It only seemed fitting that Monta Ellis would rise to the occasion against the Spurs.
San Antonio entered Tuesday's clash as one of the hottest teams in the league, while Dallas had lost two straight amid drama. A little more than three months removed from a trade that netted All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, the team was struggling, to say the least. ESPNDallas.com published a scathing piece, calling Ellis “awful right now” and a “pain in the butt who isn’t producing.”
Ellis’s response? He tied a season-high with 38 points and added five assists to help the Mavericks pull off a much-needed win over the Spurs, pulling within decimal points of San Antonio for the No. 6 seed in the West.
Many have pointed to the arrival of Rondo as the source of Ellis’s struggles and the reported dissension in the locker room. Of the 149 two-man lineups the Mavericks have played this season, the Rondo/Ellis pairing ranks 148, according to basketball-reference. But Ellis insists the addition of his new backcourt mate isn't an issue.
“There’s no problem (with Rondo),” Ellis says. “Rondo is a great asset on both ends of the floor. It takes a while for the player to really get adjusted to a new system, new personalities, figuring out where guys want the ball. I think it’s going to work out for the best for us once we get over the hump. Take a look at Toronto, you know, (when) Toronto started out they were hot, and they’re going through pretty much the same thing that we’re going through.”
While the Mavericks have been unsteady for weeks (6-5 in March), one thing that is unshakeable is Ellis’s confidence. Some nights, it’s a blessing; other nights, it’s a curse. The Mavericks are 8-16 this season when Ellis shoots under 40 percent from the field. When you attempt 17 field-goal attempts per game (some more off-balance than others), some possessions come up empty and prove decisive. Sunday’s loss to Phoenix felt like rock bottom for the Mavericks. Ellis finished 4-of-22 from the field, with two costly turnovers and left the arena without talking to the media.
Since the All-Star break, Ellis has seen a drop in his production across the board, as well as his shooting splits. In the first 55 games of the season, his plus-minus rating was +6. In the 11 games since, it's been -4.2. Yet Ellis, confident as ever, shrugs off the midseason lull.
“I don’t believe in stats anyway,” Ellis says. “There’s a lot of ways you can have a good night and there’s nights that you’re going to have bad nights. So when they’re dealing with the stats and all that, I don’t get into all that.”
For better or worse, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle believes in Ellis, the 10-year veteran who is in the midst of notching his highest usage rate since 2009-10. It’s also worth noting that Carlisle said back in February that Ellis deserved an All-Star nod over teammate Dirk Nowitzki.
“It’s good to know that my coaches fight for me and have my back,” Ellis says. “I play for them, and I go out there and leave it on the line for my team, and not the All-Star team.”
With Ellis holding a player option for next season in Dallas, it’s unclear how his future with the Mavericks will unfold. If he does opt out, Dallas’ ownership will face the daunting task of deciding whether to pay the team’s leading scorer big bucks or offer a tight-fisted deal. It’ll certainly be dependent on how Ellis plays the rest of the way.
As for what needs to change for the team to make a postseason run, Ellis preaches consistency.
“First thing to do is get on the track of winning,” he says. “We can’t win one and lose three, then win two and then lose five. We’ve got to get on a consistent basis and the important thing, to me, is standing together. Let's use these games and put on a nice run… and then just catch fire, that’s all it is. It’s all about what team goes into the playoffs hot. Right now is when we need to start to make our spark.”
After a Mavs run in the second quarter on Tuesday, Chandler Parsons playfully put his arm around the neck of Ellis. The bench mobbed the two as they raced back during a timeout, and all of the stress and scathing reports from the past few weeks seemingly washed away.
The quintessential Monta Ellis game involves the transcendent and perplexing. He can shoulder too much of the offensive burden. He can create mistakes. But it’s tough to argue, after seeing the cards fall into place Tuesday, that the chaos isn't worth the reward.
Josh Planos is a freelancer and digital editor who has been published at the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Huffington Post, VICE and the Pacific Standard, among other publications. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. He can be reached on Twitter @JPlanos.