The Dallas Mavericks defeated the Portland Trail Blazers Saturday night by a score of 131-120. Luka Doncic led the way for Dallas with 40 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. Anfernee Simons was the high-point man for the Blazers with 33.
Dallas started the first quarter without much energy, sleepily going through the motions while seesawing back and forth with Portland. Jerami Grant and DeAndre Ayton, two players who did not suit up when the two teams met a week ago, scored the first 16 points for the Blazers. Things went south for the Mavericks quickly, as Dereck Lively II rolled an ankle and went back to the locker room right before Portland went on a run to extend their lead to eight. Despite 22 (!!) points in the frame from Luka Doncic, the Mavericks ended the quarter down 39-36, largely due to their complete inability to get stops.
Thankfully, Dallas started the second period on fire from three-point range. Back-to-back triples from Tim Hardaway Jr. and another from Seth Curry helped them reclaim a seven-point advantage. Overall, the non-Luka minutes went surprisingly well, as Dallas maintained that lead until he returned. Despite Lively being ruled out for the remainder of the game, continued brilliance from Doncic (30 first-half points) and overall solid play from the Mavericks helped them take a 74-63 lead into halftime.
The Mavericks came out of the locker room strong, expanding their lead to as many as 18 points in the early parts of the third quarter. But Portland, led by sensational play from Anfernee Simons, went on a 10-0 run, cutting the lead to just eight. Dallas steadied themselves as the period went on, eventually restoring the lead to as many as 16. Scoot Henderson got hot at the end of the frame, scoring nine quick points and helping Portland trim five points off that advantage; the Mavericks went into the fourth up 110-99.
Things looked a bit shaky in the non-Luka minutes to start the fourth quarter, but Dallas weathered the storm and actually increased their lead to 13 before Doncic returned. The Blazers kept fighting, but the Mavericks took care of business and closed the door, escaping Portland with a double-digit win. It was an impressive victory for the shorthanded Mavericks. Here are three observations.
Luka Doncic is the MVP of the league right now
I don’t want to hear about what any other player is doing right now. There are a lot of cases for a lot of really great players, but none of them are doing what Luka Doncic is doing this season.
Dallas came into tonight’s game missing their co-superstar. They lost their third-best player before the first timeout of the game. That’s in addition to two more rotation players continued to be unavailable. And Luka Doncic single-handedly willed the Mavericks to victory tonight with a 40-point triple-double on efficient shooting. The Blazers are not a good team, but their defense has been solid and they have young talent. That Luka was able to grind out a tough road win despite all of Dallas’ injuries is remarkable. He’s been doing it all year. The MVP conversation starts and ends with him; he has the numbers, the record, and the importance to his squad.
Dante Exum and Derrick Jones Jr. are automatic at the rim
Much has been written about Exum and Jones’ improvement from three this season, which has been very important to Dallas’ success. But I’ve been so impressed with their finishing at the rim, and that was on display in tonight’s win. Exum came into tonight’s game shooting 71.7% on shots less than five feet from the basket; Jones was similarly effective with a 64.7% mark. For context, Lively, who throws down mostly dunks and leads the league in field goal percentage, is at 77.7% from that range.
Tonight, the Exum-Jones duo combined to go 9-of-11 at the rim. Their ability to attack closeouts and finish at a high level has changed the dynamic of the Maverick offense.
Markieff Morris stepped up
The Mavericks’ re-signing of Markieff Morris this summer was met with much derision from the fan base, this blogger amongst them. But Morris has been solid in his minutes this season, and tonight he stepped into the backup center role in the wake of the Lively injury with class.
He scored 10 points, hit some timely shots, and moved and competed well on defense. Hopefully, Lively’s ankle sprain isn’t too bad and he won’t have to miss too much time. But if he does, Morris showed that he’s capable of moonlighting as a small-ball five in the right circumstance. Having him as an option at the end of the bench is a massive improvement over what Dallas had a season ago.