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The Mavericks’ second unit has the team competing and winning

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Add Dirk Nowitzki to a cast of bench players and you have a winning formula.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks still sit in last place in the Western Conference. While the view from 30,000 feet isn’t great, the team is playing better of late. Dallas won five of its last eight games with four of those victories coming by a significant margin. That’s quite the improvement from where the team once stood, stumbling out of the gate to a 2-14 record. Beyond generally improved play all around, one of the major reasons the team is doing better is the performance of its second unit.

Led by veteran guards J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, the Mavs’ bench is one of the better scoring units in the NBA. It averages 39.1 points per game, tied for ninth in the league, paced by Barea’s 12.2 points and Harris’ 9.3. However, it’s more than just scoring that makes the second unit click. It’s their familiarity with each other and the game.

“Barea and Harris really know how to play and they really know how to play together,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “Against second units, they’ve really had a great run this year. It’s trying to keep their minutes reasonable. It’s easy to keep those guys out there longer, but we’re trying to keep them going throughout the entire year.”

It’s no wonder Carlisle wants to play the duo more. Together, they have a rating of plus-118 for the season. They work marvelously together even if their minutes are limited due to fatigue and injury concerns.

One of the best displays of this is a particular play they run during fast breaks. With Barea bringing the ball up court, Harris races down the right side of the court, beyond the defense, and then cuts baseline to the basket. Barea then threads the defenders in front of him with a precision pass to Harris, leading, usually, to an easy bucket. It’s one of the prettiest plays the Mavs run, especially when you sense it coming.

Yet, it’s not just these two who make the second unit potent. They regularly play alongside Dirk Nowitzki. While Nowitzki starts games at center, he’s usually the first to sub out midway through the first quarter. When he comes back in, it’s often to bolster the bench players. Nowitzki’s offensive gravity only increases the effectiveness of the bench players.

When Dirk joins Barea and Harris, they have a total plus-minus of plus-120. That’s the highest mark of any three-man unit on the team. Nowitzki reiterates that the level of familiarity they all have with each other plays heavily into their success but jokes that the burden is really on Harris when they are on the floor together.

“Devin is probably the only defender out of that trio so he’s got to guard multiple people out there,” Nowitzki said. “It’s just a smart group. And then we have Dwight usually out there who is, as you guys know, so athletic—plays with so much energy. He picks up a lot of slack at both ends. He does all the rolling in pick and rolls. He’s amazing in that role.”

Yes, Dwight Powell is the unheralded X-factor of the Mavericks’ second unit. That may come as a surprise to some. ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently discovered this fact for himself. While Powell isn’t rolling to the rim with the same regularity he did last season, he’s having a major influence on the game. In the last eight games, Powell is averaging 9.4 points and 6.8 rebounds. Further, when he’s on the floor with Barea, Harris, and Nowitzki this season, they have a total plus-minus of plus-110, leading all four-man lineups.

Yogi Ferrell rounds out the second unit. At this point, it shouldn’t come as a shock that this five-man lineup has the best plus-minus on the team. They’re a plus-88. The next closest lineup is plus-19.

This lineup entered Monday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets with 2:27 remaining in the first quarter. The Mavericks were already up 33-16 at this point. However, by the time Harrison Barnes re-entered the game with 7:31 remaining in the second quarter, Dallas’ second unit had gone on a 17-9 run, extending their lead to 25. The game was essentially sealed during that stretch.

If you want to know why the last place Mavericks are rattling off wins all of a sudden, look no further than what their second unit is doing. It’s quickly become the most valuable lineup in the team’s arsenal because it is the reason the team is building and maintaining leads.

“That’s so important,” Barea said. “When you have a bench like that, that can come in and bring the team up a little bit with a lot of energy, passing the ball, stuff like that. Dwight, Devin, Dirk—we’re doing a good job off the bench and we’re going to keep it going.”