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What we can learn from the Mavericks win streak

What we’ve observed as the Mavericks season gets back on track

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks have ripped off seven games in a row, practically turning their season around while climbing from as far back as 11th in the Western Conference all the way to fourth. What was a disappointing team one game under .500 on Dec. 19 is now a team on the rise behind career performances from its young superstar.

Unfortunately the one tiny knock on this Mavericks win streak is that it’s mostly come against inferior competition — of the seven wins, six were against teams currently outside the top 10 of the Western Conference, with the lone exception being the miracle overtime win against the Knicks that took Luka Doncic doing something no one has ever done before in the NBA, a 60-20-10 game.

Even with those qualifiers, the streak is still much welcomed. Dallas has struggled the last few seasons against sub-par competition and the Mavericks finally took care of business, despite a recent wave of injuries knocking out key pieces of the rotation. As myself and editor Kirk Henderson have discussed on recent post-game podcasts, it’s been difficult to learn anything discernable from this streak, given the quality of the competition, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that the Mavericks feel steady for the first time all season.

Still, there have been some takeaways from this seven game stretch. With the Mavericks playing the Celtics, Pelicans, and Clippers in three of their next four games, the schedule is definitely ramping up. It feels like now is as good a time as ever to assess what I’ve observed and learned during this winning stretch.

Christian Wood the starter is working

There’s no grand surprise stating the fact that the Mavericks have looked good with Christian Wood as their starter. I wrote in late November that the Mavericks needed to get Wood on the floor more with Luka Doncic to turn their season around. Those good numbers from November have continued.

According to stats site Cleaning the Glass, with Doncic and Wood on the court since Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Josh Green were injured earlier in December, the Mavericks are a plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions. The offense is literally on fire, averaging 128.3 points per 100 possessions, which is 10 points better than the league-leading Boston Celtics.

The main starting lineup with Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock, and Wood is an even zero in plus/minus in 104 minutes during the streak, which doesn’t sound that impressive, but isn’t bad considering the Mavericks are missing a major starting piece in Finney-Smith. With Dinwiddie, Hardaway, Doncic, and Wood, that’s four players that aren’t always great at defense, yet it’s holding water thanks to good shooting and some extra buy-in from Wood on the defensive end.

Defense is probably where we should start with Wood as a starter, because it’s something he hasn’t really done before. Wood has had at least one block in every game during the streak, with six of the seven wins featuring multiple blocks. He loved beating up on his old team, as he had 13 blocks in the three Houston wins, but still showed effort and hustle throughout the streak.

That’s been the thing with Wood during the turnaround — effort and hustle. Wood still isn’t an incredible defender and I have seen him block hunting a couple times that has led to opposing teams getting easy putback opportunities, but the guy is scrambling on the court more during this win streak than I’ve seen him consistently do anywhere else in his career.

In the clip above, Wood helps on a drive, but leaves his feet way too late and allows his man to creep under the basket in position for a wide open layup. Wood doesn’t give up on the play, forces a scramble, and gets a steal after diving on the floor. For the Mavericks to survive without their best defenders, Wood doesn’t have to turn into an elite one himself, but he needs to consistently give this type of effort and energy on that end of the floor.

Offensively, it’s business as usual. The Doncic-Wood pick and roll feels as unstoppable now as it was at the start of the season. Wood is averaging 2.7 made three pointers per game, while shooting 42.2 percent from three during the winning streak. Wood is picking and popping teams to death next to Doncic, paying off what Kristaps Porzingis frustratingly couldn’t consistently do in Dallas. Porzingis never shot above 40 percent from three with the Mavericks, and while his volume was a major factor in floor spacing, Wood’s ability to not only pick and pop efficiently, but then make shots inside the arc at a high rate is huge. Wood is shooting 62.8 percent on his two pointers this season and has bumped his roll man efficiency to 1.53 points per possession, good for the 92.7 percentile in the league.

Of all NBA players that have at least 100 roll man possessions this season, Wood tops the list in just about every notable category: points per possession, field goal percentage, and effective field goal percentage. Wood has a staggering 79.8 effective field goal percentage as the roll man this season.

The Mavericks are making defenses make really tough choices with Wood’s pick and pop game, putting prime shooters like Dinwiddie and Hardaway in the corners to prevent any help defense from crashing down to Wood beyond the arc.

“His pick-and-pops are really, really hard to guard,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas told reporters after the Mavericks win on Monday. “Which is difficult when the person passing to him is scoring 50 every night. He’s definitely finding his rhythm.

Speaking of who is passing Wood the ball...

Luka Doncic might have turned a corner against bad teams

Doncic has been a maniac during this winning streak — he has three 50 point games, including the aforementioned 60-20-10 game against the Knicks. He’s averaging a mind-numbing 41.7 points per game on 55.6 percent shooting during this seven game streak.

While those numbers are notable no matter who the opponent, it feels important that Doncic is doing this against crappy teams. Why? Well, because Doncic hasn’t really done that before in his career. Here’s what I wrote about the matter after Monday’s win against the Rockets.

For the past three seasons now, a major knock for Luka and this Mavericks team has been effort and focus against the worst teams in the league. Dallas, and Luka himself, have performed well below expectations against sub-.500 teams for a few seasons now and even this one didn’t get off to a great start with early losses to Oklahoma City, Detroit, Houston, and Orlando.

Thankfully, this might be a turning point for Luka’s career. While six of the seven wins in this streak were against non-playoff teams, Doncic has been nails in all of them. Would it be nice if Luka didn’t have to score 50 to beat the Rockets and Spurs? Sure. But also remember games in the past where Luka wouldn’t show up against a team like Orlando and the Mavericks suffer a disappointing loss? I’ll take this any day. Luka maturing mentally is just as important for him maturing physically. He’s still 23. It’s good to see some progress made here. You want to win an MVP? Be the face of the league? Big nights against the best help, but taking care of business is a must. Good for Luka and the Mavericks.

Doncic has been held below 40 percent shooting in only six games this season. Somehow, four of those six are against the Thunder, Magic, Wizards, and Timberwolves — all teams below .500 and currently 10th place or worse in their respective conferences. For whatever reason Doncic has always struggled to get himself going during these sleepy matchups, but that has changed in the last two weeks. I’ve been saying for a long time now that Doncic’s biggest improvements left aren’t really on the basketball court, but in his mental growth and maturity. MVP candidates don’t regularly lose to crappy teams. They just don’t. So to see Doncic drag this injured team across the finish line and absolutely handing it to these subpar squads has been a delight.

The bench is doing stuff

With injuries to Finney-Smith, Green, and Kleber, the Mavericks rotation has been shot. The Mavericks have three players averaging 36 minutes per game or more during the streak, with all five starters averaging at least 30 minutes. Coach Jason Kidd has basically run a six to seven man rotation most nights, giving his starters as much of a break as he can considering the unfortunate circumstances.

Despite the coaching staff having to dig into the bottom of the bench, the team is still winning. And while the bench is in no shape or form a shinning beacon of hope, they’re at least not losing the team any games during this critical stretch, and that’s honestly pretty good.

Some of these guys are never supposed to play — Frank Ntilikina, McKinley Wright, Theo Pinson, and Davis Bertans have all been called into action and giving the Mavericks just enough to scrape by while the starters get a quick rest.

Wright has impressed Mavericks fans with his smooth court game and an ability to get the team into its offense. He feels like he has a career as a solid backup point ahead of him and he’s bailed the Mavericks out with critical minutes as Kemba Walker’s sore knee prevents him from playing every game.

Ntilikina has probably been the brightest of the bunch. He looked unplayable earlier in November when the team was fully healthy and he got spot minutes here and there. He’s been thrust into action as one of the few healthy guys that can actually show a pulse on defense and the Mavericks are absolutely dominating teams when he’s playing. The Mavericks are a plus-16.9 points per 100 possessions during this winning streak with Ntilikina on the floor and an overall plus-36 in his 84 minutes. He still isn’t making any threes, but he’s occasionally getting to the basket for a sneaky layup and his length on defense has been desperately needed to fill the gaps of the missing players. It’s doubtful Ntilikina can keep this up as the schedule gets tougher, but it was still a much needed stretch.

The other bench player of note has been Dwight Powell, who lost his starting spot to Wood when he injured his thigh in mid-December and has been coming off the bench since his return on Dec. 21. Powell has done his best Kleber impression lately, providing some real quality perimeter defense and switching during the win streak. As a bonus, he’s even been decent around the basket defensively too, which has never been his strong suite.

The Powell-Wood combo has been dynamite during this streak. With Wood able to stretch the floor and his new found ability to guard the rim, the duo has sort of become a supercharged version of the classic Kleber-Powell bench group that always performed well. With Wood and Powell on the floor this season, the Mavericks are, brace yourselves, a plus-38.3 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. To be fair, it’s an extremely small sample based off 67 possessions, with almost all of them happening in the last seven games. But Powell’s ability to move his feet on the perimeter and Wood’s shot blocking have been a nice combination, not even mentioning the already perfect combo of Powell’s rim-running with Wood’s floor spacing on the other side of the floor.

Powell off the bench is fun, because it gets a fan base that just loves to hate him off his back and gives you another veteran you can trust to just make plays when you need them. With so many guys that aren’t accustomed to playing getting thrust onto the floor due to injuries, Powell sort of has a calming presence. He just does things, whether that’s a quality box out, successful close out, or sneaky good pass. I think those traits translate better with the bench, where Powell doesn’t have to go against elite bigs and wings for most of the night.

Who knows if everything continues as the schedule gets harder, but the Mavericks absolutely needed this. At 15-16, if the Mavericks did anything worse than a 5-2 stretch in these past seven games, the team would likely be spiraling. Instead the Mavericks rallied back and saved their season once again. It’s been fun to watch, and hopefully a sign that the Mavericks team we thought this group could be during the summer is finally here.