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NBA Power Rankings Watch: the Mavericks stabilize as they battle injury

The Mavericks got back on track even with the health of the team being challenged.

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks had a light start to December, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Injuries were mounting for the team last week, with as many as three starters and key reserves all absent. Support has slowly returned, with Tim Hardaway Jr., Derrick Jones Jr., and Grant Williams all back in the lineup.

But it’s the dynamic workload and performance of their current starting backcourt of Luka Doncic and Dante Exum that have been the story. Exum, who has been in his role as Kyrie Irving recovers from a recent injury, has been quite the development. It brings a new hope that the Mavericks, once fully healthy, will have dynamic depth to compete in the West. That is the focus in this week’s Power Rankings Watch!


The Athletic

Rank: 10 (Tier 3: Playoff Teams)

Last week: 12

First Quarter Grade: B+

I keep waiting for the Mavericks to crash, and it’s only happened a little. It feels like they’re playing over their heads, but they keep winning. Despite a little 3-6 stretch to even things out a bit, the Mavs continue to be juggernauts on offense. Luka Dončić is as good as he’s ever been. Dereck Lively II has been a really solid rookie. They’re getting good production off the bench most of the time. But does any of this translate to the postseason other than Luka being great?

Preseason prediction update:Kyrie plays at least 70 games for the first time since 2016-17.

Kyrie is on pace for 60 games played, but I still feel good about this one.

NBA

Rank: 11

Last week: 11

The Mavs have had Maxi Kleber for just five games and they’ve been without Grant Williams for the last two. Now, Kyrie Irving is out with a heel contusion suffered when Dwight Powell landed on him on Friday. But they got to play the Jazz and Blazers last week, they picked up their first two wire-to-wire victories of the season, and they climbed from sixth to third place in the Western Conference.

Three takeaways

Their two wins last week were just the fourth and fifth times the Mavs have outscored their opponent in the paint. They went from 30th to 28th (minus-8.7 per game) in paint differential, with the Blazers (minus-12.0 after a 62-30 differential on Friday) now occupying that bottom spot.

Dante Exum replaced Williams in the starting lineup for the two games, his first two NBA starts in more than 35 months. His 23 points against Portland on Friday were his second-highest total of his career and they came with six rebounds and seven assists. His minutes have been limited, but the Mavs have been at their best (plus 15.9 per 100 possessions) with Exum on the floor. (That was also true before they beat Utah by 50 in his first start.)

The 50-point win over the Jazz came with a season-high 41 transition points. The Mavs have averaged 23.7 transition points per game, sixth in the league and up from 17.7 (29th) last season. That’s the league’s biggest jump, though Dallas has also seen the biggest jump in points per game allowed in transition (from 18.8 to 23.1).

Irving is out for at least the Mavs’ game in Memphis on Monday. They’re 3-1 without him this season, with one of the three wins having come (with 35, 12 and 12 from Doncic) in Memphis in Week 2.

Bleacher Report

Rank: 12

Last week: 14

They ended their week with a convincing loss to the West’s top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, but the Dallas Mavericks had won four straight prior to that.

It looks like they’ve settled into a rotational move that should maybe become permanent.

Dante Exum entered the starting five before Kyrie Irving went down with an injury, but his presence there has been more important since Irving hurt his heel.

Exum has now started Dallas’ past five games, and he’s averaging 16.8 points, 5.4 assists and 2.6 threes while shooting 56.5 percent from deep in that stretch. He’s also a team-best plus-58 in those five contests.

With his size (6’5” with a 6’9” wingspan) and Luka Dončić’s (6’7”, 230 pounds), it’s easy to justify playing both with Irving whenever he returns.

ESPN

Rank: 10

Last week: 13

Mavs superstar Luka Doncic has not disappointed this season, averaging 35.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 12.4 assists in the past five games. That stretch includes a pair of extraordinarily rare triple-doubles. He had 36 points, 15 rebounds and 18 assists in a failed comeback attempt against the Thunder on Dec. 2. The Mavs have been hit hard by injuries, including Kyrie Irving’s right heel contusion, so Doncic’s workload is as heavy as ever. He played more than 40 minutes in four of those five games, the lone exception being the blowout of the Jazz, as he sat the whole fourth quarter. “Everything hurts,” Doncic, 24, said after back-to-back wins over the Grizzlies and Lakers this week. “I’m getting old, man.” — MacMahon