The outlook for the Dallas Mavericks after a victory over the Indiana Pacers last Wednesday might be dramatically different had things gone the other way. Prior to the previous night's outing against the Charlotte Bobcats, Dallas was one of the hottest teams in the NBA, winning 4 in a row and 5 of their last 6. Only a 2-point loss to Houston prevented them from having a 6-game win streak and no doubt the big worry for Mavs fans was how well the team would fare against the Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Pacers as the second half of a back-to-back.
Coming into the Charlotte game, the upside, as ESPN’s Tim McMahon observed, was that the Mavs didn’t just squeak by bad teams; they dominated inferior competition. The bad news? None of the other teams was or is currently a playoff team and in fact, only the Memphis Grizzlies have a winning record. So it was still natural to assume Dallas would have been able to handle Charlotte but the anticipation of a return to reality in the form of Indiana may have been a part of why the Mavs came up on the wrong side of a the surprising blowout.
It’s somewhat cliché for players and coaches to say they take every game one at time but with obvious challenges ahead playing the Pacers and the Miami Heat after the All-Star break, the Mavericks fell back on old habits and worse against the Bobcats. In addition to having nonexistent defense, especially inside where Charlotte center Al Jefferson wreaked havoc, the offense sputtered as well. It didn’t help that Dirk Nowitzki rolled his ankle and missed part of the game but more than that, the totality of what has been working for the Mavs of late fell short, highlighted by a porous interior defense that allowed Jefferson to put up 30 big points.
But on the next night of a back-to-back, against a league-leading Indiana Pacers team and without the services of recently returned spark plug Devin Harris, the Mavericks kept…pace…with the NBA’s best defensive team while playing some tough defense of their own.
The Pacers didn’t play their best, as evidenced by Paul George’s woeful shooting, among other things. You can’t give the Mavericks all the credit for his poor game, which is part of a recent slump of his own heading into the All-Star break, nor did they directly cause Lance Stephenson to miss layups. Nevertheless, the Mavs had a lot to do with holding the Pacers to just over 32% from the field, including 3 blocks by DeJuan Blair and two each from guards Monta Ellis and Jae Crowder.
Mavericks fans have been hoping for some "big D" to return to Big D ever since the summer following the championship season saw the departure of Tyson Chandler along with DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler and later Jason Kidd, along with the new culture in town that helped produce the team's only championship. That is the kind of big D the Mavs have been missing most of this season as well, after prognosticators admittedly assumed the new starting backcourt of José Calderón and Monta Ellis would have trouble guarding bigger opponents. Since the end of January, however, there appears to be a glimmer of hope.
Overall, it appears that perhaps this team is doing what Rick Carlisle teams do: getting better. Last year’s effort will long be underappreciated as a season when a team that was 13-23 on January 9, 2013 fought back to finish at .500 for the season. Carlisle, and of course, those infamous beards, have to take much of the credit for the turnaround. The reasons for the Mavs’ recent success have been fairly well documented. Dirk is playing like, well…vintage DIRK…and not looking like a 35-year old player at all. The bench is scoring well and the trio of Vince Carter, Devin Harris and Brandan Wright have been spearheading one of the top benches in the NBA, led by Wright’s impressive 24.27 PER, ranked just behind Dirk (24.54) as one of the top five power forwards in the league. Ellis continues to drive to the basket almost at will and Calderón continues to drain threes despite being snubbed for the All-Star Weekend 3-point shootout.
But having a great offensive team was never in doubt. The Mavs are doing that more efficiently than ever but the most encouraging signs are on the other end of the floor. Save for the Charlotte game, the Mavs have picked up their defense. Samuel Dalembert put together a string of games with high activity including scoring and blocked shots and the trio of Dalembert, Wright and Blair is holding its own in the paint. Overall the guards have been effective getting into the passing lanes and being the kind of pests that disrupt the flow of their opponents’ offense, which can also eventually lead to unforced errors such as the ones the Pacers committed.
The difference is easily observable by watching the play on the court but key statistics also bear out the difference. While the Mavs posted their lowest scoring average of the season during the six games in February prior to the All-Star break, the difference wasn’t huge: 101.5 ppg, not far under the 102.8 ppg in December. In fact, here and there they didn’t excel; for example, the team averaged a season-low 6.5 steals compared to a previous low of 8.1 in January.
But most telling were the improvements in two of the most significant areas of season-long weakness: While scoring dipped to a season low by 1.3 ppg, the Mavs held their opponents to only 93.7 ppg, a whopping 7 point improvement over the next best month (December @100.7 ppg) and that’s despite the blowout loss to Charlotte.
Putting that in perspective: NBA leaders in points allowed (season):
1. Indiana 90.3
2. Chicago 92.3
3. Memphis 94.5
4. Toronto 96.9
20. Mavericks 101.7
Mavs points allowed (February): 93.7
NBA leaders in point differential (season) :
1. Indiana +8.2
2. OKC +7.8
3. LAC +6.4
12. Mavericks : +2.2
Mavs point differential (February): +7.8
During that time, the Mavs also had a rebounding edge of 42.7 to 38.0.
Essentially the Mavs have been playing like one of the league’s elite.
Can they continue at this pace? After the All-Star break, the remainder of February looks strikingly similar. Coming out of the gate, the Mavs will immediately face another challenging opponent in Miami this Tuesday night and it goes without saying a victory over the Heat would be huge. After that, the rest of the month resembles the first part: the Mavs will face only one team with a winning record (Chicago) along with four others that are below .500. Mavs fans can only hope that the results will be similar as well.