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Mavericks vs. Raptors preview: 4 storylines to watch as Dallas hosts Toronto

The Mavs have a great shot to keep the momentum going at the AAC

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Orlando Magic
Dallas Mavericks guard Jaden Hardy (1) drives against Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony (50) during the second quarter at Amway Center.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

A season that has started with a flare of unexpected joy rolls on Wednesday for the Dallas Mavericks (6-1) when they host the Toronto Raptors (3-4) at the American Airlines Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. CST on Bally Sports Southwest

Riding the momentum from Monday’s 117-102 win at Orlando, the Mavs are starting to turn heads, while the Raptors are scratching theirs as they search for a way to start stringing together wins. That the Mavericks’ offense has been lethal, especially late in games, has been the rule to start the season. The exception in Monday’s win in Orlando was that Dallas’ defense allowed fewer than 20 points in each of the final two quarters.

Toronto comes into the matchup with the Mavericks on two days’ rest after Sunday’s 123-116 overtime win at the Spurs. Scottie Barnes, the second-year forward out of Florida State, scored 30 points, grabbed 11 rebounds in the win, and has led the Raptors in scoring in six of the first seven games of the year.

Can the Mavs’ defense chip in consistently?

The Mavericks gave up just 17 points in the third quarter and just 19 in the fourth quarter on Monday to complete the team’s second-straight 15-point comeback win in as many nights. Limiting the Magic, a pretty-decent-to-pretty-good team, to 36 points in the second half is by far the best two-quarter defensive effort of the young season.

Guys all over the roster, even Luka Dončić and Tim Hardaway Jr. at times, are showing defensive inspiration in spurts, though they are still punctuated by some all-too-familiar lapses in halfcourt and transition defense. If the team defense can solidify into something above average, if not great, to go alongside an offense that is firing on all cylinders, that’s how the Mavs become incredibly dangerous this year.

The Mavs hold a 113.2 defensive rating so far this year, just 18th in the league, but a definite improvement over last year.

No more slow starts

Two straight 15-point comeback wins are great and all, but it would be nice to show a little bit “more passion, more energy, more footwork” to start games, to quote the meme. To fall behind a team like Orlando on Monday is a little more forgivable than falling behind Chicago on Sunday, but as the Mavericks continue to grow and check the boxes fans have been begging them to start checking in recent years, we would love to see more of an ability to get off to a fast start and put some teams — perhaps even the team from Toronto, on Wednesday — away.

Dallas is averaging just 27.9 points in the first quarter so far this year — that’s 20th in the NBA — compared with 120.7 points per game, which is 5th in the league. It would be ideal to start evening that out a bit. It’s an even more stark difference when you view it in terms of scoring differential. The Mavs are a minus-41 in the first half (26th in the NBA) this season, compared with a plus-87 in the second half (1st).

Toronto’s defense

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs
Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) dribbles in the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at the Frost Bank Center.
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors, despite occupying a sort of in-between space with two key roster holdovers from the team’s 2019 NBA title run still intact in Pascal Siakam (15.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists this year) and O.G. Annunoby (16.2 points, 4.2 rebounds), have been playing well defensively to start the season. They are tied for the league’s 5th best defensive rating, at 107.3, and that defensive prowess has helped Toronto pull off upsets of both the Timberwolves (97-94) in their season opener and the Bucks (130-111) so far.

They could provide a stern test for the Mavs’ offense, which still sits third in the NBA in offensive rating, at 119.7 and second in 3-point shooting at 39.4 percent, while averaging the fourth-fewest turnovers (13.1) in the league.

Can Toronto test the Mavs in clutch time?

After struggling in clutch games a year ago, the Mavericks are 6-0 in clutch games to start the season and have an offensive rating of 142.9 and a defensive rating of 85.7 in clutch minutes. The Mavs have scored 60 points in 19 clutch minutes while only giving up 30. That plus-30 clutch point differential is first in the NBA by an absurdly large margin. The Bucks are second at plus-13.

But that only becomes relevant if the Mavericks find a way to fall behind early again or if the Raptors can make this a close game late. Dallas has a real opportunity to show they can win yet another way when they play the Raptors: by dominating the game from start to finish.

How to watch

This one will be televised on Bally Sports Southwest. Tip is slated for 7:30 p.m. CST.