MAVERICKS AIM TO LET GOOD TIMES LAST
Doncic, Irving finally jelling, but schedule, poor defence bad omens, says Ben Golliver.
The Dallas Mavericks spent Thanksgiving playing baseball on a Santa Monica beach, savouring one of the most impressive victories of their promising opening month.
The night before, Luka Doncic out-duelled Lebron James, a game-winning three-pointer by Kyrie Irving snuffed out a Los Angeles Lakers rally, and the Mavericks looked nothing like the angsty crew that crashed and burned out of last year's playoff picture. Doncic posted a typically gaudy line of 30 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, finishing off the 104-101 win by finding Irving for the decisive three and then intercepting a lob pass from James to Anthony Davis. Those heroics improved Dallas' record in games that were within five points in the final five minutes to a league-best
7-1. Steeliness wasn't exactly the Mavericks' forte last season, as they finished 6-15 in clutch games after trading for Irving in February.
“Of course,” Doncic said when asked if the Mavericks have shown progress as closers since the early days of his partnership with Irving. “I think we proved it. I think we played great defence today. That's what got us a win.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the holiday weekend proved to be a buzzkill. After shaking off the sand, the Mavericks (10-6) were drilled by the Clippers on Saturday, with Doncic suffering a left thumb injury that required an X-ray and additional testing. Without starting centre Dereck Lively II, who left the win over the Lakers with a lower-back contusion, Dallas' intensity and defensive integrity crumbled in the 107-88 loss to the Clippers. The contrasting results neatly summarized the Mavericks' “eye of the beholder” status: They have climbed in the standings thanks to an elite offence powered by their perennial MVP candidate and productive star sidekick, but their thin front line, porous defence and soft schedule strongly suggest tougher times are ahead.
Facing immense pressure to construct a winner around the 24-year-old Doncic following a 2022 Western Conference finals run and the abrupt departure of Jalen Brunson, the Mavericks took the plunge by trading for Irving, whom they re-signed to a three-year, Us$120-million contract this summer. Dallas' 2-9 spiral to end the 2022-23 season raised questions about the tandem's viability and prompted speculation about Doncic's longterm future in Dallas, but so far Irving has avoided the off-court distractions that plagued his Brooklyn Nets tenure and helped supercharge a top-five attack.
“The more time you get to spend with someone, you get to know them,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Last year with the trade, the train is moving and everyone is trying to get to know each other ... (Doncic and Irving) are both very talented. They're not afraid of the moment. When you have two of them out there, you have the opportunity to go to either one. I think we've put to rest that those two can coexist. They're playing at a high level for us right now.”
After Doncic twice led the NBA in usage rate, his burden has dropped a few ticks to its lowest level since his rookie year. The four-time all-star is still averaging 30.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists — numbers matched by only Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Lebron James and Russell Westbrook for a season — but a slight retreat from total ball domination has helped Dallas craft a faster style that is better suited to its recent personnel changes.
Though Doncic has long favoured a methodical style, the Mavericks have leaped from 28th to seventh in pace and have averaged 119.4 points per game, up more than five points from last season. Playing faster has helped Dallas keep its auxiliary scorers involved with high-percentage looks at the rim and open threepoint looks. In addition to Irving, who is difficult to contain off the dribble and in transition, Dallas replaced underwhelming veteran centres with the energetic Lively, a 19-year-old rookie who thrives in an up-and-down style, and floor-spacing forward Grant Williams.
Lively, the 12th pick in June's draft, has proved to be an eager screen-setter and an efficient pick-and-roll finisher, and Kidd has empowered the Duke product as a secondary distributor when opposing defences collapse into the paint. Thanks to lineups that feature four shooters around Lively, the Mavericks have led the league with 43.2 three-point attempts per game and their stars have enjoyed plenty of space to work.
“It's way easier than last year,” Doncic said. “Being a rookie is hard, obviously. (Lively) has amazing potential, and you can see it. Even in his first season, he's been a big impact for us.”
While picking up the pace has also helped mask Dallas' defensive ills, underlying weaknesses remain. The Mavericks rank
25th in defensive rating — no change from last season — and none of their 10 wins has come against a top-10 offence. Lively has performed admirably as a shot-blocker, but Dallas was beaten by double digits in both games he has missed. Rarely is a teenager so indispensable to a team with playoff aspirations. But backup centre Dwight Powell is too small to trust in an expanded role, third-stringer Richaun Holmes brings nothing to the table on offence and Dallas' undersized forwards, including Williams, are all susceptible to being bullied.
Doncic and Irving are hardly immune from criticism on the defensive end, as both are guilty of breakdowns on the perimeter that make life more difficult for the big men behind them. Clippers guard Russell Westbrook repeatedly targeted Doncic on Saturday, celebrating one running layup by pointing at the Slovenian star while shouting, “Go at him!”
Barring unexpected breakthroughs or additional trades, Dallas continues to project as a top-five offence and a bottom-five defence. That approach produced a middling minus-0.2 net rating last season, improving only slightly to a plus-0.8 net rating this year. As the schedule balances out and the miles accumulate on Doncic and Irving, Dallas' active off-season and speedy style won't translate to real achievement unless the star duo enjoys near-perfect health and keeps excelling in late-game situations.
“(Doncic and I) kind of know each other's spots on the floor,” Irving said. “We have the utmost respect for one another. Our chemistry will continue to develop the more pressure situations we're in and the tougher teams we play. We've had our fair share of tests. We've done well, but we can still do better.”