The Dallas Mavericks defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 125-112 Friday night in Portland, in a weird game that saw the Mavericks have a big lead jostle back and forth before finally closing the door on a pesky Trail Blazers squad in the fourth quarter.
Luka Doncic led all scorers with 32 points, with 14 coming in the first quarter. Anfernee Simons led Portland with 30 points.
In a scary moment, Kyrie Irving left the game in the second quarter after Dwight Powell feel directly onto his lower legs while trying to get an offensive rebound. Irving never returned to the game with what the Mavericks have called a right foot injury.
After demolishing the Utah Jazz by 50 points on Wednesday night, it looked like the Mavericks were well on their way to another blowout against a bad Trail Blazers team. Dallas jumped out to a quick 28-10 lead in the first quarter, and spent much of the first half with a double-digit lead.
Irving’s injury allowed the Blazers to perhaps stick around a bit closer than they should. Simons and Shaedon Sharpe were the entire Portland offense, combining for 54 points. That duo continuously poked at the Mavericks lead toward the end of the second quarter and for most of the second half. Simons went on a mini run to start the fourth, cutting the Mavericks lead to 99-98 with over nine minutes left.
The Mavericks regrouped after that and shut the door. Simons barely scored after that moment, Doncic turned it on after being invisible in the second and third quarters, and Dante Exum continued an excellent all-around performance. Starting in the place of the injured Grant Williams, Exum had one of the best games of his somewhat brief NBA career — he finished with 23 points, six rebounds, and seven assists.
It wasn’t a pretty game for the Mavericks, as the Blazers had 18 offensive rebounds and Dallas had an unusually high 15 turnovers, but Portland’s anemic offense dried up at the right moment as the Mavericks dared any Blazer not named Simons or Sharpe to beat them.
The Mavericks almost got Maverick’d
Three point shot variance is perhaps the leading cause for a lot of outcomes in today’s NBA, as most teams get up so many threes that a game can be distilled down to “make-or-miss.” The Mavericks have thrived on that strategy, loading up the roster with tons of shooters and rolling the dice that their three point shooting can paper over the rest of the roster’s weaknesses.
Tonight, Dallas almost got a taste of its own medicine — the Blazers outshot the Mavericks from deep 18-12, and normally when the Mavericks make less threes than their opponent over the last year or so, they lose. Instead the Mavericks, a team that rarely scores in the paint despite the presence of Doncic and Irving, scored an eye-popping 62 points in the paint, compared to the Blazers 30.
This is extra bizarre when you consider the Blazers are one of the worst three point shooting teams in the league. Dallas took advantage of Portland center DeAndre Ayton missing due to injury. The Blazers just had zero beef at the rim, and the Mavericks punished them for it all night.
Exum is making a case for a bigger role
Right now Exum is starting because of the multitude of Mavericks injuries — Williams and Josh Green missed tonight’s game, while those two plus Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kyrie Irving have missed games in the past week. Exum is starting by necessity, but if he keeps this up, he might have won a permanent role with the starting five.
Against the Jazz, Exum didn’t score, but played solid defense and kept the ball moving with seven assists and zero turnovers. Exum again played another connective game on Friday night, but this time there was the added bonus of scoring! The 23 points were a season high and not far off from Exum’s career-high of 28. He splashed in two three pointers, which felt like cheating considering everything else Exum was bringing to the table.
While these past two games are against lottery teams, Exum’s presence in the starting lineup feels natural. The Mavericks for a long time have surrounded Doncic with mostly standstill, spot up shooters that rely on Doncic’s brilliance to score. Those spot up players are certainly valuable considering Doncic’s three point shot creation, but it’s always been clear the team needs a little extra juice on the perimeter. Not necessarily another All-Star, or another playmaker, but just another guy that can attack closeouts, drive and kick, keep the ball pinging from side-to-side, preferably that isn’t a short guard.
Exum is all of that, and his ability to connect between the stars to the other role players jumps off the screen. He pushes the pace well, but isn’t reckless. He can run a pick and roll if you need him, but he really does take advantage of the space created by Doncic and Irving in ways spot up shooters simply can’t.
It remains to be seen if Exum sticks around when the roster heals up (and Irving’s injury could be long term, so who knows), but Exum might be forcing the coaching staff’s hand to keep his minutes up.
Dallas’ defense finally adjusted
While Simons was killing the Mavericks to start the fourth, I had one thought: Why are the Mavericks allowing one of two Blazers players that can score, beat you? Simons and Sharpe were literally the only active players tonight for Portland that could get their own shot or create one for others, yet the Mavericks seemed content with normal defensive coverage to start the fourth.
That changed after Simons basket cut the lead to one point early in the fourth. From there the Mavericks increased their aggressiveness with traps, double-teams, and even face-guarding off the ball. Simons nor Sharpe did much of anything down the stretch, as the Mavericks allowed offensive black holes like Toumani Camara (6-of-20 shooting), Duop Reath (4-of-9), Matisse Thybulle (3-of-7), and Jabari Walker (3-of-10) take the shots and make plays with the ball in their hands. Once that happened, the Mavericks shut the door on the Trail Blazers rally and got out of Portland with a win.