The Dallas Mavericks got a key member of their starting rotation back Saturday. Kristaps Porzingis returned from a five-game, injury-related absence to take on the Boston Celtics. Monday, in his second game back, he started against the New Orleans Pelicans.
In his first games back, he showed flashes of his former self. He also showed signs of rust. Regardless, it’s clear that if the Mavericks are going to capitalize on their strengths and notch much needed wins, they need Porzingis healthy and playing well.
“I’m so happy to be back out on the court,” Porzingis said Saturday. “It always sucks to not be able to play and help, and then on top you have to put in all the cardio work to make sure you stay in shape, so playing is the fun part. Today, as soon as I woke up, I knew it was game day and I was ready to go. I was extremely excited the whole day.”
It was apparent that he was ready to get back on the floor early on. Within the opening minutes of the game, Porzingis received the ball from Luka Doncic at the top of the arc, saw an opening, drove the lane, and finished with an emphatic dunk.
The play set the tone for Porzingis’ play for the rest of the evening. He moved well off the ball, cutting, and getting to the rim. Most of his shots, seven of his 13, came from inside the restricted area. That’s a good sign for a team that wants to be more productive around the basket.
Porzingis finished the game with 21 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals, a block, and just one turnover. He shot 53.8 percent from the field and connected on seven of his eight free throw attempts—free throw shooting is another area of emphasis for the team.
“He was great,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. “[He] came up with a big block down there at the end of the game and then also had a big tip-in for us—I think we might have been down two to tie the game up. But I thought, for his first time back after being out five games, he was really good.”
Against the Pelicans, Porzingis had a mixed night. He helped the Mavericks cut into New Orleans’ lead, bridging the first and second quarters, with nine points and a block. However, a quick succession of fouls sidetracked him for much of the game. He didn’t score again until the fourth quarter.
He finished the game with 12 points on 4-13 shooting, including 3-8 from deep. In 26 minutes, he also had eight rebounds, three assists, and a block. Kidd doesn’t want to push Porzingis beyond the 30-minute mark just yet, but he’s liked what he’s seen after two games.
“You can tell he’s moving well,” Kidd said. “He’s putting the ball on the floor, he’s not afraid to make a move. I think he’s moving great. He had some great looks there early and then he started to get in a groove. We need that from him.”
Still, it wasn’t all good. The Mavericks seem to be making a concerted effort to get Porzingis the ball in the post. Those plays seem fall apart moments after he gets the ball.
Porzingis is tall enough to shoot over just about everyone in the league, but he isn’t deliberate enough with his actions to get up quick shots. Against New Orleans, the shorter Josh Hart matched up against him in the post multiple times. It appears like a mismatch visually, but Hart was able to frustrate Porzingis and knock him out of rhythm. Smaller defenders can give him problems.
In his five games this season, Porzingis has posted up a total of 15 times, according to NBA.com. He’s shooting just 36.4 percent on these attempts, has a turnover frequency of 13.3 percent, and ranks in the fourteenth percentile in the league.
Defensively, Porzingis still hasn’t returned to his dominant play in the NBA Bubble. He may never. While he’s still an imposing presence and good shot blocker, he looks like he’s a step behind on a lot of plays. Smaller players are taking him off the dribble, getting to their spots or the rim, and making him pay.
Porzingis and the Mavericks will face their biggest challenge since his return on Wednesday when they face the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are off to a fast 7-3 start and are playing their best basketball in years. Dallas will need Porzingis at or near whatever the top of his game looks like now if they want to extend their winning streak.
Even as he works his way back into form from his lower back issue, the Mavericks must be pleased that he didn’t miss more time. The organization made a big investment in him and he’s a key member of the team because of it. He’s still learning about his body, but now that he’s healthy, he is contributing where he can.
“Yeah, I know my body a lot better now,” Porzingis said. “All the little things that happen now, I know how to work with them and make it go away quicker. Also, a lot of things you just learn by being in the league multiple years; you know tricks that you can do. The main thing is that my body is healthy and I’m ready to play. I believe I can play at a high level.”
Here’s our lastest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark where Doyle and Kirk talk about this post and Doyle’s experiences this year at Mavericks games. 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.