series hub

Spurs Grinding Down At Wrong Time

 

HANG TIME, Texas — Often in life, timing is everything. It’s the same in the NBA, too.

Just when the start of the playoffs — eight days away — is coming into sight, the Spurs are seeing stars. And scars.

The grind of the 82-game regular season just keeps grinding down the team that held onto the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference standings for months.

Boris Diaw underwent surgery for the removal of a lumbar cyst from his spine and is expected to be sidelined for three to four weeks.

The loss of Diaw comes with Manu Ginobili likely sidelined for the start of the playoffs by a strained right hamstring. Tony Parker has also missed three of the past four games with a sore neck and has been laboring through an assortment of other injuries, including a Grade 2 ankle sprain that kept him out for eight games.

Imagine that. Tim Duncan will turn 37 in just two weeks and he’s suddenly looking like the spryest guy on the roster, averaging 30 minutes, 26.5 points and 12 rebounds in April.

The loss of Diaw, at least for the first several weeks of the playoffs, could take a toll on an already undersized Spurs frontline. Can they get all the way to The Finals with a big man trio of Duncan, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner?

DeJuan Blair, who for much of the season was used only in mop-up duty, will be back in the rotation and second-year man Kawhi Leonard could be forced to play some minutes at power forward.

All of this comes at a time when the Spurs have fallen a half-game behind Oklahoma City in the race for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in the West bracket. But to coach Gregg Popovich that is a secondary issue.

In Parker’s case, he says he wants to develop some kind of rhythm in the last four games before the playoffs begin and is lobbying to start tonight at home against Sacramento. But he’s got to convince his coach, who usually errs on the side of caution with injuries.

“You don’t worry about your playoff seeding because if that makes you play (injured players) when they shouldn’t be playing, you’re going to be screwed come playoff time anyway,” Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News. “Your main concern is to have people be as healthy as possible come playoff time.

“If you’re the best team, the seeding doesn’t really matter. You wouldn’t give up first, second, third or fourth seed and say, ‘Yes, please give me fifth or sixth.’ Nobody would do that, but the best team doesn’t have to have the best record. It has to be healthy.”

Playoffs Snapshot — April 12

Here’s a look at some of the more important playoff implications in Friday night’s games:

LAKERS (vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): With the battle for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference down to the final three games, the Lakers (42-37) face a Golden State team that is currently seeded sixth, just a half-game up on the Rockets … A Lakers win and a Jazz loss to the Timberwolves would put L.A. up two games with two to play … Kobe Bryant scored 47 points while playing all 48 minutes in Wednesday night’s 113-106 win in Portland … The Lakers are up 2-1 in the season series.

JAZZ (vs. Minnesota, 9:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Jazz (41-38) have lost control of the race with the Lakers for the No. 8 seed and can’t lose focus in the first of consecutive games against the wounded Timberwolves … Utah leads season series 2-0 … Utah needs to win out and hope for an L.A. loss … A short bench missing Enes Kanter, Marvin Williams and Alec Burks was costly in Wednesday night’s loss to OKC … This could be the final home game for Jazz free-agents-to-be Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.

THUNDER (at Portland, 10 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Thunder (58-21) show no inclination to take their foot off the pedal in the fight for No. 1 seed in the West … Holding tie-breaker over the Spurs, they now control the race … After whipping the Warriors on Thursday night — and getting plenty of rest for the starters — OKC wraps up a back-to-back and closes out road schedule … Thunder are 3-0 against the Blazers this season, who went flat in a loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night … Three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant (28.3 ppg.) says he’s OK giving up title to Carmelo Anthony.

SPURS (vs. Sacramento, 8:30 ET, League Pass): Even if the Spurs (57-21) win out, they need OKC to stumble once to reclaim the top spot in the West … But do they really care? Tony Parker is in a tug o’ war with coach Gregg Popovich over whether he’ll play … Parker sat out Wednesday’s loss at Denver with a sore neck and other assorted ailments and Pop says that championship teams must be able to win on the road anyway … Boris Diaw’s back injury puts DeJuan Blair back into the rotation and could slide Kawhi Leonard into minutes at power forward … They lead series with Kings 3-0. (more…)

Heat, Spurs Still Virtual Strangers

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Both conference’s No. 1 teams made significant statements over the last two days.

It wasn’t just that the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs both convincingly knocked off their closest challengers. The greater message to the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder — and the rest of the league — is how they did it.

LeBron James is the runaway MVP candidate. He had an amazing streak of scoring at least 3o points and shooting 60 percent in six consecutive games. Yet, the Heat only needed 13 points (5-for-10 shooting), seven assists and six rebounds from him in trouncing the Pacers 105-91 on Sunday.

It can be argued that James creates such headaches for opposing defenses that it allows his teammates to run free. Sure, OK, but it had to be demoralizing to the Pacers, the NBA’s top-ranked field-goal percentage defense, to hold James to a baker’s dozen yet surrender 55.9 percent shooting from the field.

San Antonio earned its 105-93 victory Monday over the Thunder by having its two healthy members of the the Big Three — Tim Duncan (13 points, eight rebounds) and Manu Ginobili (12 points, four assists, 24 minutes) — make way for this big three: Tiago Splitter (21 points, 10 rebounds), Kawhi Leonard (17 points, three steals) and Danny Green (16 points, 4-for-4 on 3s).

The precision, depth and discipline of the Spurs was on full display in shooting 52.4 percent against the Thunder’s second-ranked field-goal percentage defense. San Antonio’s improving defense also cranked up, making it difficult on NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant (26 points, 7-for-13 FGs) and Russell Westbrook (25 points, 11-for-27), the leaders of the West’s second-highest scoring offense at more than 106 points a game.

Does this mean we’re headed for a Spurs-Heat Finals come June? Not necessarily. But what if? Which team would hold the advantage?

How can anyone really know? These two teams are virtual strangers.

Since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in the 2010-11 season, the Heat and Spurs have played four times and none of those games featured lineups that would go head-to-head in a Finals series.

The fourth and most recent meeting was the infamous go-home game on Nov. 31 at Miami when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent his Big Three plus Green home. A steamed David Stern slapped San Antonio for $250,000 for pitting its reserves against the defending champs on national TV. The Heat won an entertaining game with a late comeback.

The three previous games were all blowouts (2-1 in favor of Miami) with a head-scratching average margin of defeat of 27.1 points. Two of those were played in the span of 10 days in March 2011, and the third was their lone meeting in last season’s lockout-shortened schedule, a 120-98 Heat win on Jan. 20, with Ginobili injured and Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair in the Spurs’ starting lineup.

Miami has yet to see the remodeled Spurs after they dealt Jefferson to Golden State for Stephen Jackson and added Boris Diaw. The Heat barely know Green, San Antonio’s leading 3-point bomber (although he did score 20 points off the bench on 6-for-7 3-point shooting in that game nearly 14 months ago).

Fortunately, the Spurs and Heat do meet again on March 31 at San Antonio. It might be our first real chance to assess how these two clubs match up.

Even then, Tony Parker might still be out with a sprained ankle. Either way, there will be plenty of intrigue if the Spurs and Heat, two virtual strangers, get together in June.