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Dallas Mavericks Report Card: Games 33-37

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The Mavericks are starting to get hot at the right time.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time again for the recurring five-ish or so game check-in and report card for the Dallas Mavericks.

There are a few changes to the format of the report card. There’s now a graphic to the grade section to better illustrate the state of the Mavericks as the season progresses. Additionally the the “What I learned” section is gone in an attempt to eliminate overlap between that and the grade section.

The Rundown:

The Dallas Mavericks finish this stretch 4-1 and improve to 20-17 on the season.

The question raised in the last report card was whether or not Dallas could sustain the defensive improvement they showed in recent games. The continued improvement was once again visible, especially from Josh Richardson and Kristaps Porzingis.

The stretch opened up in Orlando where the Mavericks thrust themselves above .500 for the first time since January 22nd with a 130-124 victory over the Orlando Magic. In one of the ugliest games you’ll see in the modern era, the Mavericks returned home and defeated Oklahoma City 87-78 before the Mavericks, and All-Star starter Luka Doncic, headed into the All-Star break. When play resumed, the Mavericks defeated the Spurs in Dallas to increase their winning streak to four and then headed out to Oklahoma City for a quick two-game road trip. No Luka Doncic or Kristaps Porzingis spelled doom for the Mavericks and the Thunder prevented Dallas from winning five consecutive games for the first time this season. The two young stars returned for the game in Denver, and a convincing win against the Nuggets put the Mavericks back at three games above even.

Dallas debuted their “Earned” edition jerseys against the Spurs, and fans of the Josh Howard era away jerseys will be delighted to see a similar design make a return:

Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic missed one and two games respectively, including them both resting on the second night of a back-to-back, but Luka’s absence and Porzingis’ expected rest should not raise any concern.

Grade: A

The Mavericks were about 15 Tyler Bey minutes away from earning an A+ for the first time this season.

When Dallas opted to rest Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic against the Thunder for the second night of a back-to-back, they essentially revealed that the outcome of that game did not matter in their big picture. Kristaps’ rest was expected, but Luka’s DNP was a surprise, even though he missed the final game before the All-Star break. This decision to opt in for the long-term goals and not worry about the game at hand is fine, but the issue is with the Mavericks not completely buying in. James Johnson played 14 minutes and 35 seconds in that game, shot 1-for-4 from the field and did not grab a rebound. Tyler Bey, who averaged 15 points and nine rebounds in the G League this year, is 6’7” with a 7’1” wingspan while setting the NBA combine record for forwards with a 43.5” vertical leap, has shown promise with his ability to rebound and improve offensively. The 15 minutes that James Johnson, a 34 year-old veteran, played on Thursday could have been very helpful for the development of Bey and the future of this team.

This lack of priority to the younger players in a throw-away game is my only gripe with Dallas over the previous five games. As Jalen Brunson so eloquently put, the “Vibes are immaculate right now”.

Big wins over the Spurs and Nuggets headlined this stretch and they were defensive clinics in the stretches that mattered. Dallas held San Antonio without a field goal for over seven minutes in the fourth quarter which helped them pull away and secure the victory. After being up by as much as 21 against Denver, the Nuggets cut the lead to 12 with just less than five minutes to go. Over the next two and a half minutes, the Mavericks outscored Denver seven to two to go up by 17 and put the game away with 2:25 to play. Kristaps Porzingis showed off his “in the gym” range with the dagger in the Mile High city:

Speaking of the Unicorn, Porzingis continued to make strides not only offensively, but defensively as well. Since returning from his lower back injury that sidelined him for three games, opponents are shooting 44.4 percent on shots defended by Kristaps and he has a defensive rating of 107.4, down significantly from his season marks of 46.8 and 116.8, respectively. His rebound rate is up 1.4 percent in his last five games and he is collecting 0.9 more rebounds per game over that span as well. When you pair this with his 21 points on 53 percent shooting and 43 percent from deep over his last five games, it is apparent that he is slowly making his way back to the promising two-way talent he was in New York.

Additionally, Josh Richardson seems to have found his rhythm recently, averaging over a steal, a block and 17 points per game in his last five contests. The Mavericks brought him in to score 15-18 points, defend the other team’s primary ball handler, and be a secondary or tertiary shot creator when needed. He wasn’t that for most of February, but as the calendar turned to March he has played like the player Dallas traded for.

The offense is trending upward, the defense is improving, and the Mavericks have shown flashes of the team they could be. With all of the uncertainty with COVID-19 and the potential for upsets in the Western Conference, don’t be surprised if the Mavericks find themselves in the Western Conference Finals. They have the firepower to get there, they showed that during this stretch, and for that reason they get an A.

Key Stat: 52

This is the amount of minutes the lineup of Doncic, Porzingis, Kleber, Richardson, and Finney-Smith have played together since February 22nd, according to NBA.com.

The February 22nd date is particularly important because that was the day they played Memphis after having eight days off because of a winter storm. All they could do over this period of time was practice, and it’s no coincidence that after extended practice time in a condensed season they would be a better team. The numbers speak for themselves:

Since returning from the extended break this group has played 52 minutes together (for reference, they have only played 150 minutes together the whole year) over four games. Over that span they have an offensive rating of 145(!) and a defensive rating of 105.9. The sample size is not huge, but it is over a third of the minutes they have played together during the season and by far the most used lineup in that period of time. Not only are these numbers ridiculous but they are undefeated in those four games as well.

The energy and defensive presence this lineup creates doesn’t just stop with the aforementioned players. Over the same time period, the team as a whole has a defensive rating of 107.6, good for fourth in the NBA since February 22nd. Dallas has held opponents under 105 points in five out of the nine games over that span, and scored 110 or more points five times as well.

One big question for the next five games:

How high can Dallas climb in the Western Conference Standings?

Currently, the Mavericks sit in eighth place, 1.5 games out of fifth place, and four games out of fourth. The upcoming stretch features a two game home series against the Clippers, a two game away series in Portland, and finally a game in Minnesota against the Timberwolves.

The Trailblazers currently sit tied for fifth place, and the Clippers are in fourth. The Mavericks control their own destiny in terms of short-term standing placement because not only will a win against these teams get them a half game of improvement, but it will give their opponent a half game of regression. This means that if Dallas beats Portland or Los Angeles, they are gaining a full game on them and not just a half or none at all. When seeding matters because of the play-in tournament, getting to the sixth seed is more important than ever. This stretch could give the Mavericks what they need to make sure they don’t have to fight for their postseason lives.