It wasn’t terribly surprising to hear the noise about the Mavericks after their Christmas Day blowout loss to the Lakers dropped them to 0-2 on the season. That’s sort of what happens when the expectations rise.
This happens with every contender — the first year you jump back into the playoff picture, things are free and easy. The fanbase is just happy to be there, just winning regular season games feels magical and the sky is the limit. After that, well, things start to matter a bit more. “OK, the playoffs are nice. We want more.” That’s not just a thought from the fans and observers, that’s what the players want too. The honeymoon is over, it’s time to win.
So when a potential contender starts 0-2, one being a blowout loss, it’s understandable to see some wild takes. The expectations are different. That’s why it was so nice to see the Mavericks not just respond, but absolutely dominate an elite team in a way that shouldn’t be possible. Dallas beat Los Angeles by 51 points on Sunday afternoon, a comical, laughable margin that only makes sense if the Mavericks were playing a time-traveling Charlotte Bobcats team from 10 years ago. The Mavericks whooped the ass of a team that expects to be in the NBA Finals, not hopeful to get the number one overall pick.
It was a good reminder of everything this Mavericks team can be. Oh yeah, there was a reason Luka Doncic was an MVP frontrunner. There was a reason to salivate over the acquisition of Josh Richardson. There was a reason to be excited about a new roster featuring a substantial improvement in wing depth. All those things didn’t simply vanish after the two losses — they were just drowned out by some poor effort, bad matchups and an overall sluggish start.
Dallas will be really good this season. Maybe we have a better idea on some of their flaws now compared to a week ago, but those two losses don’t erase what is a very good basketball team. It was nice to get a reminder of that.
- There was much talk this weekend about Dwight Powell, how awful he’s looked and what the Mavericks should do, which is funny because this game against the Clippers represented by far the best matchup for Powell in these opening three games. It’s obvious that Powell isn’t the same Powell we remember before his injury and even peak Powell wasn’t someone you’d want to throw out there against DeAndre Ayton or Anthony Davis. The Clippers follow the Mavericks philosophy — start one big around four perimeter players. That meant Powell wasn’t going to get bullied right from the tip, as Serge Ibaka floats to the perimeter more often now at this stage of his career. The difference in starts was night and day, with the Luka Doncic/Powell pick and roll looking better than ever without multiple bigs clogging the lane so Luka could freely pass or score. It was also great to see Rick Carlisle pull Powell whenever Ivica Zubac came into the game, since he’s much more of a bruiser at the five compared to Ibaka. This should be the Mavericks thought process in regards to their starting center going forward until Kristaps Porzingis returns. Does the opponent have a capable scoring big? Yes? Do not start Powell. No? Start Powell, it’s fine.
- This really was a dynamite Luka game. It was the most he looked like his last-season, All-NBA self in the three games so far this season, slicing up the Clippers defense in the pick and roll with deadly precision. He finished 8-of-13 inside the three point line, with a variety of crazy and-1s and dizzying floaters. The fact that he only had eight assists was a combination of sitting out the entire fourth quarter and his teammates missing shots or getting fouled, one of which was Maxi Kleber getting hammered at the rim after a sweet bounce pass between Ibaka’s legs. As I said after the Suns’ game, your stars set the tempo, good or bad — Luka certainly did that, the good kind, against the Clippers.
- I don’t know what else to say about Josh Richardson that everyone else hasn’t already said, but I’ll throw this in: It’s so nice to see the Mavericks have an aggressive perimeter defender. For years the Dallas defense has been very passive, some by design (the drop scheme against pick and rolls) and some by personnel. You can’t even count on your hands and toes how many times over the last five years you’ve seen a scorer light up the Mavericks with contested shots, only to see some observers say “well what are you going to do, tip your cap to good offense.” Well, part of playing defense is denying good players their favorite spots. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how well you contest a shot when you’ve already conceded the offensive player his favorite spot on the floor, or a favorable matchup (*cough* 6’1 Jalen Brunson guarding 6’5 Devin Booker *cough*). The Mavericks just never had a lot of guys that annoyed players, or took away their strengths — it was a very reactive defense, which even if it means you react well, it doesn’t always work out. To see Richardson on the floor, digging in and forcing guys off their spots, like he did to Paul George a couple times today, brought a tear to my eye. Finally, the Mavericks have a defensive pest. A defender that will force the issue, rather than react to whatever the offensive player is doing. I love it. The fact that the Mavericks are getting that quality of a defender that can also drop 21 points on 13 shots is simply a bonus. The talent upgrade Richardson brings to this Mavericks team compared to last season is immense. I’m excited to see the rest of his season.
- Bouncing off that point, the Clippers had 12 turnovers and the Mavericks had 10 steals. Against the Lakers the Mavericks had 13 steals. It’s nice to see when you consider the Mavericks finished dead last a season ago in forcing turnovers. The additions of Richardson and James Johnson are really giving the Dallas defense a look they haven’t had in some time. It’s obviously very early, but it’s a good start. If the Mavericks are only going to start games and likely finish games with one big on the floor, that means they desperately need to use their quickness as an advantage on defense.
- After the game against the Suns, I wondered if the Brunson/Trey Burke lineups were finished. The duo looked terrible in the opening night loss, since they’re both practically the same player — short, shoot first guards. It didn’t really make sense watching those lineups why those two had to play together, since all it did was bog down the Mavericks offense with a sort of “your turn, my turn” flow that iced out the rest of the players on the floor. Well, Rick Carlisle agrees because after splitting up the duo against the Lakers, Brunson and Burke once again didn’t share the court for the majority of the game against the Clippers, and only once the game was well-decided. Burke came in first with some of the starters in the first quarter and then Brunson checked in for Burke to start the second along with James Johnson. Staggering Burke with Luka and Brunson with Johnson seems to be smart — it means both of them are sharing the floor with a good passer, meaning the burden of initiating the offense doesn’t all fall on their shoulders. It was a stark difference for Brunson with Johnson initating a lot of offensive sets. He looked confident and comfortable when his focus was getting buckets, not making sure his teammates were in the right places. He scored 11 points in 13 minutes with zero turnovers. Burke had five points on just three shots in 18 minutes. Johnson, meanwhile, only shot 1-of-6, but he had three assists and zero turnovers. I think this is the formula to use to get the most out of all three of these players.
- After getting crushed on the boards against the Lakers in a blowout loss where Luka himself only grabbed four rebounds in 34 minutes, he grabbed nine rebounds in 26 minutes against the Clippers, including six in the first quarter. Folks, that’s what you call leading by example.