Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Dallas Mavericks right now is a player not with the team. As the Dennis Smith Jr. story continues to twirl, the Mavs are struggling, losers of three straight after losses to the Warriors, Spurs and most recently the Pacers.
Without Smith and J.J. Barea, lost to season ending Achilles surgery, the Mavericks are down their starting point guard and their sixth man. Those two are also the Mavericks only reliable creators off the bounce aside from rookie Luka Doncic. Needless to say, the Mavericks offense could use a boost.
That will be hard to come by against a Milwaukee Bucks team that is seemingly getting closer to reaching its final form every week. On a four-game win streak, the Bucks are now atop the Eastern Conference and have the best winning percentage in the NBA. A new coaching change and more growth from their young core has catupluted the Bucks from OK playoff team to dark horse contender. And if they keep playing the way they have since the start of the new year, they won’t really even be a dark horse.
The Mavericks have their work cut out for them, on the road and against a team full of young and springy wings. Here’s what we’ll be watching on a special MLK Day edition of Mavs basketball:
The Greek Freek
Giannis Antetokounmpo is having a ridiculous season in a year full of ridiculous seasons. It feels like every MVP candidate is putting up NBA 2K numbers and Giannis’ is no different — 26.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He’s literally the alpha and omega for the Bucks.
He’s doing all of this on 58 percent shooting from the floor and only taking 2.3 three-pointers per game. That’s still Giannis’ weakspot, since he’s shooting a staggering 17.5 percent from three. Somehow worse than Dwight Powell! But saying “just back off and let him shoot” is easier said then done, when Giannis can practically go floor to floor in like three dribbles. It will be a long afternoon for Harrison Barnes and Dorian Finney-Smith, the only two players that have a prayer of doing anything against him. Expect Dallas to send a lot of help and try to force the ball out of his hands whenever possible. A good DeAndre Jordan game would be nice.
Luka or bust, apparently
It says a lot about where the Mavs are right now that during Luka Doncic’s 25-point game run, Dallas went just 2-3 in those games. Even when Doncic is doing it all, he can’t bring the Mavericks out of the muck.
Almost all of that muck is due to Barea’s absence. Dallas is now 0-7 this season without Barea, one of the team’s leaders in net-rating. There’s probably a lot I could write that a Mavericks team that just spent two years in the lottery is still hanging on the whims of a 34-year-old bench guard, but we won’t get into that now. The Mavs desperately need someone to help Luka and the roster just isn’t really constructed to do that.
Harrison Barnes doesn’t pass, Wesley Matthews passes maybe a little bit more than that and Devin Harris and Jalen Brunson both seem to do better when playing next to another playmaker or guard. Brunson’s development is probably the only bright spot in all of this. He had 12 points and four assists in Indiana on Saturday.
Another Dirk swan song?
It’s becoming a pattern now that when Dirk Nowitzki plays a team on the road for the final time this season, the crowd seems to react accordingly and give Dirk the proper send-off he deserves.
The worst part of all of this is that Dirk hasn’t really delivered. He missed all his shots in that fourth quarter spurt in Boston and missed all of his shots Friday night against the Pacers. As our own Kirk Henderson wrote late on Saturday night, Dirk should probably play more to avoid him looking stiff and awkward during these end-of-game minutes where he has to hop off the bench and jack a few shots.
With all that has been going on with the Mavericks the last two weeks, it’d probably be best to see Dirk play more than 10 minutes per night, regardless of the outcome. The playoffs are becoming a dream at this point and there is a way to give Luka, Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber the minutes they need while also giving Dirk a little more burn to catch Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list.
How to watch
AFTERNOON GAME ALERT, AFTERNOON GAME ALERT! Do I have your attention? Good! Because this is an AFTERNOON GAME.
The Mavs and Bucks will tip off at 1 p.m. CT and can be watch on FSSW, the Fox Sports Go app or NBA League Pass.