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Mavs may be rounding into form, and just in time

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Mavs may be rounding into form, and just in time

DALLAS (AP) The Dallas Mavericks are finally playing like the team they thought they built after Deron Williams spurned them in the offseason.

If they keep this up, it might not be too late to extend their playoff streak to 13 seasons.

The Mavericks have won a season-best four straight games since dropping 10 below .500 for the first time since their last non-playoff year in 2000. Dirk Nowitzki shows a new sign of his old self nearly every game as he recovers from knee surgery that sidelined him the first two months.

And owner Mark Cuban has declared the ``Bank of Cuban is open'' a year and a half after he chose financial flexibility over bringing back key pieces of the franchise's first championship team.

``We're making baby steps each day and having little setbacks along the way, too,'' Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. ``We want to be healthy and have all our guys and see what we can do with this thing.''

Barely more than a week ago, the Mavericks were a mess. They had lost nine of 10 - another skid that hadn't happened since 1999-2000 - and Nowitzki was days removed from saying a championship team couldn't be built on hope.

The big German was referring to the Mavericks missing out on Williams in free agency - the former Dallas-area high school star stayed with the Nets for their Brooklyn debut - and to talk of them going after Chris Paul or Dwight Howard this summer.

Cuban maintained he had to let Tyson Chandler and other players go or else risk the ability to upgrade the roster later. The resulting collection of short-timers around Nowitzki and point guard Jason Kidd didn't work last season, with the defending champs getting swept by Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs.

The Mavericks ended up with the same model after Williams' decision was followed by Kidd reneging on an agreement to return and joining the New York Knicks instead. Dallas traded for point guard Darren Collison, signed free agents O.J. Mayo and Chris Kaman and picked up Elton Brand in an amnesty waiver claim.

Those newcomers and holdovers Shawn Marion and Vince Carter had to figure out how to survive without Nowitzki when he couldn't make it through training camp and had his first knee surgery less than two weeks before the start of his 15th season. Dallas went 12-15 with their star watching and struggled with too many turnovers, not enough rebounds and the inability to make plays late in close games.

It actually got worse when Nowitzki returned because they were easing him back in during a difficult stretch of the schedule. Dallas started 1-8 with Nowitzki, losing by more than 20 points three times but also dropping three other games in overtime - including on the road to last year's finalists, Oklahoma City and Miami.

``When he first came back, we were really relaxed and it was like, `OK, Dirk's back. Now we can chill,''' said Mayo, who became the focal point for defenses and struggled with consistency after scoring 22 or more points in six of seven games early in the season. ``But we have to remain aggressive to help him out and help us out.''

Cuban answered Nowitzki's frustration by vowing not to trade his star, declaring he was prepared to upgrade through trades and warning that if anyone had given up on this season, ``I will kick them to the curb faster than I can lift a boot.''

The Mavericks are 3-0 on the four-game homestand since the latest from their outspoken owner, and they've done it with better ball movement, some strong games from Collison and Mayo, and defense. Two of the three opponents shot less than 40 percent, and several key defensive stops helped them hold off a Houston rally in Wednesday's 105-100 win.

Brand had a season-high 20 points Monday against Minnesota, and a critical block of a layup attempt by James Harden with the score tied in the final minutes against Houston.

``We're still a piece of work,'' said Nowitzki, who has scored in double figures nine straight times after failing to get there the first four games back. ``We let Minnesota hang around, same with Houston. We're giving our leads away too quick. Even when we're up, we have to play like we're down.''

Carlisle warned that the winning streak might be ``fool's gold'' since Dallas caught three straight teams on the second night of back-to-backs. The best test of the emerging Mavericks will come Friday night, when the Thunder visit Dallas with a night of rest and a short trip after an easy win over Denver.

Still, some elements of the winning streak make Carlisle not really care who the opponent was.

``Well, I like our chances in any game where we come out and play with a disposition and an attitude and an unselfish mindset,'' said Carlisle, whose team is four games out of the last playoff spot in the West. ``That's going to be my universal answer for the year.''

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter athttps://twitter.com/lschuylerd

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Wizards fall flat in battle with young Grizzlies

Wizards fall flat in battle with young Grizzlies

The Washington Wizards lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 128-111 on Saturday night. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

1. It was just over a week ago the Wizards had their best win of the season against the Sixers. Saturday night was one of their worst.

They went into Memphis to play an emerging, but struggling team and got their you-know-whats handed to them. The Wizards jumped out to a 13-6 lead in the first, then lost the momentum and never got it back.

By halftime the Wizards were down 15. That deficit grew to 24 in the second half.

The Wizards ended up losing by 17, but it wasn't as close as the score would suggest. It was Washington's seventh loss in eight games.

Maybe it was the three-day layoff. Perhaps they weren't sharp. Whatever the reason, that was a bad one.

2. As this game went on, it became very obvious that Memphis' gameplan was to make sure Davis Bertans didn't beat them. They swarmed the Latvian Laser on the perimeter and guarded him well beyond the three-point line.

Bertans was held to nine points on 2-for-9 shooting and 1-for-6 from three. His one three was a quick release shot from about 27 feet out. Soon after that, the defense was picking him up at halfcourt.

 

This type of treatment was inevitable for Bertans, who has been the biggest surprise of the Wizards' season so far. He has turned into one of the league's best three-point shooters and the second-best scorer on the team. Teams now know it.

3. Rui Hachimura's college teammate stole the show in this one. Brandon Clarke, who played last year with Hachimura at Gonzaga, put on an impressive scoring display highlighted by a series of vicious dunks. He measured a max vertical of 40 1/2 inches and used every inch of it to dunk all over the Wizards.

He had 19 points in the first half, including an alley-oop where his head was level with the rim and a poster dunk on the fastbreak that nearly ended Ian Mahinmi's career.

 

Clarke had 25 points on 11-for-14 shooting with four rebounds. Coming out of the draft, he was considered a good defensive player but too old (he's 23) and too raw offensively without a three-point shot.

So far, he's looking like a major steal at the 21st overall pick. 

4. The Grizzlies might not be good, but they are fun to watch and have a nice young core with Clarke alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. and Morant. Jackson is a unicorn at 6-foot-11 with the ability to drive coast-to-coast and hit threes. Morant is a force of nature, able to play well above the rim despite being 6-foot-3.

Morant nearly pulled off one of the most disrespectful plays in basketball on Bradley Beal. He tried to pull a "Michael Jordan on Ron Mercer" by snatching the ball off the glass with two hands. But he clipped the rim and was called for goaltending. Still, it was impressive because of how high he got in the air.

Memphis has an exciting young team. They might contend for a playoff spot next year with a good offseason. If they were in the East, they could really make some noise.

5. The Wizards were without several key regulars once again. Isaiah Thomas missed his fifth straight game with a left calf strain and Moe Wagner was out with his left ankle sprain after playing in the past four games.

They did get back Garrison Mathews, though. The two-way guard played in his first game since Oct. 25 after sitting out due to a stress reaction in his right leg. It was Mathews' third professional game, but he made his first shot - a corner three. It happened to come in his home state of Tennessee. 

Mathews might actually get some minutes in the next few weeks because he is the second-best shooting guard on the roster with Jordan McRae out due to a finger injury.

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Samsonov shines, the bottom-six was the difference and time to Panik?

Samsonov shines, the bottom-six was the difference and time to Panik?

Ilya Samsonov had his best NHL performance on Saturday in a big 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Capitals got contributions from players all over the lineup in a big win.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

Everyone is pitching in

Look at Saturday's game and Wednesday's game. Whatever the Caps needed, they were able to get. Against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, they needed a key coach's challenge and the video coaches delivered. They needed someone to take over the game and T.J. Oshie delivered. They needed a big night from the penalty kill and Carl Hagelin and Co. delivered. They needed a response to Boston's tying goal and John Carlson delivered.

Now look at Saturday's game. Ilya Samsonov got the start and he delivered when the Caps had a slow start to the game. The fourth line settled everything down and Alex Ovechkin forced a turnover behind the net to give Washington the lead. The bottom-six scored twice to give Washington control, Oshie scored a quick response goal when Tampa Bay tried to battle back and the penalty kill delivered again.

The Caps are not being carried by Ovechkin, it's not a hot goalie or a dominant blue line, it is a complete team effort and it is extremely impressive to watch.

Samsonov had his best NHL game

We knew Samsonov and Braden Holtby were going to split the weekend's games for the dad's trip. I expected Holtby would get the tougher game in Tampa Bay, but instead Todd Reirden went with Samsonov. The rookie had three brilliant saves in the first five minutes of the game. Tampa Bay was the better team for the first two periods and Samsonov only gave up one goal in those 40 minutes. This was a big boy offense and some big boy hockey. Samsonov was up to the task.

Good penalty kill, too many penalties

The Lightning entered this game with the second-best power play in the NHL. Limiting penalties was a big key to the game for Washington and...they did not do that. The Caps gave up five power play opportunities to Tampa Bay, just daring the Lighting offense to take fire. Tampa Bay was only able to cash in only once.

On the one hand, it's great that the penalty kill is playing so well. On the other hand, the Caps must stop taking so many penalties.

Time to Panik?

I have stressed the importance of patience for Richard Panik who is not only adjusting to a new team, but who had an injury and missed 10 games on LTIR. Now, however, it seems like patience is starting to run out.

Panik played a team-low 8:10 on Saturday. Players who get that little ice time are usually either fourth line players or players who do not contribute to special teams. Panik is supposed to be a penalty killer, but despite five penalty kill opportunities, he registered only 14 seconds of shorthanded ice time.

Panik's offensive struggles have been well documented (he had an assist on Saturday), but if he is not contributing on the penalty kill either...well, that's an issue.

Turning point

Tampa Bay looked like the better team for the first 40 minutes. Thanks to Samsonov, the game was tied at 1 at the start of the third. These two teams boast some of the top offensive stars in the NHL, but it was Washington's bottom-six that gave them the edge as Lars Eller scored early in the third and Garnet Hathaway added a second goal just 45 seconds later.

Suddenly the Lightning were on their heels after looking in control for the majority of the game.

Play of the game

Just when the Caps took the one-goal lead, Hathaway came swooping in to make it 3-1.

Stat of the game

The Caps' PK had a success rate of only 78.9-percent last season. This is a dramatic improvement.

Quote of the game

John Hathaway, father or Garnet, stole the show between the first and second period:

"I think as parents, we try to teach them like two lessons as kids growing up. It's like, if you can dream it, you can do it and never, never, never give up. The dads are here tonight and I think they're not only so proud of their sons, but they're happy for their sons because they know that they had big dreams, they dared to dream big and they never gave up."

Fan predictions

Hey, two for two.

No Ovechkin goal, but you got the score right.

Eller with a big goal tonight assisted by Panik.

Backstrom had only two, but just a few games removed from returning from injury, he looks like he hasn't missed any time at all out there.

This bit will never get old to me.

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