DALLAS — This was briefly mentioned on Wednesday after the Mavericks feel-good effort against the Warriors but it’s worth repeating — the Mavericks are a very, very weird team.
Now at 13-27 after a feel-bad effort against the Chicago Bulls, nine of Dallas’ 13 wins are against teams currently in the playoffs and you can go ahead and tack on a 10th with the Indiana Pacers being tied for eighth-place in the East.
That’s a lot of wins against good teams for a team itself that’s pretty bad. On the other end of the spectrum, the loss list is a sad-sack collection of lottery-bound teams: the Nets, the Kings, the Suns, (now) the Bulls and the Hawks (twice!). Let’s go ahead and throw the now miserable 12-win Grizzlies into that group as well.
Point is, there’s nothing truly surprising about these Mavericks. Just as much as they’ll pounce on a good team that thinks it’s going to sleep-walk through an easy opponent they’ll lay an egg against a team that’s actually trying to lose more games than win. Play the Warriors close? Lose to the worst team in the NBA twice before the All-Star break? Beat the Spurs? The Mavericks are like Monta Ellis, they have it all.
Trust me, they aren’t too pleased about it.
“This was a bad one,” Wesley Matthews said with a bit of vigor in his voice after the Bulls’ loss.
When you consider how the Mavericks are put together, perhaps it isn’t that shocking they are so weird. A team with good amount of know-how-to-win veterans plus a starting point guard that was still a teenager on opening night allows the Mavs to slip into their Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde routine.
For good stretches over the last two games, it’d be easy to be convinced the Mavericks are the same, reliable playoff team they’ve been through much of the Dirk Nowitzki era. Hey look, there’s J.J. Barea squirting through traffic! There’s Devin Harris running a nice fastbreak! Oh, and Dirk looks about as good as he’s looked in a good time over the last week. You see Dwight Powell gliding down the lane, the Mavericks flow offense moving and it’s very easy to be convinced that these Mavericks are real.
Then they have a stretch like in the fourth quarter, where the Mavericks coughed up their 88-80 lead with a 10-run by the Bulls that was so quick that, as Dirk said, “felt like in a minute and a half.”
“A bad turnover, a miscommunication on the zone, a wide open three,” Dirk added, checking off all the mistakes in that fourth quarter like he was going down a shopping list. “Within those two minutes there were a couple of mistakes and errors piled together which really got them back into the game and got them feeling good and feeling like they could steal this.
“Felt like we should have come out a little better there in the fourth, that’s on us.”
Defense was all anyone talked about after the game and for good reason. The Mavs have now allowed at least 110 points in four-straight games and allowed an opposing player to drop at least 30 in each of those games. The latest was second-year guard Kris Dunn, who scored a career-high 32.
Wednesday finally felt like the Mavericks smoke-and-mirrors defense was finally cracked. Dallas sports one of the smaller rotations in the league, with 6’3 Dennis Smith Jr. and sub-six footers J.J. Barea and Yogi Ferrell getting big minutes, a lot at the same time. The Mavericks are so low on wings that Matthews and Devin Harris, who is naturally a point guard, are the defacto backup threes whenever Barnes slides up to the four.
The Mavs have been able to keep things close thanks to veteran knowledge and junking up games by mixing up zone and man defenses, sometimes even mid-possession. Dunn just exposed the lot of it, calmly canning jumpers over shorter defenders. Dunn isn’t huge at 6’4 but he has a long wingspan and seemingly was open even when a Mavs defender was near, thanks to his reach just extending over the tiny guards’ outstretched arms.
It wasn’t just Dunn, but his backcourt-mate Justin Holiday who had 23 points on seven shots, which is kind of remarkable when you consider Holiday has had a pretty bleh career so far. Those two guards usually dwarfed whatever pairing the Mavs threw out there and combine that with Dirk looking even a bit slower than normal and Dallas was toast. After Matthews, the Mavs don’t really have much in the way of perimeter defense, especially when Barnes is chasing stretch power forwards.
As long-time Mavs beat reporter Eddie Sefko started a question about Dunn, Rick Carlisle cut him off before he could finish.
“The answer is anything he wanted,” Carlisle said, pointedly. “They’re picking on Dennis, they’re going at him, most teams look to go at him.”
“It’s certainly not all on Dennis, that’s for sure. We all own it. The starters were abysmal to start the game and our second unit was abysmal to start the fourth. So we all got our name on it.”
Leave it to these Mavericks to scrape out seven wins in a rough December schedule and start a somewhat softer January slate with two losses. It might not be abnormal to see the Mavericks, from the outside, jump between competent and hopeless but Matthews is certainly tired of it. Hell, the entire locker room is.
“We’ll learn from this, hopefully,” Matthews said as he ran his hand across his forehead and down his face. “This hits pretty hard. On Sunday, we have to fight like dogs again.”