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3 things we learned as the shorthanded Mavericks fall to the Bucks 102-95

Dallas fought hard against a superior opponent, but the talent disparity was too much by the end.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks put up a spirited effort against a better Milwaukee Bucks team Thursday night in Dallas, but couldn’t close the game out in a 102-95 loss.

It was a much closer game than most could expect, with Dallas missing almost its entire normal playing rotation to COVID and injures. Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bullock, Josh Green and Willie Cauley-Stein all missed tonight’s game. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the game for the Bucks, but Milwaukee still had their second and third best players in Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton.

Dallas actually controlled the game for the first 30 or so minutes, maintaining a consistent lead until the final seconds of the third quarter. From there the talent gap between the two teams just bore out and the Mavericks didn’t have enough to get over the finish line. DeMarcus Cousins had a huge night, scoring 22 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing four assists. Jalen Brunson led a balanced Mavericks scoring effort with 19 points.

Here are three things we noticed.

The replacement Mavericks are a lot of fun to watch

It’s somewhat remarkable that almost the entire Mavericks playing rotation is out, yet the team is more exciting and fun to watch than at any other point this season.

Obviously the Mavericks are a better team with Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and the rest of the crew that is out right now, but watching these Mavericks — filled with six guys who literally have had at times less than 24 hours to be with the team before playing — is a breath of fresh air. It’s no secret this Mavericks roster is extremely stale. Even before the injures and COVID outbreak, this team was struggling to play consistent basketball. The entire mood around the team, both the team itself and the environment following it, felt awful. Debates about shot quality, missing open shots grew extremely tiresome as a team with Luka freaking Doncic seemed sluggish and not fun.

So while these replacement Mavericks aren’t more talented, there is something fun about seeing new players on the roster for the first time in four years. They’re playing very hard, hustling to earn a more permanent job. The team even feels more athletic, which is also another fun side effect. The expectations are also out the window — instead of feeling some internal existential crisis every time Hardaway or Porzingis miss a three pointer off a beautiful Doncic pass, it’s much easier to just live in the moment and enjoy this ragtag group coming together and putting up some impressive efforts with basically zero preparation. The Bucks had to seriously earn this win and this group handled a Timberwolves team that still had Karl Anthony-Towns and D’Angelo Russell. What should have been an 0-2 stretch with two ugly losses has somehow turned into 1-1 with two tremendously hard-played games.

These feel-good feelings will dissipate, maybe against the Utah Jazz on Christmas Day, but it’s been a fun ride so far. All the Mavericks out in protocols will return, almost all of these replacement guys will go back to the waiver wire or G-League and this Mavericks season will return to endless debates about the direction of the franchise with an outdated roster. I’m almost dreading it. This is a blissful escape from the pressure of watching a team fail to meet expectations. A hat tip to all these hardship exception Mavericks for making this stretch of basketball an exceptional joy to watch.

A more aggressive Brunson is needed

While the Mavericks go through this difficult stretch, a lot is on Jalen Brunson to basically be Luka’s replacement. He’s played well without Luka, despite the team not grabbing that many wins. Unfortunately, he needs to do a little more.

Against the Bucks Brunson had 19 points, but on 7-of-15 shooting. Somehow Frank Ntilikina had more shots than Brunson tonight and there were long stretches in this game where Brunson’s scoring was no where to be found.

Reminder: Brunson played well. He had eight assists and only two turnovers. He just might need to be a tad more aggressive with his shot for the Mavericks to potentially win more games during this difficult stretch.

Dorian Finney-Smith looks exhausted

The Mavericks ironman forward has averaged 40 minutes per game in the Mavericks last four games. He played 39 minutes tonight, 41 and 37 against the Timberwolves and 43 against the Lakers. Finney-Smith looked ragged at times against the Bucks.

He shot 3-of-11 from the floor and 2-of-9 from three and it was obvious he didn’t have his legs for most of the night. The Mavericks ask so much from Finney-Smith and they’ll continue to ask even more as the Mavericks deal with this COVID outbreak. I know it’s a difficult decision, but the Mavericks should consider giving Finney-Smith a night off soon, so he can recharge a bit. It’d be a shame if Finney-Smith ran into a wall in the second half of the season due to how much he’s been used so far.

Here’s our latest 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.