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The Mavericks have sacrificed first-quarter efficiency for fourth-quarter dominance

The Mavericks are really good when it matters

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Just a year ago the Mavericks were a bottom-six team in net rating (-2.9) during the fourth quarter. A lot of this had to do with their incredible volume of clutch games played and their lack of ability to close them out. They won just 26 of 55 clutch games and scored at a rate of 106.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, of the 20 teams who played at least 40 clutch games in 2022-23, this offensive rating ranked Dallas 14th. They weren’t at the bottom of the barrel but plays like this sank Dallas when they needed a bucket:

Nine months later, the Mavericks find themselves fourth in net rating in the fourth quarter. If you take out the last two games (which were blowouts) then Dallas would be first in the league by eight points. Yes, the team is vastly different but the coach and the superstars have remained the same. It was not a personnel rework that got Dallas to this position, it was an overhaul of the rotation and philosophy by coach Jason Kidd. So far it has worked and history suggests that it could have serious playoff success implications.

How they got here

Last season, Luka Doncic led the league in first-quarter scoring at 11.2 points per opening frame. No other player was within an entire point of that and it’s a big reason why Dallas had the sixth-best first quarter offense. Despite this, Dallas ranked just 15th in first-quarter net rating. With such incredible production from Doncic, it’s surprising Dallas was just mediocre to open games.

Logically, with over a third of Doncic’s scoring output being spent in the first quarter it would make sense that over the next three quarters, the production would tail off. This is exactly what happened, as Doncic averaged just 5.8 points in eight minutes per game of fourth-quarter play. The Mavericks’ offense was just 14th in the league in the final period and their net rating dropped to sixth-worst. The Mavericks put all their chips in jumping out to a big lead through Doncic domination but fell short and left themselves with an impossible uphill battle as games came to a close. It was clear that something needed to change after a missed playoff birth, and Luka Doncic’s rotation might have been the most important year-over-year adjustment.

What Dallas has done

Essentially, Kidd has flip-flopped Doncic’s first and fourth quarters. In the first quarter this year, Doncic is only playing 8.9 minutes and scoring 6.5 points per game. In the fourth quarter, he is averaging 9.9 minutes and scoring 9.9 points, which includes the game against the Clippers where he played just three and a half minutes and scored just two points. So far, it has worked incredibly well. The Mavericks are 8-2 and Doncic has been in MVP form. He has had multiple big shots in the fourth quarter already and is shooting nearly 59 percent from the field and 48 percent from three in the final frame.

Allowing Tim Hardaway Jr., Grant Williams, and Kyrie Irving to get more involved early has given the role players more rhythm which benefits the team as the game goes on. The result has been a decrease in first-quarter production and a massive increase in fourth-quarter efficiency which has proved to be the key to Dallas’ success.

What this means

Although the season is young, the trends Dallas has followed could imply more success than they already have had. Nine of the last ten teams that have made the Finals have been top five in either first or fourth-quarter net rating (some top five in both). The only team to not meet those qualifications was the 2018-19 Raptors, who ranked seventh in first-quarter efficiency. This quantifies something easy to see when watching these teams play: great teams either open the game strong and hold, close the game firmly after staying afloat the first three quarters, or both.

So far this season, eight teams have a top-five net rating in either the first or fourth quarter: the Nuggets, the Mavericks, the Lakers, the Suns, the Magic, the Kings, the Celtics, and the Hawks; all teams competing for a championship. Right now the Nuggets and Celtics are the betting favorites to win their respective conferences and are the only two teams that are top five in both quarters. There is a clear correlation between this metric and success in the playoffs and if this isn’t just a ten-game trend for Dallas, they could be better than their record shows.