If you think the Mavericks can take the next step after their 52-win, Western Conference Finals run from a season ago, that first half was awfully tasty, wasn’t it? Just about everything that was predicted to go right for the Mavericks did — Luka Doncic looked incredible and in peak condition, Spencer Dinwiddie was more than capable as a secondary playmaker, the key pieces of the surprising defense from last season all still looked locked in, with Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, Maxi Kleber, and third year forward Josh Green making things hell for the Suns in the first 24 minutes. Big trade acquisition Christian Wood was as advertised and while he only had nine points in the first half, his ability to disrupt in the pick and roll, get to the foul line, attack off the dribble, and find cutters and shooters as the roll man was exquisite.
However, if you think the Mavericks were going to take a step back after losing their second best player Jalen Brunson and failing to shore up their perimeter weaknesses, well just look at that second half. Dinwiddie picked up his fourth foul quickly in the third quarter, and the Mavericks slowly wilted as Doncic was forced to do it all for the entire period. Tim Hardaway Jr. unfortunately picked up where he left off last season and thrust into more minutes earlier into the half than expected thanks to the Dinwiddie foul trouble, things snowballed as the Suns preyed on Doncic having to create everything.
The Suns defense stayed home on shooters, contested Doncic better at the rim and the Mavericks offense suffocated. Finney-Smith took zero shots in the second half, and there’s perhaps no better barometer for how well the Mavericks offense is humming than by looking at how many attempts Finney-Smith has from three. Wood still looked good but coach Jason Kidd didn’t trust him in enough in the fourth quarter, JaVale McGee looked like, well, JaVale McGee, and the Josh Green hype train stayed stuck in its station as he finished with one points and zero field goal attempts for his entire 18 minute night. If you think the Mavericks will struggle this season, that half was all you needed to reaffirm your thoughts.
So which half is more indictive of this Mavericks season? Is both a cop out answer? It’s a long season, and games like Wednesday night’s will happen. Hardaway will play better games, and so will McGee, but there’s a certain “they are who they are” feeling with those two guys. Dinwiddie’s fourth foul was such a killer, as the starters with Hardaway in Dinwiddie’s place was a minus-four in just under four minutes. Wood was breathtaking and if that passing as the roll man is real and can continue, I might have to readjust some expectations around this Mavericks season. Wood sitting from 6:41 in the fourth quarter until 2:19 in the game was a shame, but it’s obvious Kidd has a lot of experimenting and adjusting to do. Much like with Reggie Bullock last season, Kidd will have to figure out what works best with Wood and what lineups and rotations he wants to stick with. You could practically see Kidd’s gears turning in real time on the floor as he tried a few minutes with Wood as the lone big, but then paired him with Maxi Kleber for a lot of minutes because of Wood’s defensive issues.
Then the problem with playing Kleber and Wood together is that knowing Doncic will be on the floor as well toward the end of the game, so that leaves two spots for three players (Bullock, Finney-Smith, Dinwiddie) that Kidd likes. There were times where Bullock and Finney-Smith were the two guys with that three-man grouping, but predictably the offense stalled as Doncic had to do everything. Then Dinwiddie would check in, the offense would look better, but the defense looked a little shakier.
It will take some time for Kidd to figure this part of the game out and it’s no surprise that Wood will have to earn trust — it was a storyline all training camp and Wood’s defense prior to Dallas hasn’t earned him the benefit of the doubt. Wood even mentioned this after the game, saying, “Late in games, it’s just a trust thing. I have to build the trust with this team. I’m on a new team. Once I do that, I think we’ll be good.” The good news is that Wood looked fine on defense for the most part, so maybe that helps push his minutes up.
So put me down as a first half kinda guy, with some potential bumps on the road as the coaching staff hones in on a set rotation. The Western Conference is a bear and blowing 20-point leads will look worse toward the end of the season when the standings are razor tight, but for now the only way is to look forward. The things the Mavericks did in the first half felt repeatable, and while some of the second half errors did as well, it’s not enough to pull the fire alarm on Game 1 of 82.
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