The game against the Denver Nuggets last week was the first time I felt we really got an idea of what this team’s identity is. The Mavericks rose to the occasion and secured the win at home against a tough team led by former MVP Nikola Jokic. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis combined for 52 points, 14 assists, 19 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 blocks. Dallas’ duo had their handprints all over this matchup while Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson were still able to put up 19 and 17 points, respectively.
I was impressed with Dallas’ defensive efforts as well, double-teaming Jokic early to try and get the ball out of his hands. With Doncic not being available in the matchups against the Suns and Clippers, I haven’t taken away too much from those games in regards to the team as a whole. Let’s look at a few things that the Mavs should prioritize as a part of their game plan the season continues.
Continue to solidify the closing lineup
Over the last several games, Jalen Brunson, Reggie Bullock, and Frank Ntilikina have all clocked significant minutes in the fourth quarter. The closing lineup has primarily consisted of Doncic, Brunson, Hardaway Jr., Bullock, and Porzingis. Having Porzingis at the five at the end of games has allowed for Bullock to run with the group, giving them a defensive boost on the perimeter while also adding more floor spacing. Playing Brunson gives Dallas that secondary playmaker next to Doncic and he continues to make the most of that opportunity, showing confidence as a ball handler and shot creator.
It’s important to note that Maxi Kleber has been out since the beginning of November due to an oblique injury, so his return could affect the closing lineup depending on the matchup. Having Kleber and Finney-Smith available for when Dallas needs more size will be huge, but for right now, Bullock getting those minutes down the stretch is the right call. It’s also nice that Dallas has real options depending on match up. Solidifying this group as the closing lineup early on will be huge from a continuity and chemistry perspective.
Porzingis must stay aggressive on both ends
Over the last five games, Porzingis has averaged 26 points and 9.2 rebounds. When he’s aggressive on the offensive end, it typically translates to the other end of the floor. When it comes to the game plan, giving Porzingis those opportunities to exploit mismatches is huge for his confidence and flow. If he struggles to convert against opposing bigs, then it’s on coach Kidd to adapt to that.
Porzingis needs to be able to get us an easy bucket down low and if the Mavericks have to get creative to get him switched onto guards, so be it. Think back to the play against Denver when he got the mismatch on Monte Morris that resulted in a drop-step two-handed dunk. Porzingis being aggressive opens things up for Hardaway Jr., Brunson, and Bullock, which made Dallas very difficult to guard. Moving forward, it is vital that we get that level of aggression from the Unicorn on a night-to-night basis.
Reggie and Tim sharing the floor
Over the last five games, Bullock has averaged about 27 minutes per game, including those key minutes down the stretch that I mentioned before. Hardaway Jr. has shared the floor with Bullock for the majority of his minutes, which has allowed for them both to get several open catch-and-shoot threes. Bullock and Hardaway Jr. have both been in a shooting slumps lately, so getting Doncic back out there will be huge for both of them. Having Bullock and THJ sharing the floor will continue to open things up for each of them. Keeping track of one 40 percent three-point shooter is tough but keeping track of two makes things very difficult for opposing teams to guard. Having them out there at the same time seems to amplify how threatening they are from the outside. This is a much better tactic as opposed to early in the season when they were used interchangeably as opposed to together.
Consistency with Ntilikina’s minutes
The French Prince is continuing to show that he’s worth every penny. He picks up opposing guards in the full-court, he doesn’t hesitate on catch-and-shoot threes, and he understands his role as evidenced by how well he plays off Brunson. He’s currently shooting 36 percent from three on 2.6 attempts per game which is huge for this team. Coach Kidd continues to bring him into the game halfway through the first quarter and his defensive presence is immediately felt. He plays with so much energy which has allowed him to carve out his role with this group. The Mavs need to focus on keeping his minutes and role consistent. This will allow for his confidence to continue to trend upwards which will translate to his aggressiveness when attacking the rim and his ability to knock down the three with consistency.
If Dallas can continue to prioritize these things, I will feel very good about where they’re at moving forward with their current personnel. Under a new coach, it’s vital to establish consistency and build chemistry. The Mavericks are in the middle of a tight Western Conference race and they’ve got a long way to go before playoffs to make sure that all the screws are tightened.