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Basketball is about feelings: What a difference one game makes

The win in New York was encouraging and started a much-needed winning stretch for the Mavericks, but to keep winning, leadership, energy and vibe issues will be all the more important

Dallas Mavericks v New York Knicks Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

It’s amazing what one game can do to a team’s mindset, as Derek Harper said. The Dallas Mavericks’ much needed win against the New York Knicks Saturday showed how little it takes for this team to change momentum.

Though it seems small, it has felt very large for weeks, insurmountable even. But something happened at halftime in New York and that something seems to be exactly what many of us have have been calling for the last weeks. Energy, effort on defense, and leadership on the court.

The energy changed, the Mavericks looked different, acted differently—a change so tangible, you could feel it right through the screen.

When Tim Hardaway Jr. caught fire from three and ended up with a season high eight 3-pointers, it seemed like the spark plug that got the whole engine started. The engine being Luka Dončić, who got hot from three as well and then had multiple easy drives to the basket. The spark spread and ignited Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bullock and Spencer Dinwiddie who all had three 3-pointers each.

The shots falling had the bench excited and the defense started to look like its old self—on a string, players talking, moving together. That’s the defense that won the Mavericks multiple games last spring.

The energy from the bench, from the players on the floor, and from the Knicks just completely changed. It’s that intangible, mysterious force that feels like magic—call it momentum change, energy switch, turnaround. The Mavericks took over, and the Knicks collapsed.

Even more noteworthy, behind this startling change was the same team that has not been looking like a winning team for weeks and who was without arguably their second-best player Christian Wood, out with non-Covid illness. The change was so shocking that people who aren’t even Dallas fans and don’t particularly follow the Mavericks wrote to me on Twitter about it: What happened at halftime?

I don’t know who said what at halftime, but something more than Hardaway getting hot must have happened. The team looking disappointingly like a play-in team in the first half was gone. Back was the playoff team of last spring, plus Hardaway, minus the then second-best player—who they were now facing off against.

More leadership, now

The exciting and encouraging wins, however, do expose some of this team’s biggest weaknesses outside the need for talent. Something that’s been missing is consistent leadership on the court, off the court, from the vets and coach.

Remember that time last year, when Dorian Finney-Smith spoke up at halftime about accountability? It changed the energy and effort the team put into the defense, Doncic explained afterwards, and they ended up winning after trailing for most of the game. That’s leadership, and the team has needed that for a while.

There’s been a lot of frustrated body language, hand throwing, heads hanging. I understand that you’re frustrated, I understand that it sucks that you carry the team, get clobbered under the basket, don’t get a call and then your teammate bricks the three. Again. But you know what? A leader keeps showing the way, keeps playing, keeps encouraging the good stuff. If the leader doesn’t have a good attitude and clearly doesn’t believe, the team will follow suit. It’s just that simple.

Everybody needs to stop complaining

But it’s not just on the court there’s been complaining and hand throwing the last weeks. The narratives around the Mavericks have been tiring. “No one can dribble on the Mavs but Luka”, “Luka needs to share the ball more”, “Luka needs a better supporting cast”. That last one is right though, and he needs the rotation players to step up and play better every night.

Until they—hopefully—start playing better consistently, you know what we’re going to do instead of complaining?

We’re going to cherish the good moments and the small victories. We’re going to celebrate that we are lucky enough to have a generational talent on our team, someone who inspired most of us and who’s not even peaking yet. We’re going to be amazed at his passing, vision, pace, dominance.

But you know what we’re not going to do? We’re not going to complain day and night about the rest of the team. We’re going to keep believing and we’re going to cherish those times, where Bullock makes a three and Kleber has a clear and perfect block.

We’re also not going to keep living in the past. Yes, mistakes were made. Yes, the front office should have signed Goran Dragic and not signed Facu Campazzo. They also should not have let Jalen Brunson go for nothing. It’s been a horrible summer, full of horrible mistakes, and then the head coach just keeps lying to us. About why Wood is getting sporadic minutes. About why certain players have to earn minutes when others get a leash the length of Texas, because they used to be good at shooting.

No, that doesn’t make it any easier. And it sucks. But you know what, and I’m sorry to have to break this to you, we don’t have a say in any of this. If they pretend to listen to the fans, it’s a ruse. This is a business and the front office is doing what’s good for business. Or what they think is good, at least.

Lastly, I am reminded to enjoy the small moments by Brent Brooks, who wrote a wonderful piece about enjoying the Mavericks no matter what before the season started. As someone who has been there from the beginning, he reminds us that the Mavericks have been a poor or mediocre team for most of their existence. That back in the day, there was no generational talent or playoff expectations. At the lowest points, there were barely any wins. But there were still fans, people who loved the Mavericks and believed. That they would play better next game, or next season.

At those points, Brooks writes, it’s all about enjoying the small victories. A beautiful play, a rare made three, good energy on the bench.

Complaining, regrets and living in constant fear that a superstar is leaving - are not why we watch basketball and love this team. We need to remember why we’re all here. Why we love this game and the joy it gives us.

And then maybe, maybe, we will get a positive surprise at some point. But until then, like in your own life, enjoy the small moments and cherish the small victories. We can do better than this.

Find last week’s Mavericks Feelings here.