The Dallas Mavericks finish this stretch 5-3 and improve to 35-27 on the season.
In the last report card, I posed a question of whether or not the Mavericks would see themselves out of the play-in tournament. With a little help from Portland’s recent struggles, the Mavericks finally made it out of the dark and desolate hole that is seventh through tenth place in the Western Conference.
How did the Mavericks do it? Not easily. After a miraculous, last-second win against Memphis in game 54, the Mavericks opened this stretch with a home loss to the Knicks. Luka Doncic’s 19 assists were not enough to stave off a 44-point homecoming performance from Julius Randle, and the Knicks won their fifth straight.
Fueled by a close loss to a hot team, the Mavericks came out firing two nights later against a Kings team on a nine-game losing streak. Oh, wait, no they didn’t. In one of Dallas’s worst losses of the season, the Mavericks went down early and fell to the Kings 121-107 on their home floor, making it two losses in a row. After having two full days of rest, the Mavericks beat the 18-win Pistons, keeping their hope alive to capture the sixth seed.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the return of Anthony Davis now awaited Dallas to close out their five-game homestand. In a shocking turn of events, the Mavericks beat the Lakers in back-to-back games and turned a 17-point third-quarter deficit into a 15-point victory in the second installment. Dallas held Davis to 7-of-29 from the field in 44 total minutes, en route to gaining sole possession of the sixth seed. Then, as if to play with the hearts of Mavericks fans everywhere, Dallas loses again to Sacramento without DeAaron Fox and then blows the Warriors out by 30 the next night. The Mavericks traveled to Detroit for a rematch with the Pistons to close out this stretch where Tim Hardaway Jr. posted a career-high 42 to lift Dallas in the Motor City.
Luka Doncic was named Western Conference Player of the Week for Week 18 after the victory against Detroit and the sweep of the Lakers. He averaged 26 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists over three games. After the demolition of Golden State, Doncic also increased his number of 30-5-5 games to 19, which leads the league.
Kristaps Porzingis rolled his ankle in the third quarter of the first game against Los Angeles and missed three games because of it. He came back in game 62 against Detroit but did not play the fourth quarter after being ruled out because of right knee soreness.
Josh Richardson also missed a triplet of games with a hamstring injury.
Who the Mavericks are, and who they have been for quite some time, was on full display during these eight games. They are a team that can play up or down to any level of competition on any given night. This year, they have beaten Brooklyn, Denver, the Clippers, the Lakers, and the Jazz. On the other hand, they have lost to the Rockets, the Kings, and the Thunder. If the Mavericks end up with the sixth seed, these losses become moot, and Dallas gets ready for their second consecutive playoff run. If Dallas finishes seventh or lower, and maybe even loses the play-in games, these inexplicable losses will be the topic of “what if” conversations for months to come.
This habit of playing up and down to their competition should be taken with a grain of salt, however. While there is no excuse for losing twice to the Sacramento Kings, at least they won’t be in the postseason. When the Mavericks have motivation, they come to play. They are now 23-14 against teams above .500, compared to an abysmal 12-13 against teams under that mark. The 17-point comeback victory against the Lakers quite possibly could be the Mavericks' best victory of the season, and the win over the Warriors was inspiring. Losing to Sacramento twice looked bad in a small eight-game sample size, but assuming the Mavericks finish in sixth, those losses do not mean much to the season as a whole.
Luka Doncic was spectacular over this stretch, averaging nearly 29 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds per game. Dorian Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell have been the Mavericks’ two best role players over the last couple of weeks, and their production can be seen in this graphic from the Mavericks Twitter account:
Key Stat: 4
This is the number of games where Dallas trailed by eight or more points in the first quarter over this stretch.
Getting off to slow starts has been an issue for Dallas all year and when the Kings took an early 20-3 lead on the Mavericks in game 60, the frustration with stumbling out of the gate hit a peak. Luka Doncic was asked what they can do to play with more energy from the start after the second loss to Sacramento, and his answer was rather dispiriting:
“I don’t know. I don’t know, but it’s been a lot of games. I don’t know what to say.”
Rick Carlisle also acknowledged the fact that their slow starts are beginning to get the best of them:
“Early holes are hard to dig out of. It’s tiring talking about it over and over and over again. We’ve got to be better.”
It’s one thing to recognize your shortcomings, but it’s a whole other task to correct them. The issue is not that Dallas can’t fix their early game woes, it’s that they aren’t consistently working to do so. The day after going down 17 in the first six minutes to a bad Kings team, Dallas opened up a 24 point lead in the first quarter against the Warriors.
Why can’t the Mavericks play like this every game? Well, some of it has to do with shot-making, which isn’t always going to be at the 52 percent clip Dallas posted against Golden State. But mostly it has to do with effort or lack thereof. It is not hard to notice that the Mavericks have a pattern of lethargic starts against inferior teams, which can be attributed to not taking their opponent seriously and believing that they (the Mavericks) are better than they actually are. Seeing that the Mavericks have a fairly weak strength of schedule for the remainder of the 2021 season, this issue becomes all the more important to fix to ensure the play-in is avoided.
One way to fix this is to simply just play with more energy and prepare for every game like you’re playing the best team in the world. Another way is to shake up the lineup in hopes that a player who does not normally start can provide a spark. Trey Burke exemplified this against Golden State, and Iztok Franko, another contributor for the site, provides an in-depth look at Trey Burke’s spark in this Twitter thread:
This is Trey Burke appreciation [thread] - because I can't remember such a good defensive performance by a Mavs player in a long time. Just amazing— Iztok Franko (@iztok_franko) April 28, 2021
Started putting pressure on Curry from the first minute, picking him up full court, getting in his body fighting over screens. pic.twitter.com/JK7PKtqILk
If Dallas continues to trip out of the gate, look for JJ Redick to be inserted into the starting lineup, if even for just one game. His gravity coming off of screens and masterful skill in the two-man game is something that could kickstart the Mavericks offense.
One big question for the next five games:
Will Kristaps Porzingis stop getting hurt?
Now questionable for Saturday’s matchup against Washington with right knee soreness, Kristaps Porzingis just cannot seem to stay completely healthy. When Dallas acquired him in the spring of 2019, everyone, including the Mavericks organization, was aware of the massive underlying question that underscored his other-worldly talent: would he be able to fully recover and stay healthy?
The answer thus far has been not really. Every time it seems like he is healthy and making strides to return to the level he played at in New York, a new issue crops up. He seemingly dodged a bullet after spraining his ankle against the Lakers, but when he made his return on Thursday, right knee soreness once again kept him out of a fourth-quarter and put him back on the injury report. Porzingis averaged 19.6 points and 9.5 rebounds in April before chronic injury issues once again questioned his availability near the playoffs.
The Mavericks play Washington and Sacramento (again) at home, then travel to Miami for a game against the Heat. They will then return back to Dallas for games against the Nets and Cavaliers over the next stretch. As the season winds down and the Mavericks prepare for a postseason run, they are going to need everyone to be healthy and playing so that there is no “ramp-up” period needed when the playoffs begin. It is not far-fetched to believe that Kristaps Porzingis’s future in Dallas rests on whether or not he can be healthy in the next 10 games and into the postseason.