Saturday afternoon saw the Dallas Mavericks thump the living daylights out of the Oklahoma City Thunder, 146-111. Newly acquired frontcourt players PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford suited up and made a huge impact. While there were numerous highlights, one play for each acquisition stood out and deserves a closer look.
Luka Doncic initiates this possession and (despite being ready for the ball in the corner) never touches the ball again. After the Doncic pass to Kleber at the top of the key, it's swing-swing time as Kleber funnels to Irving who then rifles the ball to Washington in the corner.
Maverick fans are accustomed to that ball going up immediately from the corner over the last few seasons. Make or miss, move on to the next possession. Here though, a decent but not great closeout from Thunder big man Chet Holmgren leaves Washington with a decision between a somewhat out-of-rhythm contested look or doing something beyond the strictly defined 3 and D archetype.
Washington decides to drive to the basket to punish the closeout from Holmgren. To his credit, the second overall pick from the 2022 draft recovers to contest the drive very well. This again leaves Washington with a choice between a contested field goal attempt or reaching in his bag once again and making the right basketball play. PJ passes to Derrick Jones Jr on the 45 position above the right arc. Jones then initiates a drive of his own which lures Holmgren away from the basket far enough to free Washington for an easy, uncontested - and given the limitations of Maverick wings over the last few years - beautiful dunk. Bravo. More of this please, injected directly into the proverbial veins of the fandom writ large.
Luka Doncic has been waiting for Daniel Gafford to arrive for years. The long-suffering days are over for the Slovenian sensation. Paired with wunderkind rookie Dereck Lively, Gafford represents a quantum leap in the middle for this iteration of the Mavericks. Luka has thrown perfect lob passes to flawed centers - from Willie Cauley-Stein to JaVale McGee - who squandered many of those golden moments.
While the best parts of Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell’s game include their chemistry with Doncic, something has been missing on this roster. Even Lively’s amazing rookie season has not entirely filled this void. Enter Daniel Gafford, all 6-10, 235 of him.
Yet this play was about more than sheer size. Dallas has had large centers over the years. This was about athleticism, springy hops, a fighting spirit to get a contested loose ball, hand-eye coordination to tip it to himself, body control to go back up in a crowd, and the feathery soft touch honed by years of making similar moves towards the basket. Pure tenacity married with competency is a sweet thing to see in a Maverick center. Doncic knows most of his passes will be on point. He now knows he has a margin of error and is a willing battler for loose balls in Gafford.
Luka Doncic was smiling all game long. Not the wry, sarcastic, exasperated smile that says “Hey, I’m doing my best out here”. Instead that smile today said, “I finally have what I need to be truly next-level dangerous.”