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Deciphering the Mavericks best stretch of basketball this season

Despite roster upheaval due to injuries and COVID, Dallas played its best basketball of the season in the last two weeks. Here’s how it happened and if it can continue.

Dallas Mavericks v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

When Luka Doncic left the lineup to deal with a nagging ankle sprain after a Dec. 10 loss to the Indiana Pacers, the Dallas Mavericks were rudderless. A game below .500 at the time, 12-13, with their superstar, do-it-all, All-NBA guard out for what seemed like at least a decent amount of time. Piling on, the Mavericks endured another COVID outbreak rivaling the one they went through last season, which not only knocked out more key rotation players but pushed Doncic’s return even farther out.

In fact, Doncic missed three weeks total before returning on Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That’s 10 missed games for Doncic and another handful of missed games for Kristaps Porzingis, Reggie Bullock, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Maxi Kleber. With the NBA wanting to push the season forward, Dallas had to sign almost an entire rotation’s worth of emergency hardship exception players to 10-day contracts. It got bad enough that the Mavericks had to sign replacements players for the replacement players, due to the severity COVID outbreak.

It would have been extremely understandable if the Mavericks season cratered during this stretch, without Doncic and playing a bunch of G-Leaguers and NBA castoffs major minutes. Instead, three weeks later and after a win against the Thunder on Sunday with Doncic returning, the Mavericks are technically in a better spot now than they were when Doncic left the lineup on Dec. 10. Dallas lost zero ground during the turmoil and are back to .500. How did it happen?

Well, it turns out the Mavericks played their best basketball all season these last few weeks. According to stats website Cleaning the Glass, the Mavericks have had the NBA’s fifth-best net-rating over the last two weeks (before Sunday’s game with the Thunder), with the league’s fourth-best offense during that time.

Let’s break down why and if it’s sustainable.

Reason why #1: Jalen Brunson played like an All-Star

It’s hard to start anywhere else for the Mavericks resurgence but improvement from the Mavericks fourth-year guard. In the past two weeks, Jalen Brunson averaged 22 points, 7.7 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.3 turnovers in 36.2 minutes per game.

The fun thing about Brunson’s play was that he didn’t necessarily do anything new, he just continued to do the same Brunson things he’s been doing the past four years, just at a higher volume while maintaining efficiency. Brunson isn’t as scorching hot as last season (61.8 true shooting percentage last season compared to 57.2 percent this season), but his volume has increased — he’s taking about three more shots per 100 possessions season-over-season. That’s been the question about Brunson as his extension looms: sure, his bench scoring is really nice, but is he just a really solid sixth-man or can he contribute in a bigger role? If these past two weeks are any indication, Brunson has proved himself as an above average starting point guard.

In these last two weeks, Brunson is shooting 21-of-40 on midrange shots, an absurdly good number. Brunson has sometimes struggled with prolonged defensive attention, as longer armed defenders can bother his ground-bound game. That’s why it’s been so nice to see Brunson as an offensive engine unto himself, like this clutch bucket against De’Aaron Fox shows.

The assist to turnover ratio is nice too — Brunson has never been known as a sloppy player, but thrust into a bigger role for an extended period of time, a larger uptick in turnovers would have been understandable. Instead, Brunson helped orchestrate the league’s fourth best offense in the past two weeks.

Is it sustainable?

For the regular season, yes. Brunson should continue to play well with Luka Doncic back, but it remains to be seen what coach Jason Kidd will do with Brunson when the Mavericks have their full roster back. We might have gotten a sneak peek Sunday night, with Brunson starting next to Doncic and playing well, scoring 12 points and dishing seven assists.

There’s no reason to doubt Brunson is a regular season dynamo — the real test will be in a few months during the playoffs. In the only playoff series he’s played in his career last season against the Clippers, Brunson averaged only eight points in 16.3 minutes per game, shooting 45 percent from the floor. Brunson’s size and limited athleticism compromised him greatly against the lanky Clippers. While the Mavericks will not see the terrifying twosome of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George again due to Leonard’s recovery from ACL surgery, playoff basketball is always a much different animal than the regular season. Even if it’s not the Clippers, the Mavericks could face off against the Warriors, Suns or Jazz — all formidable defensive squads. Brunson needs to show that his style translates to the most important games of the season.

Reason why #2: The Mavericks finally got to the rim

The long raging debate on the Mavericks corner of the internet has been why the Mavericks very good offense from the past two seasons turned to mud this season. Lots of narratives got thrown around, with “shot quality” and “they’re just missing open looks!” waging an internet war against each other.

Dallas’ scheme and style changes definitely contributed to the sluggishness: the Mavericks were never an elite team at getting to the rim, but they went from 15th in restricted area shots per game in 2019-2020, to 28th in 2020-2021, all the way to dead last this season. Those rim looks have shifted to more midrange shots and the spacing has mucked a lot for Doncic and the rest of the Mavericks shooters.

Somehow, with Doncic out and the regular players missing significant time, the Mavericks were 18th in the league at rim shots per game at 23.4. That’s up from their season number of 20.7. It doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but the attempts alone don’t sell just how much better the Mavericks have gotten to the rim the last two weeks. Dallas has been passing from the paint out to three point shooters more often during this stretch, resulting in better looks and, sometimes, better percentages. Dallas still only shot 32.8 percent from three during this two week stretch, but instead they’ve had a handful of pop-off games thanks to the paint penetration.

It goes to show the dearth of shot creation on this Mavericks roster that Brandon Knight can come off the street and look like the third best dribble penetrator on the roster. Knight only played three games, but scored 18 against Portland. With the qualifier that Portland has one of the worst defenses in the league, it was eye-opening to see Knight get to the basket like this. Can any other Maverick besides Doncic or Brunson do this?

Is it sustainable?

If Doncic turns his season around, yes. Doncic is at a career low at rate of shots at the rim, a steady decline from the 2019-2020 record breaking offense. Up until now, Doncic has simply lacked the burst and had the spacing to get to the rim as easily as he did two seasons ago, it’s a rough combination. Hopefully the time away, despite the health and safety protocol stint, does him wonders.

The issue could be the rest of the regulars returning. With Hardaway, Bullock and Kleber back to their normal spots, that means less time for Frank Ntilikina and Sterling Brown, who helped provide a bit more unpredictability to the Mavericks “four guys stand and watch Doncic” offense. Hell even Knight could be missed, as his stint in health and safety protocols meant his 10-day contract expired without him rejoining the team. Hopefully a refreshed and healthy Doncic makes a substantial difference — the Mavericks cannot return to the rates of shooting at the rim they were previously, or the shooting struggles will continue.

Reason why #3: The replacement Mavericks made a difference

Esthetically and from an entertainment perspective, it was a wildly enjoyable experience seeing faces that hadn’t been on the Mavericks roster for more than a few hours suit up and contribute in an NBA game. The point about the Mavericks roster stagnation over the last three years has been beaten to death so much we’ve probably collectively gone through 10 horses by now.

It was a breath of fresh air to not only see new faces, but to see them do productive things. Theo Pinson didn’t play particularly well, but in his first game against the Timberwolves on Dec. 21, he had seven points, four rebounds, three assists, four steals and one block in 22 minutes. It was a box-score-stuffing performance that most of the Mavericks regular reserves or role players rare do and Pinson did it in one game with zero practice or even knowing what the plays were called.

Marquese Chriss somehow looked like the Mavericks best frontcourt player in the non-Kristaps Porzingis division, thanks to his sheer athleticism that no big on the Mavericks, or even any player on the entire roster, can match. Chriss is filled with talent, there’s a reason he was selected eighth overall in the 2016 draft, but he could never stick because he could never direct his raw talent into meaningful production. He was a space cadet on defense, fouling teams at will and never being in right place, let alone at the right time. Despite all of those issues, which still showed up in Dallas at times, he’s basically thrived thanks to his talent just dwarfing his fellow Mavericks big men. Chriss is violent rolling to the rim and the he developed nice chemistry with all the Mavericks ball handling guards. With Dwight Powell losing a step after his Achilles surgery, Chriss has stepped into the rim-runner role the Mavericks have sorely missed ever since Powell got hurt. He’s also the only Maverick, outside of Moses Brown, that isn’t allergic to rebounding — Chriss is averaging 13.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, which is a substantially better number than Powell’s 8.3, Kleber’s 8.9 or even Porzingis’ 9.4. Chriss has attacked both ends of the floor with force and tenacity, which has also gotten him into trouble at times defensively, but still, what a sight to see a Mavericks big man move and play the way Chriss has. It’s an indictment on the Mavericks roster, but that still doesn’t make it any less helpful.

In Chriss’ most played lineup entering Sunday, he played next to Dorian Finney-Smith, Ntilikina, Brown, and Brunson. That lineup has outscored teams by nine points in those 10 minutes. With Pinson, his three most played lineups are a combined plus-six in 15 minutes. Again, these aren’t huge wins, but considering these players weren’t on a Maverick roster until a few weeks ago and were thrown into the fire, it’s awfully impressive. It goes to show how much change for the sake of change can be a nice benefit. The Mavericks roster has long needed a shakeup and there is no better proof than the team performing this well with replacement players sopping up minutes.

Is it sustainable?

Partially. Chriss appears destined to stick around, especially after his 15 point, seven rebound game against the Thunder on Sunday. A roster move will have to be made after his second 10-day contract expires, which likely means saying goodbye to Willie Cauley-Stein, who has been away from the team for months with a personal issue. If the Mavericks cannot find a trade partner for Cauley-Stein, they’ll likely waive him, if they’re set on keeping Chriss.

Pinson doesn’t appear to be here for much longer with Bullock and Hardaway back. Knight is already gone and Isiah Thomas will join him shortly. The Mavericks rotation is basically back at full strength, and there just aren’t enough roster spots for these guys.

Reason why #4: The Mavericks defense made strides

You would think the Mavericks being without Doncic and Hardaway and replacing those two with more athletic, defensive minded replacements would mean the Mavericks defense would improve significantly, but it didn’t — the Mavericks defensive rating the past two weeks (109.9), according to Cleaning the Glass, is almost the same as their season long number (109.5).

Still, there were some interesting things to take away. With no Doncic and no Hardway the Mavericks defense was definitely feistier, playing more aggressive, even if that led to breakdowns on the backend. Take this play from our own Iztok Franko, with Dwight Powell helping hard on a pick and roll against the Trail Blazers last week.

Powell is a much better defender in the pick and roll if he’s used aggressively like this, utilizing his speed and good footwork to hedge guards on the perimeter. When the Mavericks ask him to drop, that’s where the trouble comes from, with opposing ball handlers having a runway to the rim with Powell’s at times non-existent rim protection doing nothing to stop them.

Is it sustainable?

Likely not. Even though Bullock and Kleber returned recently, unless Doncic and Hardaway have big turnarounds, the Mavericks defense will continue to look sloppy and inconsistent. Which is why they’re basically right at league average.

Reason why #4: Finney-Smith and Porzingis stepped up

When your main star goes down, the entire point of having a second one is so they can pick up the slack. That’s long been a part of the plan of the Doncic/Porzingis pairing, with Doncic having a legitimate All-Star sidekick to that the pressure off him.

It’s been a rollercoaster tenure for Porzingis in Dallas, but the past two weeks he did his job. Porzingis averaged 24.4 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting during that time, while providing good defense at the rim. His three point shot is still MIA (25 percent the past two weeks) and it’s the only thing really holding back his game right now.

Porzingis’ 34 point, nine rebound, five assist, two steal, two block night against the Trail Blazers was probably the closest Porzingis has looked like ‘Bubble KP’ since he tore it up toward the end of the 2019-2020 season. Porzingis has had good scoring games since that season, sure, but rarely in the way he did it against Portland. He showed it all off: he finally hit some threes, created for himself in the mid-range, rolled hard to the rim, and drove it hard from the mid-post. He had nine free throw attempts, which is usually the barometer for how well he’s feeling.

Finney-Smith was basically indispensable during this time: he averaged 15.2 points, five rebounds, and an eye-popping 3.7 assists per game. He did this on 50/41/91.7 shooting splits too! An incredible run from a player the Mavericks can ask too much of at times.

The assists have been a nice development. Finney-Smith has always been a decent ball mover, someone that never junks the offense up by letting the ball stick — he always moves it along to the open guy. Still, he’s obviously not a playmaker and his career 1.4 assists per game shows that. So for him to be basically doubling that for a two week stretch is pretty impressive, most of which is that he’s had some legitimate drive-and-find looks that he’s just never had in his bag before.

Is it sustainable?

With Doncic and the regular back, it’s doubtful Finney-Smith will get the opportunities he’s been getting as of late. Still though, while the raw assist totals might drop, it seems like he’s made a genuine leap with his passing ability. Finney-Smith is a player that has pushed through expectations at almost every phase of his career, so it would not be that surprising if this is just another tool he’s added.

There’s still a decent amount of season left, but the clock is running out for the Mavericks to turn their improved play into wins. Despite the better net ratings, improved offense, the Mavericks still went 5-5 in those two weeks. The season is almost halfway over and there are plenty of questions about whether the full strength Mavericks can carry on what the replacement Mavericks did. They’ll have to do it quick.