The Dallas Mavericks scratched and clawed their way to a 86-75 overtime victory against the Bucks on Sunday. It wasn’t pretty but they pulled it out. Offensively, the team was paced by Harrison Barnes, who scored 34 points (another career high). J.J. Barea added 21. While their contributions led the way, it was the play of a rookie that changed the momentum of the game.
Heading into Sunday, Dorian Finney-Smith had only played a total of five minutes in four games for Dallas. The 23 year old hadn’t even attempted a shot. He was only on the court to be a body in a game that was already decided. All of that changed against the Bucks.
With the Mavs trailing 30-19 and 11:23 remaining in the second quarter, Finney-Smith subbed into the game. It would be the first significant minutes of his young career and it came at the expense of another rookie, Nicolas Brussino.
“[Finney-Smith] and Brussino were both live guys tonight,” coach Rick Carlisle said after the game. “Brussino actually went in first because we were struggling to score. Then he gave up a three to [Mirza] Teletovic and so that was the end of that.”
Brussino did not check back into the game after that. And perhaps more surprisingly, Finney-Smith also usurped second-year player Justin Anderson in the rotation. After starting the game, Anderson rode the bench for three quarters and overtime.
Carlisle is often pegged as a coach who is unwilling to give younger players minutes. This isn’t true, of course. However, he does keep his crook in hand and is quick to use it. Just ask Brussino. But he didn’t need it with Finney-Smith. His play warranted minutes and his numbers back that up.
“He was plus 19 when he was on the floor and Milwaukee was only .56 points per possession when he was on the floor,” Carlisle said. “Other guys are doing it too but it’s not a coincidence that the game changed on some level when he was out there. He was big.”
Carlisle, an advanced statistics guy, doesn’t often cite them when speaking to the media. But he offered up those numbers without prompting or hesitation. In fact, Finney-Smith now finds himself in each of the top eight three-man lineups on the team when it comes to plus/minus. Of course, one game is an extremely small sample size. But at least for one night, Finney-Smith helped turned the tide of a game and his teammates took notice.
“Whether it was Teletovic, Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Jabari [Parker] he just stepped up with no fear and that’s impressive,” Barnes said. “I mean, to get those stops, play down the stretch, I think that speaks volumes that coach left him in to make those plays.”
And Finney-Smith knows that’s what will earn him more playing time.
“It felt good that he trusted me enough to play me down the stretch,” he said. “Get stops. That’s what I like to do. I like to play defense. They put me in when it mattered and it just felt like they got a little trust in me.”
Carlisle showed more than a little trust in him when he left him in with the game on the line. After a driving layup by Barnes to tie the game, the Bucks called a timeout with 13 seconds left to play in regulation. When play resumed, the ball found its way into Antetokounmpo’s hands. Finney-Smith drew the defensive assignment. Rather than be intimidated, he knew what to do.
“Just keep the ball in front of me, don’t foul, and contest the shot,” Finney-Smith said after the game.
He did just that, forcing Antetokounmpo into a step-back 21-footer that missed. It was the signature moment of his young career.
Again, it’s just one game. It could’ve easily gone the other way for him. But it didn’t. Instead it showed why Finney-Smith earned his spot on the Mavericks.
“He’s an NBA defender,” Carlisle said. “And that’s the reason we gave him a significant guarantee and that’s the reason he made the roster.
“Look, it’s tough. He hadn’t played much at all except a little bit of clean up time. Tonight he got a taste of what it’s all about. He’s earned himself some minutes here. I’m happy for him. Frankly, we couldn’t have won the game without him.”
Carlisle always tells his players to remain ready. He could call on any of them at any time or situation to enter a game and help the team. Even though he’s just a rookie, Finney-Smith was ready. He impacted the outcome of the game by defending some of the best young players the league has to offer.
“We don’t normally do it but he got the game ball tonight,” Carlisle said.
He earned it.