Have Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and the Dallas Mavericks turned a corner?
As he patrolled the sideline, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle saw two developments in the team’s 143-130 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday that left him feeling both inspired and annoyed.
“The ESPN crowd got a real treat tonight in terms of entertainment,” Carlisle said. “But it was a pillow fight on defense.”
On one hand, the Mavericks saw Luca Doncic post a career-high 46 points. Kristaps Porzingis had 36 points by recording a career-high in 3-point shots (8-of-13). And the Mavs appeared unstoppable with their ball movement (30 assists) and 3-point shooting (25-of-55).
On the other hand, Dallas allowed Pelicans forwards Zion Williams (36 points) and Brandon Ingram (30) to produce as if they were in a layup line. The Mavericks offered little perimeter defense (17-of-37). And they offered little on transition defense (conceded 21 fast-break points) and fight on the glass (conceded nine offensive rebounds for 14 second-chance points).
“We’re sharing the ball better. We’re moving it better. We’re playing more of a selfless brand of basketball,” Carlisle said. “When it does stick, those guys get it fixed pretty quick. So we got to do that. But the appeal has got to be we can certainly make more progress defensively. We all believe it. The league is difficult now. It’s hard to guard with the space, the skill and the way the game is officiated. So you have to have a really special mindset to dig in.”
All of which begs two questions. With the Mavericks (13-14) cementing a four-game winning streak and winning five of their last six games, have they truly turned a corner? Or, are they vulnerable currently standing in 11th place in the Western Conference?
The answer appears to depend on which side of the floor the Mavs are playing.
Luka Doncic drives to the basket against Zion Williamson. (Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)
Doncic has recorded seven triple doubles this season and has scored at least 25 points for 13 consecutive games. The Mavericks make little of his poor 3-point shooting (30.95). They contend his turnovers (4.2) reflect his aggressiveness. They believe his frustration with officials simply captures his competitive spirit. That often became not enough with the Mavericks missing forward Kristaps Porzingis for the first nine games after recovering from off-season right knee surgery. He then faced a minutes restriction that has entailed missing the second night of back-to-backs. But against the Pelicans, Porzingis appeared unstoppable with his outside shooting and positional versatility.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good offensively rhythm-wise,” Porzingis said. “Even though I haven’t put up great games, it felt better. I felt more in rhythm. I knew it was going to come at some point. With the work I’ve been putting in, I knew it was going to pay off.”
Dallas cannot say the same thing, however, about its defense.
The Mavericks thought they had upgraded in that area this offseason with key retentions (Trey Burke, Dwight Powell, Jalen Brunson), draft selections (Josh Green) and off-season signings (Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Wesley Iwundu). Before the season, Carlisle envisioned his roster both excelling on defense and protecting Doncic from the swarming opponents that try to rough him up. Instead, the Mavericks have ranked 26th in defensive rating (114.1), which measures the number of points allowed per 100 possessions. They also rank 20th in second-chance points allowed (13.4) and 26th in fast-break points allowed (14.1).
Hence, consider Carlisle’s answer on what he sees in the team’s defensive potential.
“That's a good question. I don't know for sure,” Carlisle said. “I just know we can be better. We can get better.”
The reason for the optimism? In fairness, the Mavericks opened the season battered with a depleted roster for various reasons. Besides Porzingis’ absence, Max Kleber (11 games), Dorian Finney-Smith (nine), Richardson (nine), Powel (eight) and Brunson (four) had long-term absences because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols aimed to mitigate the coronavirus spread. The NBA also postponed one of the Mavericks’ games because they did not have the required eight available players. With a fuller roster, the Mavericks hold out hope they will have improved depth and chemistry to improve their defensive miscues.
That did not emerge against the Pelicans, though. So Carlisle conceded, “the decision for the defensive player of the game tonight was not easy.” So Carlisle settled on Brunson for collecting six rebounds and taking a charge.
Otherwise, Carlisle rarely liked what he saw on that end of the floor. That might be a theme when the Mavericks play Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers, who feature a lethal backcourt in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
“This is why I keep talking about defense,” Carlisle said. “I know some of our guys are talking about defense. This kind of shot making is great. Is it always sustainable? Of course not. Not every team can keep up this kind of pace. But we’ll certainly try. This is the reason you have to have a defense that will hold up on nights you don’t have it going quite like this.”
For a recent stretch, though, the Mavericks have. So after becoming frustrated with the mounting losses, they at least have savored the taste of victory again with hope that will give them the boost they need for more consistent play.
“We get paid to win the games. That’s what we’re doing right now,” Doncic said. “We just got to keep going like this.”
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