The Mavericks suffered their first loss of the season Sunday night in Dallas, dropping a heart breaker of a game 121-119 to the Portland Trail Blazers. Dallas is now 2-1 and while this loss stings a bit, considering Dallas was rolling in the first half, it was still a wildly competitive game against a team that went to the Western Conference Finals last season.
Baby steps, the Mavericks are still OK. But here are the things I noticed.
The Mavericks finally got their rotation right!
Dallas started the season 2-0 but it felt like it got those wins in spite of wonky starting lineups and rotations. Dallas started Courtney Lee in both games, who didn’t do much offensively and the Mavs started each game in a small hole before rallying in the second quarter.
The Mavericks got back into those games behind lineups featuring Seth Curry, their best three point shooter. Despite having a top-5 shooter and top-5 creator of three point looks in the league, Dallas just didn’t play the two together much. That was fixed tonight, as Dallas started Delon Wright, Jalen Brusnon, Luka Doncic, Maxi Kleber and Kristaps Porzingis, the exact lineup I suggested right before the regular season started.
Not only did the Mavericks start Brunson, they brought Curry off the bench in the first quarter and kept Doncic on the floor. Amazing! Lo and behold, the Mavericks had an incredible start and a great first half. Dallas scored 40 points in the first quarter en route to a 71 point first half. While Curry didn’t put up big numbers in that half, the offense just moved better as Portland had to respect the games of Brunson and Curry, allowing Porzingis and Doncic to have easier looks and feast. More of this please.
Defense wasn’t there all night
Part of the reason I wanted the Mavericks to embrace all offense and start either Brunson or Curry is because I’m not sure the Mavericks can ever be a great defensive team. Having shot blockers like Porzingis and Kleber helps and Dorian Finney-Smith and Justin Jackson do OK on the wing, but Dallas just isn’t especially built to get a lot of stops. That was felt pretty hard against the Trail Blazers.
Despite the rim protection prowess of Porzingis and Kleber, the Blazers scored at will at the rim. They shot 51.7 percent from the field and did lots of damage by beating the Mavericks in transition and punishing them for switches. Kleber is a great weakside help defender and shot blocker but he struggled to contain Portland’s perimeter players as they scored by him and around him with relative ease.
Here’s the stat of the game — Portland shot 17-of-26 at the rim. Damian Lillard had 28, C.J. McCollum had 35 and neither of them really felt all that uncomfortable all night, even when Lillard had a quiet first half. Dallas turned up the pressure a couple of times in the fourth quarter, trapping the pick and roll with Kleber on one possesion in the fourth quarter to get a turnover, but they didn’t do it much outside of that. Instead they played their normal scheme, which is to either switch or keep their bigs staying back. McCollum and Lillard had no problem attacking the Mavericks backpedaling bigs. The Trail Blazers shot 15-of-27 from midrange, which you might want to chalk it up to just “one of those nights” but when your defense is giving up comfortable looks to players that are comfortable hitting those midrange looks, that’s more bad defense than bad luck.
Mavericks needed more from their role players
Despite the wonderful start to the game behind the ideal starting group and bench rotations, Dallas chugged in the second half due to role players not hitting shots and maybe one or two questionable lineup choices.
Justin Jackson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kleber combined to go 3-of-16 from three and that’s just not going to cut it. The Mavericks got 29 from Doncic and a season-high 32 from Porzingis, but Portland didn’t care much about the Mavericks role players in the second half and the Blazers lack of concern was validated as the Mavs role players bricked open jumpers.
As good as the rotation was in the first half, in the second it was a little weird. Curry didn’t check into the game in the third quarter until the final minute, which was weird considering he checked into the game halfway through the first quarter. Wright also only played 23 minutes and none of the crunch time burn, which is also curious considering he’s by far the Mavericks best defensive option against either Lillard or McCollum. Curry did great on defense (he’s good there!) but Brunson looked a little overwhelmed. I would have liked to see Wright get some more time down the stretch and Curry to check into the second half earlier but those are relatively minor quibbles compared to how much of a win it was that the Mavericks finally started the right guys.
BONUS OBSERVATION: Luka got step-back happy
During the Mavericks 2-0 start, I noticed that Luka had traded in some of his step-backs for some more spot-up and pull-up threes which I liked! The step-back is fun and can be a deadly weapon, but I felt Luka leaned on it too much last season as a bailout option.
He went back to that tonight, shooting a lot of step-backs, especially late in the game. He finished 2-of-11 from three and it was especially disappointing to see Luka fallback on that when Hassan Whiteside fouled out in the fourth quarter. Luka has been so good around the basket this season, it felt like that might have been the better option. Although with how bad the Mavs role players were at hitting threes, maybe getting triple teamed at the free throw line wouldn’t have been that much better
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