Since the Mavericks started their downward spiral last season, I’ve always had one rule when it came to actively cheering for the Mavericks to lose games — so long as Dirk is Dirk, they can win as many games as they want.
That’s been difficult to follow because Dirk hasn’t looked like Dirk for a majority of the time. Last season he missed a lot of games and the ones he was in he looked slower than ever that made his fun bag of shooting tricks harder to pull off. Dirk was basically a spot-up stretch center for most of last season and all the things that made Dirk, Dirk — the impossible fadeaways, the impeccable post-game, the isolations at the elbows — were vanishing. It wasn’t until Rick Carlisle moved Dirk to center midway through last season where he didn’t look like the game had completely passed him by.
Repeatedly throughout this season so far, Dirk has emphasized that the combination of the shorter training camp and the brutally front-loaded Mavericks schedule has wrecked the routine his body is used to. Dirk kills himself to get ready for games at his age, so change at all to that routine can’t be easy -- and it showed. The Mavericks looked like the worst team in the league and at times only looked better when he was off the floor. That’s pretty much sacrilege to say about Dirk.
So now that the Mavericks have sprung off three out of four wins, they sit at 5-15. They’re still a bad team and it’ll take a miraculous turnaround to climb back into the playoff picture. They will almost surely finish with a top-5 pick this season and when we look back on the season as a whole, we’ll probably lament this stretch where the Mavericks looked like a real basketball team at the expense of getting a top-3, or even the top pick.
To this I say screw it, because Dirk is balling. Dirk supersedes everything.
In these past four games, Dirk has shot 52.3 percent from the field and 47 percent from three. He scored a season-high 19 in the 97-81 win against the Thunder and was absolutely crucial to the third-quarter run where Dallas stepped on OKC’s neck and built the lead to 25.
In the three games before the Thunder game, Dallas had a 14.5 net-rating when Dirk was on the floor. Against the Thunder he was game-high plus-26, so that number will keep going up. He was 7-of-10 against the Thunder, hit four three-pointers and was just the general badass he’s been for the last two decades.
He’s back to the Dirk that makes everyone around him better, instead of the super-old dude that just made everyone exhausted trying to compensate for him on defense.
It helped that the Thunder looked like absolute butt, and there will surely be some eyerolls if the ping-pong balls don’t fall favorably in June, but who cares. Dirk deserves all the good run he has left in his body. The Mavericks won a title in 2011, which means anyone on this planet that hasn’t seen the Mavericks win is probably too young to care. There will be plenty of years of tanking, miserable basketball left in this organization’s future. We can spare a handful so the greatest player in team history can have a few more throwback moments. Onto the notes:
- Harrison Barnes continues to do things I don’t think he can do, yet the team plays like doo-doo when he’s on the floor. Tonight, Barnes ran a pick and roll and shot a sweet-looking floater around the free-throw line that dropped in with his soft touch. It was the type of shot that widened my eyes, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen him attempt that shot, let alone it coming out of a pick and roll. Last season we railed Barnes for getting almost all of his offense through mid-range jumpers. So he’s increased his free throw attempts per game from 3.6 last season to a five this season. We dragged him for being a small-ball four who couldn’t really rebound and he’s averaging over seven per game after grabbing 12 against the Thunder. Here’s a stat: Barnes only had one double-digit rebound game last season. He has four in 20 games this season. He’s improving! Yet the Mavs are pretty bad when he’s on the floor (minus-13.8 net-rating). I thought maybe it’s been better in this winning stretch, but he’s still been a minus on the floor and the Mavs are positive when he’s off it. It presents an intriguing question of how good a team you can be when Barnes is your best player, but regardless, it’s fine. Not every good player needs to be an MVP candidate and Barnes has legitimately improved upon two of his bigger weaknesses from last year. That’s fun. I can live with that.
- Dennis Smith Jr. is going to take a handful of bad shots every game, that’s just something we all have to live with for a rookie starting point guard. But he keeps making good reads and he keeps looking like he belongs on the floor. This wasn’t a good game from Smith (15 points, 6-of-14 shooting, four assists, four turnovers) but he rarely looks like he’s overwhelmed on the floor. Especially when you consider he was going up against Russell Westbrook, the game could have been worse. It’s fun to see Smith pick up things good players need to know, like when to probe deeper into the paint on pick and rolls, when to back it out on fastbreaks and how to space the floor off-the-ball.
- I’m still not sure why the Maxi Kleber starting lineup works but it does. Kleber moves pretty well for his size, so it’s allowing the Mavs to stay bigger to guard the paint and rebound. I guess? I still don’t really know.
- After getting some inconsistent minutes to start November, Dwight Powell entered the rotation back against the Bucks and the Mavs haven’t looked back. Powell still has all the same warts — he’s an inconsistent rebounder and a broomstick could guard the rim better than him. But he’s a really good rim-roller! I swear! Some would say he’s an elite rim-roller. With the unexpected imprisonment of Nerlens Noel to the Phantom Zone, the Mavs have been without a true rim-rolling presence. That’s led to the Mavericks offense being a side-to-side bore, without a vertical action to scatter defenses. With more minutes for Powell and Salah Mejri still hanging around, the Dallas offense just plays much faster with better spacing. Powell’s rim rolls open things up for himself and his teammates and you can just tell the Mavericks guards have more room to drive and get up threes. Powell had 10 points against the Thunder and he’s played well for his role in this winning stretch.
- J.J. Barea played 17 minutes and the world didn’t end so someone should send that note to the Mavs coaches.