For about 12 minutes on Wednesday night, Dallas looked like a team that had everything figured out. As Tim Cato from The Athletic wrote, the Mavericks were at their best for the entire first quarter against the Hornets on Wednesday night. And while it’s impossible to expect the performance to be a sign of things to come the rest of the season, it was a tantalizing glimpse at where the Mavericks are headed when their two young starters are on the same page.
The Mavericks are an improved team this season, but a wildly inconsistent one, as evidenced by their severe road and home splits. That’s not cause for concern — the Mavericks best player is 19 and their second most important one is 21. Teams that rely on young starters go through these highs and lows; it’s typical while they learn the league and their own games at this level.
That’s also the main reason any cries about Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic not fitting well so far seem premature at best. While the pairing hasn’t been great, it was never supposed to be this soon. But that first quarter on Wednesday night felt like a sneak peek. Smith and Doncic were damn good against the Hornets and whenever those two can consistently play this well on the floor at the same time, the Mavericks will be a dangerous team.
How’s this for small sample size: in that first quarter, the starting lineup had a 15.8 net rating in eight minutes. For the season, it’s a minus-6.3 — you could argue that Wednesday night’s opening frame was the best that unit has looked all season. The Mavericks made a record 10 threes in the quarter, with seven of them coming from the starters.
The argument for the Smith-Doncic pairing
That first quarter really emphasized how deadly the group can be when everyone is playing their roles optimally. For most of this season, it’s felt like the starting group has had bits and pieces play well out of sync. Doncic would have a good spurt, but Smith would struggle as a bystander. Harrison Barnes would scorch from deep but DeAndre Jordan wouldn’t roll hard enough or play consistent defense. On Wednesday, it finally felt like all five starters were their best selves for those eight minutes.
For months, the argument for being optimistic about Smith and Doncic has been how Smith’s speed would bust defenses loaded to stop Doncic. It would allow Doncic to play more off-ball, not be worn down by controlling every possession and give him cleaner looks as a spot up guy while simultaneously opening up driving lanes for Smith.
That has been mostly in theory, as in practice Doncic and Smith seem to awkwardly takes turns sharing lead ball handling duties every other possession. Again, that’s fine! It takes more than a few months for chemistry to develop for young players used to having the rock all the time like both Smith and Doncic did.
What finally worked in Charlotte?
Against the Hornets, things fell into place. Smith assisted on two of Doncic’s three 3-pointers in the quarter, including this beauty off a dribble handoff:
Doncic then returned the favor hitting Smith off a curl. While it wasn’t eyebrow-raising or a special play, it was still nice to see the two feeding off each other and Doncic trusting Smith in that spot. Smith is an improved three-point shooter this season, especially on catch-and-shoots, and these plays can only improve his confidence. Teams are going to keep going under on screens until Smith can consistently make them pay. He has to take these shots.
With Smith and Doncic on the same page, it really makes the rest of the lineup sing. The Mavericks offense sometimes slowed to a crawl when Smith was nursing his wrist injury, due to the fact that Doncic was the lone playmaker on the floor at times. Harrison Barnes just isn’t a passer and while Wesley Matthews has made a few plays off the bounce, he’s also mostly a finisher, not a starter.
That means Dallas sports three starters who can’t make plays for others with the ball in their hands reliably, which makes the Mavericks more predictable and easier to guard. When Smith is humming like he is on Wednesday (18 points on 10 shots, seven assists to two turnovers), Dallas reaches another gear. They desperately need Smith’s driving attacks to spruce up an offense that can get stagnant when relying on one guy to make all the plays.
It also allows role players to be role players instead of trying to be something they’re not. Instead of DeAndre Jordan poorly pretending to be Chris Webber, we have Jordan diving toward the rim to open up space for shooters. Jordan, who leads the Mavs in turnover rate despite being a rim-rolling center, had zero turnovers on Wednesday. He only had one assist, but guess what: the Mavericks do not need Jordan touching the ball for extended possessions, trying to pick out backdoor cutters in a cluttered lane.
This version of Jordan, the one where his touches are mostly immediate dribble-handoffs and shots near the rim, makes the Mavericks tremendously better. Jordan won’t get an assist on the Matthews three shown below, but without his dive into the paint as Smith beat his man, Matthews never gets an open look in the corner.
All that being said, the most fascinating development from the first quarter might have belonged to his guy:
In Dirk Nowitzki’s last five games, he’s shooting 46.2 percent from three on 3.3 attempts in just 10 minutes per game. Dirk no doubt looked rough as hell his first few games back and while his defense will never be good again, his shot is coming back and it’s much needed for a bench unit that was running out of steam.
Dallas is still winning most of its bench minutes, but the lineup of Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber has a 113.2 offensive rating according to NBA.com’s stats page on the season. In the last 15 games? It’s tumbled to 98.4. Teams are getting wiser about how to defend this group, which really features no proven three-point shooters. Barea has been way better the last four seasons, but teams will still go under on pick and rolls because of the chaos he generates in the lane. Harris is shooting 29.5 percent from three and Finney-Smith has cooled off considerably since a hot start (30.3 percent from three in December on just 2.1 attempts per game). The bench’s spacing started to get choked by defenses that weren’t scared from any of the players outside of the paint.
Dirk’s return to ripping the nets can provide the breathing room it desperately needs. The Dallas bench hit three three-pointers in the first quarter, with Dirk, Barea and Harris each canning one thanks to Dirk’s floor gravity opening things up. If Dirk can ramp his way back up to 15 minutes a night, the bench will be back to its fire-breathing ways.
The Mavericks won’t look this good every night, because again, 19-year-olds and 21-year-olds. But they’re starting to gel more regularly, and Smith has looked better lately after a slow start to the season and the disappointing injury. If those two can keep improving, the lack of passing from Matthews and Barnes will feel less pronounced and perhaps Jordan will stick to rim-running. Sprinkle in more minutes from the greatest player in franchise history shooting more like his older self and the Mavericks can perhaps make Wednesday night not a fluke.