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The Mavericks finished off the Celtics with small ball, which could be a good omen going forward

Dallas used Kristaps Porzingis as the lone big man down the stretch in the win against Boston and the lineup looked good.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The endgame for these Dallas Mavericks is punishing teams with a versatile and athletic small ball lineup, unlocked to its fullest potential thanks to the unique skillset of Kristaps Porzingis as the lone big man on the floor. That is no secret. The Mavericks have been chasing that reality for three seasons now, plugging away with a mostly similar roster but hoping for a healthy Porzingis to change the franchise’s trajectory.

It’s been hard to see that plan in action this season, thanks to new coach Jason Kidd starting Dwight Powell next to Porzingis at the start of the season and Porzingis missing five games with a back injury. On Saturday night, however, Porzingis returned against the Boston Celtics and the Mavericks did the thing they’re supposed to do — they put away a challenging game with Porzingis as the only big on the floor.

For the final three minutes of the Mavericks win against the Celtics, Dallas played Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock and Porzingis. In those four minutes, the Mavericks outscored the Celtics by four points, and the lineup scored 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the field. There are two things that jump out there:

  • The Mavericks new coaching staff finally tinkered in a way that makes the most sense with this roster (Porzingis as a small ball center).
  • The Mavericks new coaching staff left Dorian Finney-Smith off the floor in a close game.

Both of those points relate to each other — Finney-Smith was replaced by fellow three-and-D wing Bullock. The lineup didn’t produce perfect results, but process wise, it’s hard to argue. Just about every look Dallas got with this lineup in the closing minutes was a quality one, and the gunked up, cramped Mavericks offense we’ve seen at times in this early part of the season was seemingly a distant memory.

Porzingis was the key. Despite looking a bit rough and awkward throughout the game, which was expected as it was his first game in about two weeks, Porzingis closed things out nicely. He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter on 4-of-6 shooting and not sharing the floor with another big man did wonders for Porzingis’ game and the Mavericks offense. Let’s take a look at the Mavericks shot attempts to close this game.

Doncic’s size, strength and skill makes him a terror in the post, but the Mavericks ill-advised spacing this season hasn’t done him any favors. With Porzingis stretching the floor, Doncic has just enough room to cleaning get off one his favorite shots — fading from the right block toward the middle of the floor. Porzingis isn’t even providing the most ideal spacing here, but it’s still enough, combined with Finney-Smith and Hardaway on the weakside making it difficult for the Celtics to double.

Again, the spacing isn’t perfect here, as Porzingis isn’t behind the three point line and too close to Finney-Smith in the corner, but doubling Doncic is so much harder to do when the other four Mavericks offer something in regards to shooting or playmaking. This was a really nice play from Hardaway, who is usually being set up to score in these situations than make a play. Porzingis timed his cut well and the rest of the Mavericks spacing keeps the Celtics spread out and unable to stop this easy drop off and layup.

This play shows just how dangerous the Doncic-Porzingis duo can be in a late game situation, as Porzingis gets a fairly wide open three pointer. This is perhaps why Porzingis’ inconsistent three point shot is so maddening, because it feels like the Mavericks can get this type of look at will with Doncic and Porzingis playing together. This is a deep three pointer, but just look at the airspace Porzingis has.

That type of open look is rare in clutch situations, yet it comes so easy to attain for this duo.

These next two plays showcase some really smart and accurate passing by Porzingis, which is by far one of the weaker parts of his game. The Celtics kept daring anyone but Doncic to beat them and the double teams were extremely brazen at this point in the game. Porzingis makes the right read to Brunson in the corner and because the Celtics are trapping with Robert Williams, Porzingis is unimpeded for the putback dunk. Again, this is the potential of a Porzingis cheat code: the ability to space the floor late in games while still maintaining somewhat of a size advantage in the paint. Asking a big like Williams to double Doncic and then chase Porzingis back to the rim to box out is impossible and Porzingis gets an easy putback against the smaller Celtics left near the rim.

If the Mavericks made their open looks to close out this game, there would have been no need for Luka theatrics. Perhaps the Mavericks just wanted to give the home crowd its money’s worth, but again, Porzingis makes a good read to set up another open three pointer. I appreciate Porzingis not standing in the corner, as he did infamously in the playoff loss to the Clippers earlier this year, and presenting himself as an outlet to Doncic after another double team. Again, with another big like Powell on the floor, this type of play is impossible. Porzingis has been dogged throughout his Mavericks tenure with some at times tentative play, but this version of Porzingis that makes decisive, quick reads is something to build on.

Circling back to the second point made in the intro of this piece, it was interesting to see Bullock close the game over Finney-Smith. Now, from a detached view, it makes all the sense in the world — Bullock is a better shooter than Finney-Smith and also a bit better of a defender too. The only reason this felt strange is because of how entrenched Finney-Smith has felt in the Mavericks rotation, regardless of his quality of play. In the past, that was because the Mavericks simply didn’t have the wing depth to take Finney-Smith out of the game — he was all they had. Bullock finally provides an answer to that problem. Bless Finney-Smith and all he brings to the table, but the simplest way to explain the difference between the two and why Bullock makes more sense as a closer is this: in 30 minutes played, Finney-Smith scored nine points.

In 26 minutes played, Bullock scored 13 points. For players cut from the same archetype (defensive minded, spot up shooting wings), that difference is huge, especially when you could consider Bullock the better defender. This isn’t to knock Finney-Smith, who finally made some three pointers to break up his horrible slump and contributes to the game in other areas , but just that finally the Mavericks can look elsewhere on the perimeter to finish games. Finney-Smith’s anemic scoring has been be painful in the closing minutes of a clutch game in the past, so seeing Bullock in there and ready to fire was a positive, even if Bullock was off on what would have been the dagger three.

It’s just one game and Porzingis has a lot to prove with his health before this type of lineup or production can be relied on, but it was an encouraging first game back nonetheless. The Mavericks roster has been painfully static for three seasons, but with Porzingis being in and out of the lineup due to injuries and inconsistent play, he remains the wild card for how far the Mavericks could possibly go. There’s still plenty of time to figure it all out.

Here’s our lastest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.