The Mavericks don’t win Thursday night’s thriller against the Knicks without two players — Kyrie Irving and Josh Green.
Irving is the obvious pick for his 44-point explosion and numerous momentum changing plays. Green seems just as obvious for his 18 points, by far the most he’s scored in six games in January. While the scoring was certainly useful, Green’s biggest impact in the win came on the other side of the floor. Specifically, hounding Knicks likely-to-be All-Star Jalen Brunson.
Brunson returned to Dallas for the first time since joining the New York Knicks in 2022, and on the surface, his production looked great — 30 points and eight assists. However he started slow, like the rest of his teammates did. Brunson only made one of his first seven shots in the game, as the Mavericks pushed the gas and raced out to a remarkable 44-26 first quarter lead. While Dallas did cough up almost all of that lead in the fourth quarter, building that lead in the first place is the main reason the Mavericks were able to survive a game without three starters in Luka Doncic, Dereck Lively, and Dante Exum.
Green was the main catalyst for the defensive effort early and forcing Brunson and the Knicks into a slow start. He did this by picking up Brunson full-court from opening tip, not allowing Brunson or the Knicks to get comfortable with their offensive sets.
For the first three Knicks possessions, Brunson brought the ball up the court each time, and each time Green was there to meet him as soon as Brunson touched the ball. That led to the first pass from Brunson in each of these Knicks possessions not occurring till around 16 or 15 seconds were left on the shot clock.
This left the Knicks starting the sets fairly late and if the first option wasn’t available, the possession was basically blown up and a forced shot was needed.
Brunson started 1-of-7 and only finished the first half with 4-of-12 shooting. It was clear the Knicks felt like they could sleep walk through the early portion of the game and try to control the tempo like they know how, knowing they couldn’t compete with Dallas in a track meet. Brunson’s entire game is revolved around slowly grinding teams down with his methodical half court game, squirming around pick and rolls and dicing teams apart with his midrange scoring (sound familiar?)
The Knicks entered Thursday’s game 26th in pace. The Mavericks entered eighth. New York tried to impose its will early and kudos to the Mavericks for not playing on their heels and forcing the issue. So much about the Mavericks increased tempo and pace is attributed to Doncic and Irving juicing up the fast break, and while that’s certainly a large contributor, don’t overlook some defensive changes as well. Last season the Mavericks were anemic in defensive “splash” plays and forcing turnovers, only 22nd in opponent turnover rate at 13.3 percent according to Cleaning the Glass. This season? The Mavericks are now seventh at 14.7 percent, with more steals and blocks thanks to a younger, more athletic roster including new additions Dereck Lively, Dante Exum, Dereck Jones Jr., and yes, even Grant Williams. You can’t run unless you get stops — the Mavericks are started the season in the low 20s in defensive rating, but currently sit 17th for the season and that number is actually seventh in the last two weeks. Yes, you read that right: for the last two weeks the Mavericks have had the seventh best defense in the league.
The Knicks as a team only posted a 110 offensive rating in the first half, well-below their 119.7 season-long mark according to Cleaning the Glass, which is ninth-best in the league. New York shot poorly from three in the first half, which can partly be attributed to variance, but also because Green’s early pressure didn’t allow Brunson to get clean drive-and-kick opportunities. The Knicks got loose in the second half and the Mavericks defensive pressure was hard to maintain for a full game without Exum and Lively, but the lead built in the first half was big enough to survive the second half storm from New York. Credit Green, coach Jason Kidd, and his coaching staff’s aggressive gameplan for that.