The Dallas Mavericks finish this stretch 2-4, which brings them to 8-8 on the season.
Last report card’s big question of how long the Mavericks’ win streak would last was answered quickly in game 11 with a loss to Milwaukee. Dallas dropped their next two games to Chicago and Toronto, marking their first three-game losing streak since March of 2019. A bounce back win in Indiana carried over into a clutch win over the Spurs, but a Porzingis-less night led to Demarcus Cousins having his best game in 2 years and the Mavericks fell to Houston at home.
Jalen Brunson returned to the lineup after missing four games due to health and safety protocol. He hasn’t skipped a beat, averaging 14.3 points and 3.8 assists while shooting 52.6 percent from the floor and 54.5 percent from deep since his return.
Kristaps Porzingis has slowly worked himself back into playing shape, and has looked impressive as of late. He has been using his size now more than ever, averaging six post-ups a game, while shooting 52.4 percent on shots out of them. Juxtapose this with his 3.4 post-ups a game last year, and you can see there has been a conscious effort to get him the ball with his back to the basket. Porzingis has been the beneficiary of some special passing from Luka Doncic, allowing him to get a lot of easy layups and dunks, opening up the floor for him to play his game. Against Indiana, he shot 11-for-12 on two-point shots, propelling him to his best scoring night this season with 27 points. The Unicorn is averaging 20.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks thus far, almost identical to what he produced last season.
Luka Doncic became the youngest player in NBA history to record 30 career triple doubles.
However, the most important thing to happen over this span was Josh Green hitting a Dirk-like fade on the right baseline that sent Mark Followill into a frenzy.
Australia’s own Josh Green with the one-legged Dirk fadeaway in his rookie season as a Mav pic.twitter.com/3lbebPSZKq— Francis (@FrancisOKC) January 21, 2021
It’s never easy to play six games in nine days, but when you play without 4 potential starters the task becomes that much more daunting. Although shorthanded, double-digit losses to the sub .500 Bulls, Raptors, and Rockets are still unacceptable if you are trying to contend for a championship. The Mavericks have been wildly inconsistent and seemingly take on one of two identities: a defensive powerhouse that has sky-is-the-limit potential on offense, or an uninterested group of guys that can’t hit a shot or grab a rebound and Luka. There is no in-between.
You can look at the four losses the Mavericks suffered over this stretch and make the excuse that “they were missing four key players so you can’t hold these losses against them.” While that is true, they beat two teams with the same roster, which begs the question: where does the root of inconsistency lie? The most likely answer is that Dallas is disregarding opponents they deem “not worthy,” leading to them getting burnt by teams they should not lose to. The bottom line is when you have two superstar players healthy and on the court, you simply cannot lose to teams that are out of the playoffs.
Tim Hardaway Jr. shot 0-for-12 in one of the worst shooting games in NBA history against Toronto, two games later shot 8-for-12 from the floor, and then followed that up with a 4-for-13 shooting performance. If Dallas wants to take the next step, Hardaway Jr. has to have a consistent middle ground, and not two extremes. I praised him in the last report card, but he gets no love from me this time.
With all of that being said, you should not overreact too much because I have faith that the Mavericks will figure it out when everyone is available to play. It was a tough stretch of games with two great wins, and the Mavericks maintain a passing grade… barely.
What I Learned: The Mavericks path to a championship goes through Kristaps Porzingis starting at center
I thought this when he moved the five after Dwight Powell went down last year, and I hold firm in my assessment. The Mavericks give themselves the best chance to win when Kristaps Porzingis starts the game in the middle.
The only two wins during this span came with Porzingis starting at center, and three of the four losses came when he started alongside Cauley-Stein. They have looked good together at times, creating a strong defensive core that makes it very difficult for teams to score at the rim. But as they got more time together, the flaws in playing the two big men at the same time presented themselves.
First of all, when Willie starts at center, the majority of the lobs and inside passes are directed his way, causing headaches for Mavericks fans everywhere when he cannot finish a lob. Dallas does not want this, as Cauley-Stein shoots only 64.4 percent on shots under five feet (for comparison, Kristaps shoots 76.7 percent on such shots). This forces Porzingis to play the perimeter more, and makes him work his way in from the outside, rather than out from the inside. His increase in touches and efficiency on post-ups is not seen to its full potential when this happens and it hurts the Mavericks offense as a whole. When Kristaps starts in the middle, he is involved in more pick and rolls with Luka, leading to easy baskets that help him get off to good starts, as we saw against Indiana. This opens the floor up for Porzingis to shoot and creates driving lanes for guys like Luka.
Starting at center allows The Unicorn to play inside-out and show off a seemingly untapped post-up game that a certain Maverick utilized over a somewhat successful 21 year career. In the three losses where Porzingis played during this stretch, he averaged around six three point attempts per game, making only 21 percent of them. In the two wins, he averaged four on 50 percent efficiency. Establishing his interior game early allows him to gain confidence and leads to him taking, and making, better three point shots.
Dallas gets a bigger defensive identity when Cauley-Stein and Porzingis both start, and the offense opens up when only Porzingis does. The best of both worlds scenario occurs when Maxi Kleber returns, giving Dallas the spacing they need and the defense they hold in such high regard.
Key Stat: 8.5 and 11.1
This is the amount of offensive rebounds the Mavericks give up in wins and losses, respectively, per NBA.com.
Offensive rebounds are a hustle stat, or a stat that gives you an idea of a player or team’s “want” to win. In Dallas’ losses this season, that “want” has been MIA. Boxing out and cleaning the glass require effort, and the Mavericks don’t always show an effort to win the rebound battle, especially on their defensive end.
In three of the four losses that came during this stretch, Dallas was outdone in the offensive rebound department. It has been an issue in losses all year, and really showed over the last six games. They have gotten better, but some nights they just come out looking like the team they were to start the season.
Aside from getting healthy, Dallas’ biggest issue is playing hard every night. When you have a top-five player in the league and a former All-Star one the floor, you give yourself a chance to win. This chance takes a significant hit when you give teams second chance opportunities without giving yourself the same amount.
There is a simple solution: just play hard every night. Want it more than the other team. Sometimes the most simple things can be the hardest to achieve.
One big question for the next five games:
Will the Mavericks get any of the four players out for health and safety protocol back?
Right now, this is the biggest question because Dallas misses their three best perimeter defenders dearly. In this upcoming five game stretch the Mavericks play Denver, Utah twice, and Phoenix twice. It’s a grueling stretch of games with a back-to-back bridging the Utah and Phoenix series, and Dallas could use one or two of their missing pieces to help defend guys like Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell, and Devin Booker. Josh Richardson was reportedly in the American Airlines Center for the game against Houston, so we could see an appearance from him in the very near future.
As for the other three guys, only time will tell when we see them next, because as Brad Townsend explained on Twitter, the situation is “fluid”.
As Rick Carlisle said last night, Josh Richardson worked out in AAC and might return this week. From what I've heard, most likely order COVID-case returns is Richardson, Finney-Smith, Powell, Kleber, but as Carlisle repeatedly has emphasized, everything is fluid.— Brad Townsend (@townbrad) January 24, 2021