Finally, we’ll be able to answer the age-old question.
If a tree falls on Luka Dončić, Dante Exum, Josh Green, Kyrie Irving, Maxi Kleber and Dereck Lively II, will anyone watch the following night’s Mavericks game?
Because that’s what we’re getting Friday when the Mavs (16-11) make the short jaunt down to H-Town to face the Houston Rockets (13-12) at the Toyota Center. In addition to the four who have been injured and out of action for multiple games, Dončić (left quad strain) and Exum (left lower leg contusion) were ruled out Thursday as well.
Luka Doncic (quad) and Dante Exum (leg) are added to a long list of key Mavs who are out Friday vs. Rockets. pic.twitter.com/EQmWXIvPiM— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 21, 2023
It makes sense that the Mavericks are giving Dončić a break, as he has had a heavy workload in December. Dončić has averaged 40.4 minutes per game with a 35 percent usage rate in the nine games played so far this month. As the injuries keep coming, Dallas has leaned on their star even more than usual.
He looked a little gassed after Wednesday’s 120-111 loss to the Clippers at the American Airlines Center, when Dončić played 44 minutes and had one of his worst shooting nights (9-of-25 from the field, 2-of-11 on 3-point attempts, six missed free throws) of the year. It makes us wonder if “left quad strain” is code for “just getting our man some rest.”
The game flow Wednesday was similar to a lot of recent games during this stretch when the Mavs have been dealing with injury woes. They fell behind early, executed well during a comeback attempt, then faded down the stretch when they couldn’t get stops against Kawhi Leonard & Co. in crunch time.
With six of the Mavericks’ best players missing Friday in Houston, we wouldn’t fault a portion of Mavs fandom for skipping out on watching this one. But for you sickos who are glued to the channel as soon as the ball is tipped, no matter what, here are a few things that might keep your interest against the Rockets, who themselves come in losers of three straight, after what was a five-game winning streak before that.
Jaden Hardy has largely been relegated to the end of the bench this season after averaging 13.4 points per game in the last 16 games last year. He has increased his workload lately as the Mavs’ roster has been decimated by injury, but for those of us who thought this year would see Hardy take a big step forward in his development, it’s been something of a head-scratcher.
At this point, the Mavs simply have no other options. It’s time to put the ball in Hardy’s hands a little more against the Rockets. Even if he doesn’t start, he might be in line for 30 or more minutes just based on all the guys who can’t go Friday night.
Remember a few games ago when Exum was making his big leap in playing time in Grant Williams’ absence? He showed the Mavs something by forcing tempo, knocking down open shots and not being a glaring liability defensively. As a result, he will be featured more in the rotation going forward, barring injury or a really bad stretch of play.
Maybe Hardy can do something similar against the Rockets. He had a good game against the Clippers, scoring 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc in 23 minutes. His season-high 19 points came on December 11, a 120-113 Mavs win at Memphis.
Both Exum and Hardy earned a little bit of a reputation early on this year for being prone to careless turnovers. Exum has worked his way out of that funk, in part due to an ability to slow down a little with the ball in his hands. In turn, the game has slowed down around him. If Hardy can learn the same trick, he may yet take that big step forward.
Everything happening right now for the Mavs is a function of the lack of depth due to injury, but that doesn’t mean the team hasn’t stumbled onto something good every once in a while during this time of triage.
On Wednesday against the Clippers, a small-ball lineup that featured Grant Williams playing the five brought the Mavs back and into the lead in the second and third quarters. Largely due to the efforts of the Dončić, Exum, Tim Hardaway Jr., Derrick Jones Jr., and Williams lineup, the Mavs held the Clippers to just 18 points in the third and forced LA into some awkward defensive adjustments to deal with the Mavs’ speed.
Granted, the Mavericks will be without two big pieces of that group on Friday, but that just means there is more opportunity against Houston to play around with additional small-ball lineups that could disrupt things, not only against the Rockets, but also might be useful in the future.
The Mavs took the Rockets down in the teams’ first matchup of the season, a 121-115 win at the AAC on November 28. Dončić went for 41 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the win, and Dallas needed every bucket he could give them to hold Houston off. Since that outcome isn’t in the cards this time around, the Mavericks will have to invent a new way to stay in Friday’s game in Houston.
Dallas committed just seven turnovers in the last win against Houston, but without Dončić and Irving as primary ball-handlers Friday, it’s hard to envision this injury-riddled version of the Mavs accomplishing a sheet that clean again, either.
Versatile big man Alpern Sengun led the Rockets with 31 points, nine boards and six assists in the teams’ first meeting. Jabari Smith Jr. and Dylan Brooks added 16 apiece.
How to watch
Tipoff between the Mavs and the Rockets is set for 7 p.m. on Bally Sports Southwest.