Mavs lurking by No. 8 playoff seed.

March 27, 2013

In not-so-good news for any team chasing the Western Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed, namely the L.A. Lakers and Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks refuse to surrender their season. Even after falling at home to the playoff-bound Clippers on Tuesday, Dallas sits only one game behind the Lakers, even with No. 9 seed Utah. Less than 2 years after winning an NBA championship, head coach Rick Carlisle’s team has fought its way back, winning 10 of their last 14.

In fact, Dallas, 35-36, is only 3 consecutive wins away from shaving some of their ridiculous beards, as part of a pledge many of them made in February to not trim their facial hair until the team reached .500. (Well, their next 4 and 6 of their last 11 are against likely playoff teams, including 2 vs. the streaking Denver Nuggets, so maybe Dirk & Co. should expected to keep the ‘Duck Dynasty’ look.)

Before we go further, a quick look at the West’s fight for the No. 8 seed:

LAL: 36-35, 1-2 vs. Utah (0 left, head-to-head), 2-1 vs. Dallas (1)

UTA: 35-36, 2-1 vs. LAL (0), 2-1 vs. Dallas (0)

DAL: 35-36, 1-2 vs. LAL (1), 1-2 vs. Utah (0)

And remaining schedules

LAL: at MIN, at MIL, at SAC, vs. DAL, vs. MEM, at LAC, vs. NO, at POR, vs. GS, vs. SA, vs. HOU

UTA: vs. PHO, at POR, vs. BK, vs. POR, vs. DEN, vs. NO, at GS, vs. OKC, vs. MIN, at MIN, at MEM

DAL: vs. IND, vs. CHI, at LAL, at DEN, at SAC, at POR, vs. PHO, vs. DEN, at NO, vs. MEM, vs. NO

Of those schedules, the Lakers’ scares me least. Utah sees the fewest likely playoff teams (5), compared to L.A. and Dallas (both 6), but L.A. catches the breaks in timing. Milwaukee’s lost 3 straight and 6 of 8, so that one doesn’t scare me, nor does playing a San Antonio or Houston team (in the last 2 games of the season) that may be locked into its playoff seeding by then. Utah has 3 games remaining — Brooklyn, Denver and Memphis — against team’s fighting for home-court in the 1st round, and Dallas has 5. (The Lakers have 2 — Memphis and the Clippers — but both games are in their friendly, Staples Center confines.)

But given all that’s happened to Dallas this season, I find it amazing they’re even still alive. Their best player, future-Hall-of-Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki, missed the season’s first 27 games due to knee surgery — in which the Mavs started the year 12-15 — and has been limited just about ever since. Chris Kaman’s missed 14 games, Brandan Wright 18 and Shawn Marion 15. A remarkable 15 guys have started at least a game for Dallas, and 21 have logged regular season minutes.

Poor health aside, the team’s 2 most consistent players have been O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter. The hole Tyson Chandler’s departure left last season has yet to be filled, and only been exacerbated by the hole the departure of point guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry created. Darren Collison — 12.2 points, 5.2 assists and 47 starts — has been pushed out of the starting lineup for Mike James — yep that 37-year-old Mike James.

Think about it this way. According to 82games, their best 5-man unit, at least in terms of scoring differential, is James, 37; Carter, 36; Jae Crowder, 22; Nowitzki, 34; and Brand, 34. That unit’s scores 1.24 points per possession, the best of any Mavericks’ 5-man combination to log at least 30 minutes together, and yields only 0.97 points per possession to opponents, the best of any 5-man combination to play at least 40 minutes together. They’ve outscored opponents by 25 points in 49.2 minutes — again, a lack of shared time largely due to injuries. (Average age? 32.6.)

Of course this team’s not a threat to do anything in the postseason. Last year, OKC swept the defending champs in the 1st round, and that team drew core contributions from Kidd, Terry and Delonte West. So, unless Dirk were to go bonkers one night, Dallas would probably be swept again.

In the NBA, though, a stubborn lurker with a superstar is never someone to take lightly. And the fact they’re still hanging around, when everyone, myself included, wrote them off months ago, is really a testament to the guys in the locker room, starting with Carlisle.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


February 22, 2013

New York’s in a bit of a funk right now, having lost 3 straight and suffering a brutal 34-point defeat Wednesday in Indiana. At 32-19, Mike Woodson’s club has cooled off since its hot start, now 5.5 games behind the first-place Heat and only a half-game up on the 3-seed Pacers. The Knicks, 5-5, have struggled against division opponents and only lead Brooklyn by 1 game in the Atlantic.

A team that lives and dies by the 3 — against the Pacers, they shot 5-28 — New York’s stretch success may depend on the evolution of Amar’e Stoudemire’s role, who returned from knee surgery almost 2 months ago but is still playing limited minutes. Stoudemire’s averaging 13.3 points in his 22.7 minutes, but has not yet started in 21 appearances. From an efficiency perspective, Stoudemire’s been better than expected, even after many talking heads feared his ego would conflict with Carmelo’s upon return — he’s averaging the best shooting numbers, 55% from the field and 81.4% from the foul line, of his Knicks’ tenure, and his 21.38 PER is 2nd-best on the team and 17th in the NBA.


With Anthony, the NBA’s 2nd-leading scorer at 28.3 points per game; Stoudemire; and Chandler, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, New York has as impressive a frontcourt as anyone, at least on paper. Carmelo’s taking the most 3’s of his career at 6.8 per game, which normally would not be a good sign, but he’s connecting on 40%, the second-best mark of his 10-year career, and making 45% of his total shots. At 37.9, he’s playing his most minutes since 2009-10 in Denver. As a pure scorer, the only player on Anthony’s level is Kevin Durant.

Chandler (20.5 PER), 11.5 points and 11.1 rebounds a night, is a strong defensive anchor, able to make up for the slower lateral speed of guards Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. In all, New York’s defense has improved leaps and bounds from the Mike D’Antoni ‘seven seconds or less’ era in Mike Woodson’s first full year as head coach, though it’s tapered off as of late. For a reasonably fast-paced team like New York — 100.2 points per game — to be 10th in scoring defense, at 96.3 points allowed, and even ahead of Miami is worth noting. (But, on a downside, New York’s 17th in rebounding differential, -1.0, even with the services of Chandler.)


Health has been a concern, as New York’s started 10 different guys — Anthony, Felton, Chandler, Kidd, Chris Copeland, Iman Shumpert, Ronnie Brewer (since traded to Oklahoma City to make room for Kenyon Martin), Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and James White — this season, and that does not even include the team’s 2nd- and 3rd-best scorers, Stoudemire and J.R. Smith. Stoudemire’s missed 30 games, Anthony 7, Felton 12, Wallace 31, Camby 37 and Shumpert 37. Wallace and Camby, both with foot injuries, are expected to return to the lineup soon, making the Knicks fully healthy.

As Stoudemire continues to work himself back into the lineup, or at least we assume, Woodson’s starting ‘Melo at the 4, leaving Shumpert, who returned from a torn ACL in January, Kidd and Felton, 3 traditional 1-guards, in the backcourt. The spread-shooters-around ‘Melo lineup has the ability to match a similar set from Miami, when Erik Spoelstra pushes LeBron to the 4, then has Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen spacing the floor. (And New York’s been successful against Miami this year, winning their 2 matchups by 20 points, each, one of which coming without Carmelo’s services.) But even adding Smith and subtracting Kidd or Shumpert, whether such a lineup can work against Brooklyn, with the 6’7″ Joe Johnson at the 2, or Indiana, with the 6’8″ Paul George or Danny Granger at the 2, is another story entirely.


Speaking off those backcourt guys, Felton and Kidd, both offseason acquisitions, have blended into Woodson’s system nicely. At 14.8 points and 6.2 assists per game, Felton ranks 3rd and 1st on the team, respectively; as a unit, New York’s 29th in total assists, at only 19.6 per game, less than double Rajon Rondo’s pre-injury numbers. Kidd’s really remodeled his career, developing his outside shooting touch as his lateral quickness withers; at 39, he’s putting up some of the best shooting numbers — 39% from the field and 37.4% from 3 — of his 19-year career. Novak, 45% from 3, is the league’s 3rd-most accurate long-range shooter. (New York’s tops in the league in makes per game, 10, and attempts, 29, shooting a 6th-best 37.7%.)

Smith, who some say should have joined Anthony and Chandler on the Eastern Conference’s All Star team, is a Sixth Man of the Year contender; he’s averaging career-highs in points, 15.9; rebounds, 4.9; assists, 2.8; and even blocks, 0.4, all while shooting a respectable 40% from the field in his 9th year. That said, his 39.7% FG percentage is his lowest since 2005-06, and he’s taking far too many 3’s, 5.1 per game, only to convert 34%, also his lowest since 2005-06; in 33.1 minutes, he’s only attempting 3.2 free throws a night.


But with Smith, Stoudemire, the 28-year-old rookie Copeland, who’s averaging 6.5 points in less than 12 minutes, Novak and Wallace, a 7.2-points-a-night scorer when he’s healthy, New York’s bench is 5th-best in scoring, at 39 points per game.

Holding on to the East’s No. 2 seed, and therefore avoiding Miami in the conference semifinals, is key. Of course, New York’s a combined 1-5 against Chicago and Indiana this season, both slower-pace, defense-centric clubs capable of grinding opponents down with their size. New York, a 19-8 team at Madison Square Garden, would be a different animal at that arena in the postseason, though.


Looking ahead to next year, New York’s essentially bringing back the same team, with Smith, Wallace (nearing retirement, again) and Copeland the only notable guys not locked up through 2013-14. Smith has a modest $2.9 million player option that he’s outplayed, and very well could look for a raise in a weaker market. The Knicks are a luxury tax team through 2014-15, unless Carmelo opts out and leaves in 2014; it’s very likely ‘Melo will opt out for a longer-term deal, but given his stated desire to play in New York, it’s hard to imagine him playing elsewhere.


But for now, the focus is on winning a playoff series, something a New York basketball team has not done since 2000.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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