The Mavericks (17-18) try to get above .500. They’ve lost five of their last eight games, but are trending upward, having won two of their last three. The Thunder (13-22), on the other hand, have won five of their last eight, but have stumbled a bit lately. They’ve lost two of their last three games.
There’s good news for the Mavericks on the horizon, too. The roster chaos that defined much of December seems to be coming to an end. Marc Stein reported that Luka Doncic could return to the lineup against the Thunder:
Luka Dončić is exiting health and safety protocols and expected to meet the Mavs in Oklahoma City for a possible Sunday return to the lineup, league sources say.— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) January 1, 2022
Dončić has missed 10 games recovering from a left ankle injury and a protocols stint.
Doncic last played on December 10. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon also reported that the Mavericks were optimistic that Tim Hardaway Jr. and Maxi Kleber would be out of health and safety protocols in time to re-join the team in Oklahoma City. The Mavericks will certainly be grateful for their return. Even though the energy has been up with the replacement players, Dallas is in desperate need of depth.
For the Thunder, Stein reported that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has entered health and safety protocols and will miss the game against Dallas.
Here are three things to watch for during the game:
Will the time off help the regular rotation players?
Doncic hasn’t played in three weeks, giving him time to rest his sore ankle and knee. Kleber was playing fine before he went into the protocols, but he’s always banged up, so a few games off never hurts. Reggie Bullock finally shot the ball well in his return against the Kings, tying a season high with 16 points. Maybe the same will happen with Hardaway, who has been in a season-long slump. He’s shooting 33% from deep this season, down from the 39% he shot the previous two seasons in Dallas.
The only fun part of the last couple weeks of replacement players is the heightened urgency and energy of the Mavericks. Hopefully that doesn’t go away when the regular rotation players return.
The Mavericks can’t allow the Thunder to shoot open 3-pointers.
The Thunder are eighth in the NBA in 3-point attempts with 37.4 per game. They’re not very good at making them, however, shooting only 31% from deep, the worst in the league. It’s a big part of the reason they only score 100.2 points per game, last in the NBA. But when a team shoots that many 3’s, there’s always a chance they can connect on them at an above-average rate and steal a win. In fact, it’s how the Mavericks have won a lot of games the last couple years.
It will be important to not lose track of Lu Dort and Kenrich Williams on the perimeter. Neither is an above-average 3-point shooter, but have the capability to catch fire from behind the arc. See Dort’s 30 point performance in the 2020 playoffs against the Rockets, where he shot 6-12 from deep. As long as the Mavericks don’t let the Thunder get into rhythm, they should be fine.
Kristaps Porzingis must continue his excellent play on offense.
Over his last four games, Porzingis has averaged 27 points and 8.5 rebounds on 51% shooting. Over his last seven, he’s averaged 24 points and almost 9 rebounds. He’s been a steady offensive presence with the absence of Luka. His defense has been inconsistent, but on offense he’s been solid. It hasn’t resulted in many wins, but it’s tough to pin the blame on him with such a shaky roster. If Porzingis can continue this level of play with Luka and the rest of the regular rotation back, the Mavericks should be able to shake off their mediocre play and put together some wins.
How to watch
Tip off is at 6:00 p.m. CST, and the game can be seen on Bally Sports Southwest and NBA League Pass. If you can’t watch, the radio broadcast is on 97.1 The Eagle.