Each game only counts as one in the standings - yet some feel like three losses wrapped into one—a true gut punch.
In what might just be the worst loss of the Luka Doncic era, the Dallas Mavericks fell to 2-3 on the season Friday night. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the first five contests of the season is vexing - especially if you are the sort of person who watches every minute of every game. We have seen the potential for dominance pulsing through this roster. Luka Doncic is in MVP form, Christian Wood is awash with talent and the Mavericks have held leads in every fourth quarter. It is easy to imagine permutations of the timeline where the Mavericks are 5-0 just as easily as 1-4. We have also seen a deep, dark chasm appearing in crunch time. Tonight, the Mavs fell into that abyss face first.
Against Phoenix, New Orleans, and now OKC, the outcome came down to the end of regulation and a contested Luka Doncic shot. Even in the Brooklyn game, a late lead evaporated to force overtime. This team is not playing well with a lead and they are finding themselves scrambling in crunch time to put a very angry genie back in the bottle.
So much is made of Luka’s usage rate - but not all minutes and not all games are the same impact on a player’s body. After the game, Doncic noted that Luguentz Dort is one of the three best defenders he faces in the league. The Thunder defenders pummeled Luka on nearly every drive to the basket. Yes, the counting stats look great and Luka is obviously otherworldly. Yet it's clear the first three quarters exacted a heavy toll on number 77.
Up 16, with six minutes to go, the ideal scenario might have been to see if the lineup that had built the lead could have pushed it out a touch further. Instead of being able to rest their star with another tipoff against Orlando hours away, the Mavericks put Doncic back in for the final 5:41. The rest of regulation saw the Mavericks muster all of four points. By the time overtime began, the dye was all but cast.
NBA teams were 9,975-1 when leading by 16+ points in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter over the last 25 years, per @ESPNStatsInfo.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) October 30, 2022
Make that 9,975-2 after the Mavericks’ miracle loss to the Thunder.
It feels as though the fourth quarter comes and the prevent offense is rolled out - intentionally or not. This meandering style of “Luka please save us” offense is leading to far too many contested shots late in the clock. Combine this trend with Jason Kidd’s hesitancy to call timeouts as the proverbial house is burning down and you have a team in quicksand far too often hoping that the clock is their ally. In the NBA, the last five minutes are an eternity.
Why is this happening? Put simply, this team is finding its way without Jalen Brunson. Much of the Mavericks' success last year came after the KP trade with two players that defenses had to account for as more than roll men or corner shooters. That two-headed monster approach in all its various forms soaked up the attention of defenses all the way into the Western Conference Finals. So while Spencer Dinwiddie is starting and playing reasonably well, the roster limitations are forcing the starting backcourt to see less time together than anyone rooting for Dallas would like. Would the Mavericks still seem one guard short if they had seized on the chance to pick up Goran Dragic when he was available?
The integration of Christian Wood has been clunky. Apart from the starter versus sixth-man debate, he simply needs more minutes and more shots. Five shots against the Nets and Friday night only ten against the Thunder is not enough volume for the Mavericks' second scoring option. Will the coaching staff run more of the offense through Wood?
The defense against dribble penetration that served the Mavericks so well last season is very shaky right now. Against a team like the Thunder that lives to drive the ball into the lane, this vulnerability was even more pronounced. Will Dallas return to form against drives to the basket?
Some of these concerns are papered over by an average night at the three-point line. However, on a night when the Mavericks were 8 for 40 from deep, these structural concerns come front and center in the face in such an unraveling.
The Mavericks are an incredibly talented team capable of winning a ton of games and going on another deep run in the playoffs. There are also fault lines visible after five games that should give the brain trust pause - and urgency to do what they can to address these trends internally. Seeing the Dr. Jekyll version of the Mavs tonight against the Magic and keeping Mr. Hyde hidden in the last five minutes would be a refreshing first step.