DALLAS — After Dorian Finney-Smith made a layup out of a sweet bounce pass from Nicolas Brussino in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks pushed their lead to 37 points against the Magic on Saturday night.
Orlando took another timeout and the first Maverick off the bench was Dirk Nowitzki. He got out onto the court with a big smile and was the first person to greet the current five on the floor as they walked to the bench — high-fives for all. The 38-year-old future Hall of Famer who has done everything in his NBA career for a moment looked like an overly enthusiastic rookie.
It sounds obvious, but after months of losing, the cathartic release of playing well culminating in a blowout win in front of a good home crowd means a lot. The 112-80 win over the Magic felt like a punctuation mark at the end of a long, winding sentence.
“Winning changes everything,” Matthews said. “You go into a season thinking it’s going to be one thing, injuries hit and it’s a-whole-nother. It’s a testament to everybody in this organization that we can adjust.”
“We’re playing the kind of basketball we feel we should have been playing all along.”
That isn’t lip-service from Matthews — he truly believes it. He’s been saying it all season. But when he was preaching playoffs and sticking together two months ago, the Mavericks locker room after games was more funeral than fun-house. Injuries were piling up as fast as the losses.
That’s why it’s no coincidence the fun and winning came around when the roster’s health came around as well. The Mavericks haven’t found a secret-sauce so much as the return to health of one of the greatest players in NBA history happens to have a big impact.
“We play better when Dirk is healthy and feeling good,” Rick Carlisle said when asked what the team has figured out over the last month. “It’s something we knew about 18 and a half years ago.”
Dirk’s return is a broad stroke that is true and simple to understand about the Mavericks recent 11-5 stretch. When Dirk has been on the floor in the Mavs last 15 games, they score 111.9 point per 100 possessions and give up 102.3. Sometimes it is that simple.
Digging in a bit deeper, there’s obviously more at work — Dirk’s return coincided with the new starting lineup featuring Dirk at center and Seth Curry starting. The two-man group of Dirk and Curry have a 6.3 net-rating, the best mark of any two-man pairing in the last 15 games that have played at least 200 minutes.
The Mavericks finally have options and their offense looks like it should. Gone are the November and December slogs of stiff ball-movement and heavy isolation out of desperation. With more guards healthy and playing with Dirk, the more pick and rolls the team runs and the less it feels the need to clear out for Harrison Barnes every time down the floor. Barnes is more of a weapon in this run than a reliance.
Almost everything about the team has changed since the calendar flipped to 2017. Rotations used in the last month weren’t even dreamed about around Thanksgiving. The Mavericks most used lineup has played 136 minutes. That’s not a lot! On one end of the spectrum, the Golden State Warriors most used lineup has played 508 minutes. On the other end, the sad-sack Brooklyn Nets most-used lineup has 175. This Dallas team now is almost unrecognizable from the Dallas Mavericks of December.
“We switched rotations up a little bit and playing a lot more pace-basketball,” Curry said. “A little bit of unpredictability with the offense. We’ve got a lot of guys touching the ball, lot of guys sharing the ball and getting involved.”
The about-face shows everywhere. It bleeds into every facet of the team — the results, the stats, the players’ emotions, their answers to questions, the mood. While it’s easy to write off the Mavs’ winning ways based on health and Dirk, don’t overlook how hard it has been.
A lot of guys on this roster are either young or not used to being on a bad team — Deron Williams has been to the playoffs eight out of his 11 years. Wes has been four out of seven, Devin Harris eight out of 12 and Dirk of course a staggering 15 out of 18. Dwight Powell and Justin Anderson and Salah Mejri have never sat out a summer since wearing Mavs uniforms.
As Wes said, it was not easy for the team to take those losses early on. It was an adjustment, just as much there’s been an adjustment to the winning ways. If you think there’s a chance the Mavericks might start feeling themselves a bit too much despite still being under .500, that’s where Carlisle helps. Saturday night might have been the release the team has needed for months, but there’s a lot left for this season.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Carlisle said. “This is a big push and we have zero margin for error because we’ve just been up against it for so long. We’re going to have to have some help along the way to get to the playoffs. But we’ve got to take care of what we can take care of.”