DALLAS — About halfway through the fourth quarter on Monday night against the Chicago Bulls, Maxi Kleber splashed down his second and final three-pointer, pushing the Mavericks lead over the Bulls to double-digits.
Kleber turned toward the Mavs bench with a flex and snarl — with Dwight Powell standing on the sideline doing the exact same thing. The two were feeding off each other all night, not just with energy and theatrics but with their play too. The duo probably isn’t what the Mavs had in mind over the summer as the catalyst of their bench unit, but Powell’s and Kleber’s play were invaluable in a 115-109 win against Chicago.
“It’s not just Dwight, I think we have a great chemistry overall in the team,” Kleber said after the win. “We’re good friends outside of the court and that’s important. We try our best to transfer it to the game.”
Powell finished with 12 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals — the four assists being fairly eye-popping for a big who has averaged less than one per game for his five year career. Of course three of those assists were to Kleber, who finished with 12 points of his own to go along with five rebounds and an assist.
It didn’t start well for the two or the bench in general, as the Mavericks coughed up an early lead going into halftime. The play was enough for coach Rick Carlisle to stick with the starters longer than usually in the third quarter, not going to his bench until late in the period.
When Carlisle did finally decide to dip back into the unit with about two minutes left in the frame, the Mavs went on a 31-18 run when Kleber checked back into the game next to Powell from 2:17 left in the third to 4:57 left in the fourth quarter, essentially putting the game away.
The pairing is so weird and interesting as the league transitions to small ball lineups with only one, or sometimes even no bigs on the floor. With Powell and Kleber the Mavs are slightly bucking the trend with two, although it likely started out of desperation rather than design — injuries to Dirk Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes have forced Carlisle’s hand. With Dorian Finney-Smith in the starting lineup, the Mavs don’t have a rangey wing off the bench they can trust. Rookie Ryan Broekhoff is a theoretical solution till Barnes returns, but he’s just that, a theory. Broekhoff has played seven minutes total in the seven games.
“The way we’re put together right now without two stars (Dirk Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes), we’ve got 32,000 points sitting over there,” Carlisle said after the game, hinting at Dirk’s absence. “He looks good in his suits, he’s got nice watches and all that but not having him on the court, it causes us to play — not a completely different style but a style that varies from what we’ve done.”
Kleber is essentially taking Dirk’s spot in the wildly successful bench unit that ran rampant over opposing benches last season. Powell provides the vertical spacing with his deft rim running from the pick and roll and Kleber provides the spacing as a stretch four to allow Powell to have easier lanes to dive down. That sounds good in your head but then you think back on Kleber’s 31.3 percent mark from three as a rookie a year ago and it makes you pause.
The only way for the duo to work is if Kleber starts making shots and he has. Coming off a fruitful preseason, Kleber is 3-of-6 so far from deep and his shot looks smoother, quicker and more confident. It’s giving Powell and J.J. Barea the breathing room they need in the pick and roll, while Kleber provides another meaty, bouncy body to help mask some of Powell’s limitations as a rim protector.
Kleber said the adjustment from the Euro three to the NBA three was a harsh one, but he spent the summer tweaking his shot to be ready for this moment.
“I tried to get my legs more involved, the way I step into the ball,” Kleber said after the game. “My hand position, stuff like that to get more arc in there to really help me. I’m focusing on a straight release.”
It’s early, but so far, so good.
If Kleber keeps canning threes at a respectable level, it changes the dynamic of a bench group that figured to be a bit punch-less until Dirk returns. Kleber acting as a Dirk impersonator for about a month would be a huge boon and his quick feet and athleticism gives the lineup a bit more bounce defensively. That’s important since one of Powell or Kleber will likely have to guard a wing with how NBA rosters and rotations are playing out.
That hasn’t been a problem so far. Really, nothing has — the two-man pairing of Kleber and Powell has an 11.1 net-rating in 44 minutes according to NBA.com’s stats page. That’s the best net-rating for any two-man group for Dallas that has played at least 40 minutes so far this season.
Perhaps more impressive than Kleber’s shooting on Monday night was Powell’s passing. As mentioned, three of Powell’s four assists went to Kleber and the two showed off some excellent chemistry and timing. A giant, neon-light-blinking disclaimer, however — these two won’t always be guarded by Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker.
Still, this is some excellent vision for the Mavs backup center:
Well, saying nothing has been a problem is an overstatement. The defensive rating of that pairing is 119.8, far from ideal and could be trouble when the Mavericks go against stiffer competition. Powell and Kleber both have wheels and quick feet for bigs, but it’s a lot to ask of either of them to chase a perimeter player around the floor for 15 or so minutes a night. Carlisle emphasized repeatedly after the game how much they miss Barnes’ versatile defense and a need for reducing the minutes burden on Dorian Finney-Smith, who played 39 minutes on Monday night.
Barnes isn’t expected to play Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks but there’s a chance he could return soon after. That means Finney-Smith gets bumped to the bench and potentially into Kleber’s spot in the rotation. It makes sense long-term — Finney-Smith’s improved shot looks good so far (4-of-10 from three) and his wing defense is sorely needed when the Mavs dip into their bench that’s mostly bigs and smaller guards.
Don’t be surprised though if Kleber sticks around. What he and Powell have working right now is extremely fun to watch and while it wasn’t really expected, it is effective.
“It’s key for us to trust each other,” Kleber said. “That’s how we played, especially at the end. We just kept the ball moving, we trusted in each other and nobody thought about playing we just played and had fun out there. That’s the key to winning games.”