Before I get into the report card for games six through ten, note that I changed the format a little compared to games 1-5. I took out MVP because more often than not, it will be Luka, and I added a “what I learned” section to give more insight into the team’s play as a whole. This format should hold for the rest of the season.
The Rundown: Lineup changes and lots of winning
The Dallas Mavericks finish this five game stretch with a 4-1 record, and are now 6-4 on the season. This was an exciting stretch, as almost everything imaginable took place in terms of improvement. There was a game without Luka Doncic, a game with Kristaps Porzingis, a postponed game, a game that went into overtime, five Mavs that entered safety protocol because of COVID, and, of course, there were two Luka triple-doubles.
Dallas has now won four consecutive games with three different starting lineups in those games. The two constants? Luka Doncic and Willie Cauley-Stein. After a Luka-less loss to the Chicago Bulls on January third, Rick Carlisle decided to appease the Mavericks’ twitter community by removing Dwight Powell from the starting lineup and inserting Cauley-Stein. Tim Hardaway Jr. was moved to the bench for Maxi Kleber as well, and Dallas has not lost since.
Three of Dallas’ best wins this year came during this span. They started their win streak in Houston with a 113-100 win against the Rockets, a game in which Luka recorded his first triple-double of the season. They followed that up with a statement win in Denver, defeating the Nuggets 124-117 in overtime. In game 10 of the season, Dallas got revenge on Charlotte, who had won four games in a row going into the contest, by outlasting them 104-93 in Kristaps Porzingis’ season debut. The Unicorn recorded 16 points in 21 minutes in his first game action of 2021.
This second cluster of games was a polar opposite of the first five. Will the Mavs ever get a rebound? Where is their new defense? When will Kristaps Porzingis return? These are all questions that the opening chunk of the season raised, and were answered during this segment in spectacular fashion.
I would have given this team an A+, but a loss to Chicago without Luka or Kristaps brought them down to just an A. If you look at the four other games, three times the Mavericks held their opponent to 100 or less, two times Luka Doncic recorded a triple double, one time Kristaps Porzingis played basketball, and, most importantly, four times out of four the Mavericks won.
Tim Hardaway Jr. played like the player we all hoped he would be: a legitimate third option without forcing his shots up. He is averaging 21.6 points over the last five games, and 18.4 for the season. During the four game winning streak he shot 54% from the field and long range.
The defense looked cohesive, there has been a conscious effort to rebound, and Luka Doncic is finally playing like the MVP we know he can be.
What I Learned: The Mavericks’ defensive improvement is real, it will just take finding the right lineups
Another reason I removed the MVP section is because MVP stands for ‘Most Valuable Player’ and the most valuable person over the last five games may be a man who did not record a minute of game time. Rick Carlisle made a complete 180 by inserting Maxi Kleber and Willie Cauley-Stein into the starting lineup. This was a concerted effort to improve defensively, and it paid off in a big way.
Without even looking at the numbers, it’s clear by watching that this is a completely different team when Dwight Powell does not start. Three out of the last four games teams have not reached 100 points against Dallas. In two of those games the Mavericks were without three of their best individual defenders. The defensive improvement has been a buy-in with the entire team.
I said in a post after the Mavericks first game against Charlotte that you go as your best player goes, and Luka wasn’t going. Doncic is on a roll now, and so is the team. He has clearly bought into the defensive end, and even added this after the win against the Hornets:
“If you don’t have defense, you’re not going to achieve anything.”
Since his rookie year, I believed that he moves his feet very well on defense, and he’s proven me right over these last five games. He cut opponents off consistently and either knocking the ball away with quick hands or getting a solid contest up on the shot. This led to opponents shooting only 39.5% when defended by Doncic in the last four games. He is also averaging two steals and two blocks over that span, with games of four blocks and five steals in the mix.
If Doncic can keep this “lead by example” up, along with Rick finding the right rotations once everyone is healthy, the Dallas Mavericks will find themselves among the best, if not THE best defensive team in the NBA.
Key Stat: 2
This is the Mavericks rank in defensive rating, per NBA.com.
Much of this report card has been about defense, but that was the big story line from this collection of games, especially considering what they did in the first five contests. The goal this year was to be a top defensive team and they are exceeding expectations thus far.
Dallas is second in the league in defensive rating, behind the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. At 104.6 points per 100 possessions, the Mavericks are vastly improved from their 111.2 rating in 2019-20.
Just looking at just the winning streak, this stat improves to allowing just 102.3 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers won a championship last year at a mark of 106.1, so the Mavericks are giving themselves a chance to contend with the way they are playing right now.
The offensive still hasn’t fully clicked, but with Kristaps Porzingis now playing, we could see the Mavericks’ net rating skyrocket in the coming weeks.
One big question for the next five games:
Sometimes the simplest questions invoke the most complex answers. In this case, the question is: How long will the Mavericks win streak last?
One question provokes a lot more. When will the five players in health and safety protocol return? How many minutes will Kristaps Porzingis play? Will the defense continue to exist as one cohesive unit? Can Luka continue his MVP campaign? These are all questions whose answers will provide insight into how many consecutive games the Mavs will win.
Assuming no more games get postponed, Dallas is scheduled to play Milwaukee, Chicago, Toronto, Indiana, and San Antonio in this upcoming slate. They might well keep the streak going if they can notch a victory against the Bucks tonight.