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The Mavericks are good, but there is plenty of work left to do

Dallas saved their season from disaster after the COVID outbreak, but the Clippers loss shows how much farther they have to go.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After the Mavericks lost to the Clippers Monday night, I looked at the box score for a very long time. I kept thinking back to the game I just watched and then back at the box score. Rarely does a stat sheet tell the whole story, and it can be extremely foolish to lose yourself in those numbers.

This time though, the story felt about right — Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis were incredible, most of the other Mavericks were not. They lost to an elite team. The cycle continues.

Dallas has only lost four times since they beat the Warriors on Feb. 6. Those losses are against the Trail Blazers, 76ers, Thunder and Clippers. The three losses to those three good teams — Portland, Philadelphia, LA, — all follow the same script, with the Mavericks stars showing out and the rest of the starting lineup not doing much.

Against the Clippers on Monday, the three non-Doncic/Porzingis starters combined for 17 points on 7-of-20 shooting. Even worse, they didn’t put up much production past that. The trio of Josh Richardson, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith only combined for 10 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks. There were some good moments defensively, especially from Richardson and Kleber, but it wasn’t enough to overshadow the lack of juice in other areas of the game.

The Clippers starters past Paul George and Kawhi Leonard? 41 points on 23 shots, 20 rebounds, three assists.

There have been far too many instances of looking at Mavericks losses and seeing a majority of the starting lineup barely score any points. In the loss against the Trail Blazers, starters Kleber and Richardson scored a combined 14 points in their 50 minutes on the floor. Against the 76ers, Finney-Smith, Kleber and Boban Marjanovic (starting for an injured Porzingis) combined for 19 points. Even in the wins, this issue crops up — in the Mavericks win against the Celtics coming out of the All-Star break, Doncic had 31 points, Richardson had 16 and the other three starters combined for 12.

Thankfully for the Mavericks, Tim Hardaway Jr. has been basically been a starter in everything but title and has been shooting and scoring well. Ditto for Jalen Brunson. The problem is the Mavericks still regularly close games with at least two of Finney-Smith, Kleber and Richardson on the floor. Against the Clippers, Rick Carlisle brought his starting lineup back into the game with 6:27 left in the fourth quarter. Kawi Leonard made one free throw, Finney-Smith missed a pullup two pointer after a poor pass from Kleber sent the possession into scramble mode, Lou Williams made a three pointer and Carlisle called a timeout. Back in went Hardaway and the Mavericks ripped off 8-2 run to get the game within two possessions.

Dallas ran out of gas after that, but it was indicative of how far the Mavericks need to go to reach the level that the Clippers, Lakers, Jazz, Bucks, 76ers and Nets are at. This doesn’t mean the sky is falling, the Mavericks just whooped up on the Denver Nuggets a few days ago, another solid team. It’s just clear when the Mavericks go against the best of the best, they just seem to be at a talent disadvantage.

Look at it this way — Doncic has been a superhero since the start of February, a big part of the Mavericks turnaround, to go along with their roster regaining good health. He’s been MVP-level dominant, as the Mavericks have gone 11-4 in their last 15 games. In those 11 wins, Doncic has averaged a staggering 33 minutes a game. He’s only been below 30 minutes once in this entire stretch, and it was 29 minutes in the blowout loss to 76ers. Every win he’s been at 33 minutes or higher, including some stretches of 37 minutes or more in a row. Doncic is practically dragging this Mavericks team to wins, even with the improved play of Kristaps Porzingis. Doncic is averaging a career-high 35 minutes a game, higher than last season. It definitely explains the rest day against Oklahoma City last week.

To reiterate, this isn’t a panic moment for the Mavericks. They’ve won 11 out of 15! The Mavericks have proven with their roster fully healthy, they’re a good team. Just maybe not as good as the Clippers. It isn’t just a Mavericks problem, as there are plenty of teams working their way to reach that level of contender. This was a measuring stick game for the Mavericks and it showed there’s plenty of work left to be done.