This isn’t that hard. Through four games, the Mavericks were making it harder than it had to be. “Play your best players” doesn’t seem like advice an NBA team would forget, but Dallas found a way to do it during an 0-4 start.
Entering the game against the Memphis Grizzlies tonight, the trio of Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel had only played 10 minutes together. Of course that’s skewed a bit because of Smith missing two games, but that’s an embarrassingly low total when you consider the alternatives on the Mavericks roster. Those three complement each other so much, with Smith being the downhill initiator to allow Barnes to focus on finishing and Noel filling the gaps on defense and offense, being a solid pick-and-roll partner and screener for both Smith and Barnes.
For some reason, that trio hasn’t gotten the burn it’s deserved. Notably, Noel has gotten the shaft, averaging less than 19 minutes per game in the Mavs’ winless start. Tonight Noel started, played a lot of minutes with Smith and Barnes and surprise! The Mavericks got their first win of the season against a previously undefeated Grizzlies team. Basketball is hard, but it isn’t that hard.
Noel didn’t get as much burn as possible due to foul trouble (more on that later) but it was still a relief to see Noel mixing it up with Barnes and Smith. That’s the trio the Mavs should be building their future around and the more time together, the better. Dallas isn’t going to win a lot of games this season and another high draft pick will be welcome, but if the Mavs are winning games behind these three dudes, I mean, that’s the point of all this right? This isn’t getting bailed out by an aging J.J. Barea or Devin Harris or hitching your wagon to Dirk Nowitzki to save your ass in the fourth quarter. This was three of your youngest players also being three of your best players and being allowed to win or lose the game on their own terms. That type of growth and learning is good, regardless of the result. It’s about the process — the Mavs should trust it.
This was what everyone had in mind when we all predicted the Mavs would still be a lottery team but a much more fun one to watch compared to last year. Keep up this formula. On to notes from the game:
- It isn’t all that surprising that Smith has been putting up numbers so far in his short career. He was an electric talent at North Carolina State surrounded by sub-par players even by college standards. The Mavs have a lot of good finishers on this roster and Smith looks liberated playing next to honest-to-god good basketball players. What is surprising though is how Smith is doing it, with not that many turnovers (one tonight) and a patient, in-control game. Smith looks about four years older than he is operating in the half-court, knowing when to step on the gas coming around a screen and when to hold up the defender on his hip to create space around the free-throw line to can some mid-range buckets. Then you consider the fact that Smith is displaying that patient and efficient play against the suffocating duo of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. You guys, Smith is absurd. He shouldn’t be getting the best of two All-NBA level defenders in his third game.
- Rick Carlisle mentioned it after the game but it was even more impressive that Smith did this as the primary ball-handler in the starting lineup. Carlisle put Noel in and the Mavs played a traditional lineup with Dirk and Noel up front and Smith and Wesley Matthews in the backcourt. That meant Smith was the sole creator of that group and he did splendidly. Wes also reacted well. and that’s two games in a row now where he’s shot well (16 points, 3-of-4 from three) and while that’s nowhere near enough to be convinced Wes is on his way to a redemption season, it’s a good sign he’s shooting well while playing with Smith. Entering tonight, Wes was shooting 53.3 percent from three when he shared the floor with Smith. That’s awesome.
- OK, time for Noel talk. It was wonderful to see him start after the tire fire that was his minutes through the first four games. There was no doubt about it — Noel was the best Mav entering this Memphis game and the fact he couldn’t even crack 20 minutes a night was embarrassing. Noel started and immediately kept doing what he does, making plays on defense and being a viable roll threat on the other end. Noel is just so damn good at being disruptive on defense, poking the ball away when hedging the pick and roll and picking the pockets of guards on switches while rotating back to the rim and blocking shots. Noel showed a bit of everything he can do tonight, making his free throws, finishing a couple pick and rolls and just being everywhere on defense. Gasol got him a couple of times in transition and when Noel had to help for his teammates but otherwise he was solid. So of course, Noel somehow still managed to play the least amount of minutes of the Mavs three rotation bigs (Dirk and Dwight Powell played 25 minutes, Noel played 20). For once though, Noel not playing big minutes wasn’t some random, arbitrary and vague decision, as Noel was plagued with foul trouble most of the night, especially in the second half. Noel picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter and then his fifth with about six minutes left in the game. The good: Noel came back in with four fouls in the fourth quarter and was part of a Smith-Barnes-Noel lineup that absolutely won the game, pushing the Mavs lead back to double-digits when he got his ticky-tack fifth foul. If it weren’t for that foul, Noel would have most likely closed the game and finally been rewarded for his good play. Instead, Noel came out to avoid fouling out and Powell...closed the game? He did! This time, he didn’t collapse and the Mavs held on as Powell wasn’t a giant negative down the stretch (he did finish a minus-3 in the box score, for what it’s worth). There’s no doubt that Carlisle liked that the Mavs still kept up a lead with Powell in the game and just wanted to continue that momentum, but it’s still pretty hilarious when you consider the logic — Noel was taken out with five fouls to avoid picking up his sixth and fouling out but he ended up spending the rest of the game sitting on the bench as if he fouled out anyway and wasn’t even given the chance to pick up his sixth. I get it, the Mavs were keeping the lead up with Powell and Rick didn’t want to mess with it, but that logic was just lame. What’s Noel got to do to play 30 minutes in a game? Can that happen please? Either way, at least things are trending back in the right direction after the trash fire of the previous two games.
- Really good to see Dirk knock down some shots and kept at a normal amount of minutes.
- Devin Harris came back and I can’t imagine how he’s even playing right now after the death of his brother last week. Even with that obviously weighing on him, having Harris back is huge. It allows the Mavs to keep quality ball handlers on the floor at all times and never have to rely on Yogi Ferrell to prop up bench units and run the offense. Having Harris, Barea and Yogi mixing it up as the back-up guards makes things much easier for all three of them.
- Harrison Barnes hasn’t gotten his jumper working so far, but you can’t knock the obvious free throw improvements. Barnes now has nine free-throw attempts in three of the five games so far and it’s obvious he’s taken that criticism of his game to heart. Also, can we talk about Barnes bodying up Gasol in the fourth quarter? Say what you will about the holes in Barnes’ game, but the dude busts his ass an unbelievable amount, and his defensive versatility might be the most important part of his game when you consider the Mavs’ team building moving forward. Barnes is strong as hell and refuses to get pushed off the block. Gasol did not score on any of his post ups against Barnes.
- The defense was shaky a lot tonight, with the Mavs unable to track Gasol behind the three-point line. Outside of that though, the Mavs did well to not let any Grizzlies player outside of Conley/Gasol to do major damage. To close out the game, the Mavs let dudes like Andrew Harrison try to beat them and they clanked most of their shots. Gasol and Conley combined for 47 of the Grizzlies’ 93 points and Dallas did a good job to make sure the role players didn’t bite them in the ass.
- Barea’s transformation from a mediocre three-point shooter into a legitimately good one this late in his career never ceases to amaze me. It’s especially amazing when you consider Barea is doing this on less offensively talented teams compared to the Mavs teams he played on earlier in his career. Such a neat trick Barea has pulled, and it’ll extend his career a bunch.