It is never fun to lose the first game of a season, especially when it is to a team that you share so much recent history, and even more so when you find yourself losing hold of a 22-point lead. The Dallas Mavericks did just that Wednesday night, losing to the Phoenix Suns 107-105 on a last second shot after leading nearly the entire game.
The Mavericks’ performance was all the sport tropes you can think of, dominating one half and folding in the other. And as Josh Bowe opens his piece, “Depending on how you felt about the Dallas Mavericks heading into this season, either the first or second half of the loss to the Phoenix Suns on opening night will stick with you for longer.”
Here’s the thing: looking disjointed, out of rhythm, or inconsistent is easy to do early in a campaign. The Mavericks are often slow out of the gate to start the season, going 1-5 on opening night dating back to Dennis Smith Jr.’s rookie year. Even with a roster that is largely a carryover from last season, there is chemistry and pace to rediscover. The absence of Jalen Brunson, and the insertion of Christian Wood, JaVale McGee, and Tim Hardaway Jr. returning from injury means some of that will just take reps.
But do not lose sight of the positives. Because when the Mavericks were clicking Wednesday night they looked like a contender. And I would argue those positives will matter more in the long run than coughing up a 22-point lead on the road.
Christian Wood as passer
For much of the game Christian Wood (25 points, eight rebounds, two assists) looked to be all the reasons Nico Harrison traded for him in the offseason. He was a presence in the paint and on the perimeter as a scorer, both in isolation and off the catch. He is athletic and smooth, and seems to understand the spacing of where he should be playing off the initiator of the offense. But something that was a pleasant surprise was his ability to move the ball.
This is a staple set for the Mavericks. Three wing shooters space to the corners and at the break while Luka Doncic plays off a high screen. The most underrated aspect of their offense over the years has been Dwight Powell’s ability to set that high screen then make the second pass from the nail. It requires the big man to read the defensive rotation and make a split second decision — drive or kick. Powell has been fairly effective in that. But inserting Wood into the same set is far more dynamic if he has this vision to pass.
In one game already it’s clear that defenses are going to pay attention to his scoring ability. He and Doncic playing off each other should force so many dramatic rotations that as long as he is making reads like this, the Mavericks offense will be potent. Wood finished the game with just two assists, but he should have had a few more. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him average three or four assists a game based entirely on this set above.
Who would start and who came off the bench was a focus of debate in the offseason, with Brunson and Powell’s spots up for grabs over the summer. While I expect some of that debate to continue, it was nice to see the bench group come in and make an impact in the first half.
Wood, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, and Josh Green are an interesting combination of offense and defense. If this group were to stay together long term the hope is Green’s energy masks Hardaway’s defensive deficiencies, the same for Kleber and Wood, while the reverse happens on offense. As mentioned above, Wood looks comfortable scoring on his own or off the ball. Hardaway didn’t connect on many looks, but maybe he’s still finding his feet after missing game action for so long (hopefully).
That group only logged four minutes together but had a Net-rating of 27.3, and there were brief moments with Spencer Dinwiddie leading that bench unit that they looked like a starting five. Dinwiddie’s eventual foul trouble caused mayhem for both the starters and the bench, which is something lacking another ball-handler effects and I’m not sure if Facundo Campazzo can cover. Nevertheless, the foursome of Dinwiddie-Green-Wood-Kleber had a Net-rating of 83.6 in five minutes — those advanced stats do funny things in small samples, but still a positive.
The Mavericks creators disrupted Phoenix’s defense last night. The trio of Doncic, Dinwiddie and Wood drew 20 fouls Wednesday night. The Mavericks as a team last season averaged 20 fouls drawn per game. The storyline of the night was the team’s free throw shooting woes — Doncic was a beautiful 13-of-13 from the line, but the rest of the team went 8-of-21 (Wood and Dinwiddie 3-of-12). It ultimately cost them the game.
Not all of these fouls were in the act of shooting. But they began to add up. And if the team can improve their free-throw shooting, getting to the bonus early will matter long term. That that job isn’t placed solely on Luka is a bright spot. Wood drew seven fouls, and often looked adept at playing through contact in the lane. If this trio can continue to force that issue, literally, good things will happen for the Mavericks.
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