It was bound to happen eventually. The supposed lottery bound Mavericks were putting it to teams for over a month, they were due for some regression. A slip-up.
Too bad it happened at the worst possible time — and seemingly all at once.
Dallas regressed to the mean against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. That’s not necessarily a surprise. What was a surprise was how violently they regressed. It felt like every flaw the Mavericks hid since the calendar flipped to 2017 were found by the Nuggets in 48 minutes of oppressive basketball. It’s like the Mavericks were an old rug and the Nuggets took it out back and shook out all the dust, dirt and grime on the back porch.
Nothing worked. Problems the Mavericks avoided — or fought through — came back harshly. Dallas couldn’t guard the rim, couldn’t contain dribble penetration, couldn’t get dribble penetration on the other end, couldn’t get paint points, couldn’t rebound and couldn’t get out to the three-point line.
A couple of those things happening in a game is fine, the Mavs have been pushing past those deficiencies since January behind a revamped starting lineup with Dirk Nowitzki at center and Seth Curry getting buckets. All of those things happening at once? It was death.
Not only did it happen, it happened against the team the Mavericks are chasing. Dallas had a chance to get within one game of the eighth-seeded Nuggets, but instead the Mavs are back at three. It was a blown opportunity.
It was also a sobering reminder of the Mavericks talent level. For over 30 days, the Mavericks made us forget that they were once a tank rampaging toward the bottom of the conference standings. They gave us hope that there was more to the them than contender-fodder. For a month, the Mavericks reminded us that Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle are still good at this and let us put away the thoughts of a long-rebuild for a bit longer.
It felt like waking up from a good dream with a huge hangover. The Nuggets just absolutely drilled the Mavericks tonight. There’s no rest for Dallas either — next up is a pissed off Portland team on no rest. A couple nights later looms Utah. Hopefully the Mavericks can reach for the Advil before they board the flight back to Dallas. Onto the notes:
- When the Nuggets announced a make-shift starting lineup to account for some late scratches, I was worried. Denver put Wilson Chandler at the four to start the game, a perfect way to shut down Harrison Barnes, who normally enjoys a speed and athletic advantage in the Mavs small-ball starting lineup. Barnes has been great all year taking advantages of mismatches — attacking slower bigs off the dribble and posting up smaller guards who switch onto him in pick and rolls. Chandler offered no size, speed or power disadvantage for Barnes and he swallowed him up all night. Barnes still had an efficient shooting night (6-of-11) but he was quiet save a good third quarter. Chandler wouldn’t let Barnes get deep position in the paint and Barnes couldn’t dribble around him or rise above him in the mid-range. That’ll be the next challenge for Barnes. As more NBA teams move bigger threes to the four in their starting lineup, Barnes isn’t going to see so many blatant mismatches from the tip. He’ll need to work more pick and rolls, attack the rim harder and hopefully the Mavs will use him more as a screener in the pick and roll to force the mismatch. It seemed like Dallas didn’t do enough to get Barnes post ups against Denver’s smaller guards. Would have liked to see Barnes involved more as a screener in the pick and roll.
- With the Nuggets going small, that left Dirk on Nikola Jokic and man, did he feast. When he wasn’t in foul trouble, Jokic gave the Mavs fits, taking advantage of Dirk and the extra attention Dallas shaded toward him. 13 points and nine assists for Jokic in just 24 minutes but whenever he was on the floor, it felt hopeless for the Mavs.
- I checked Will Barton’s career stats against the Mavs and they were pretty pedistrian but I swear Barton has lit this team up a bunch before. Regardless, he made a joke of Wes Matthews tonight, slithering toward the cup, knocking down threes and grabbing rebounds and starting fast breaks in an instant. The Mavs have to shoot a lot of jumpers, especially on nights where Barnes can’t post, and that just fueled Denver to lots of transition points in the thin air. Dallas shot 43 percent and Denver had 23 fastbreak points, a lot of them from Barton.
- Felt like an NBA team finally figured out Yogi Ferrell. The Nuggets played him for his jumper, going under every screen. Ferrell didn’t capitalize enough and picked up his dribble near the elbow when he realized he wasn’t getting a wide open jumper. When teams go under, you have to keep your dribble live and keep probing into the paint. He did it a couple times, and had five free throw attempts, but it wasn’t enough. Ferrell had no assists and two turnovers in the first half and though he finished a clean second half with five assists, the damage was mostly done. Also that small wingspan and his general lack of size caught up with him at the rim, where the Nuggets turned him away regularly.
- Just not enough shot-making tonight. The Mavericks have zero paint presence and it shows really poorly when the shots aren’t falling. Seth is great and he was OK tonight despite the struggles (15 points, 3-of-7 from three) but the Mavs desperately need Deron Williams and J.J. Barea. Yogi bailed them out the last couple games, but you can’t actually rely on that. Devin Harris does a lot of nice veteran-y things, but he can’t score. Curry was basically the only guard that was a threat off the bounce.
- This game was tough because the Nuggets lineups were basically mirror-images of the Mavs lineups except the Nuggets had better and more dynamic players. Jokic is their defensive-averse center with a court-shifting offensive game, Chandler their small-ball four with a bit more polish and skill, Gary Harris their solid off-guard shooter, Darrell Arthur their jump-shooting backup big. It was weird. Dallas basically has all of those guys but not as good in their current forms (Dwight can’t hit jumpers like Arthur, Dirk can’t takeover games as easily as Jokic can, Wes was streaky while Harris was hot).
- Interesting sub-plot: Dwight Powell trapping the pick and roll! With the Mavericks down big in the second half, Carlisle finally turned up the aggressiveness on defense and set Powell loose to harass ball-handlers coming off screens. I’ve been pleading for the Mavs to ditch their conservative pick and roll defensive scheme when Powell is in for MONTHS. It’s just a better use of Powell’s skills (use his speed to trap, instead of relying on his poor length to guard the rim). The Mavs got a couple turnovers and missed shots by doing this and hopefully the Mavs will tinker with it some more in games where they’re not down by 27.
- Piggy-backing what Kirk said in the recap, the disappointment tour for Justin Anderson continued. I won’t add that much more to what Kirk said since he covered it all, but I’m starting to lose faith on where Anderson’s ceiling is. By the end of last season, I thought he could be an athletic Jae Crowder...now I just hope he’s not Wayne Ellington. With Crowder, even during his bad times in Dallas, I could look at his game and think “if he could just get a jumper, he’d be a good player.” With Anderson, I feel like he needs to add like five or six things to be a good player, not one. Just too many holes in his game.
- I’ll end on a positive note. There was a really nice sequence in the first quarter, where Curry got switched onto Arthur while Powell was on a guard at the top of the key. Barnes was defending a guard near Curry as Arthur started to post Curry. As Barnes’ man cut through to the weak-side of the floor to clear space for Arthur to post-up, Barnes got Curry’s attention, told him to switch onto his assignment and Barnes took Arthur in the post just before Arthur got the entry pass. Barnes then stonewalled Arthur in the post before he passed it out and Denver coughed the ball up trying to rush a shot as the shot-clock expired. It was just a subtle but masterful reminder that Barnes does lots of really good things even when we wish there were more to his offense. Barnes is 24-years-old.