The Dallas Mavericks finish this stretch 4-2 and improve to 16-16 on the season.
In the last report card, I questioned Dallas on their ability to take care of business and possibly make a statement over the next cluster of games. They responded firmly, with not one, but two statement wins over Eastern Conference playoff teams, in Boston and Brooklyn.
The Mavericks opened this set of games in Dallas against the division rival Pelicans with a shootout that saw Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic combine for 82 points. Luka posted a career-high 46 and Porzingis a season-high 36 in the 143-130 victory. The Mavericks’ four game winning streak was snapped by Portland two days later, despite Luka Doncic scoring 44 points. A winter storm kept the Mavericks off the floor for eight days before they finally laced up again to face off with Memphis. It was Memphis, however, that looked like they hadn’t played in eight days and Dallas defeated the Grizzlies 102-92 in a game where Memphis shot only 39.4 percent from the floor and 6-of-31 (19.4 percent) from three. Because of weather postponing a game in Houston, the Mavericks ended up playing eight straight in the American Airlines Center, and capped off the home stand with what can only be described as Luka Magic:
An ugly, 18 turnover loss in Philadelphia put the Mavericks back at one game under .500, but a convincing 17 point win in Brooklyn brought them back up to even with two games to go before the All-Star break.
After his back-to-back 40+ point performances, Luka Doncic set a new Maverick record for most points over a three game span in team history (118 points). His streak of 14 consecutive games of 25 or more points came to an end with a near miss, as he only managed to put 21 on the scoreboard against Memphis.
Kristaps Porzingis missed three games with lower back tightness after the eight days off, but looked solid in limited minutes against Brooklyn. He finished with 18 points and three blocks on 7-of-13 shooting in 26 minutes in his return.
Luka Doncic has had great footwork his entire career, but there may be no better display of it than this move he pulled off with Boban Marjanovic:
If it hadn’t been “Dame Time” with 32.8 seconds remaining against Portland, the Mavericks might have finished this stretch 5-1, which would have been the best record on any report card this season.
Luka Doncic re-established himself for, at the very least, MVP consideration, and Dallas is following him to the promised land. Over his last six games, he is averaging 31 points, on 54 percent from the floor and 50(!) percent from downtown. Don’t look now, but Doncic is up to a career best 35 percent from deep for the season. Skip Bayless, shield your eyes.
Dallas is 7-2 over their last nine games, which is impressive considering they were without their second leading scorer Kristaps Porzingis for three of those games and had an eight day break in the middle of them.
One of the biggest reasons for Dallas’ success is the three-headed monster of Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Richardson. Over the last six games, the trio is averaging a combined 42 points per game, and have come up big when the Mavericks need them to. Jalen Brunson scored 16 points in the fourth quarter against Boston, the most by any Maverick in the fourth quarter this season.
The consistency of these three guys has been the key to recent success, because it offsets the inconsistency of everything else. The Mavericks’ two “3-and-D” players, Maxi Kleber, and Dorian Finney-Smith, have been neither “3” nor “D” as of late. Kristaps Porzingis has missed time. You never know when Trey Burke or James Johnson will make an appearance or if they will provide any value if they do. All of this is to say that with the way Luka Doncic is playing, the consistency of the three aforementioned players gives the Mavericks a chance to win every night.
Between big numbers from Luka, winning, and consistent play from role players, the Mavericks earned themselves and A- for this stretch of games.
What I Learned: Dallas can make a deep playoff run, but they need time to put everything together.
In sampling, a minimum requirement is that the sample size is at least 30. The Mavericks only surpassed a 30 game sample size two games ago. They have had stretches of six straight losses and seven wins in nine games. As more games are played, teams tend to slowly become who they actually are, and this Mavericks team is working themselves into contending shape.
They have all the right pieces: a generational superstar, a former All-Star who hasn’t hit his prime, solid role players, and a proven coach. There have been questions raised about the improvement, or lack thereof, this year, but make no mistake: the Mavericks are a much more dangerous team than they were last year.
Kristaps Porzingis has still only played 18 games and is coming off of another major injury that he almost certainly hasn’t recovered from yet. His defense has been called into question, and those concerns are valid, but let’s not forget: he was an All-Star in 2018 and had a defensive rating of 106.7 that year, much improved from his 119.1 rating this year. When his offense reaches the level it was at in the bubble, any defensive improvement he shows makes the Mavericks a team you don’t want to see in the postseason.
The majority of the burden to see this team’s potential through is on Rick Carlisle and the coaching staff. It has been hard thus far to have a consistent rotation due to injuries and health protocol, but now that everyone is healthy, there are no excuses to figure this team out.
First and foremost, they need to figure out how to turn Kristaps back into the player they traded for. In 2017-18, he averaged 2.4 blocks a game and shot 40 percent from three. On paper, an elite shooter that can protect the paint is the dream fit next to Luka Doncic. In reality, The Unicorn has not been the rim protector he once was and has not shot the ball at the clip he used to.
Consistency of the role players and the ability to close teams out when they have a lead are two other things that the Mavericks must work on.
If the Mavericks can figure out the rotation and get Kristaps comfortable to a point where they are better defensively when he is on the floor, Dallas has a chance to find themselves in the Western Conference Finals, especially considering the uncertainty of Anthony Davis’ injury. If not, this will be a disappointing season and major roster changes could be coming in the off-season.
Key Stat: 12.4
This is the number of turnovers the Mavericks commit per game, according to NBA.com/stats.
Of all the traditional per-game stats on NBA.com, the Mavericks are only Top-5 in three of them: shots blocked by opponents (4.0), fouls drawn (21.4), and turnovers committed (12.4). Not giving the ball away keeps you from beating yourself and it has helped the Mavericks stay afloat through 32 games. They committed 18 turnovers against Philadelphia last Thursday, and the game was out of reach by halftime.
When the games slow down in the playoffs, and every possession matters, taking care of the ball becomes that much more important. In the 2019-20 postseason, Dallas ranked third in turnovers committed per game (12.7).
It is interesting that Dallas is this good at taking care of the rock, considering that among the 51 players that play at least 20 minutes a game and have a usage rate of at least 25 percent, Luka Doncic ranks 35th in turnover ratio (11.2), while having the highest usage rate (35 percent). Although Luka turns the ball over about four times a game, he does dish out assists more than twice as often as he turns it over.
One big question for the next five games:
Can Dallas sustain their recent improvement defensively?
In the last week, Dallas is fourth in defensive rating (104.1) and held their opponent under 100 points twice. It’s hard to say if Dallas has gotten lucky with bad shooting nights from opponents or if the poor shooting was a consequence of something the Mavericks did, but with eight days of only practice in a season where practice time is scarce, it is likely that they were able to implement defensive schemes more effectively.
Dallas sees Orlando and Oklahoma City before the All-Star break, play the Spurs and Thunder on a back-to-back after the break, and finish this upcoming stretch with a game in Denver. The Nuggets and Spurs are both teams within 2.5 games of the Mavericks and Oklahoma City and Orlando are well under .500. If Dallas can keep it up on the defensive end, they could find themselves as high as fifth in the West after all is said and done.