Mavs Solution: 'Less Fun - More Fundamentals'
I know, I know. Luka Doncic is an unbridled, triple-double joy and Kristaps Porzingis is a unicorn and Boban Marjanovic is the gentlest of giants and the Dallas Mavericks have the best camaraderie of any NBA team in the Orlando bubble, evidenced by an endless trove of social media posts spotlighting them in the pool and playing pool and fishing and frolicking and …
After four long months of being lovesick for sports, it took the Mavs exactly two games – consecutive mind-boggling losses – to make us sick about sports.
And if they don’t add some significance substance to compliment their superior style, their first playoff appearance in four years will be over before it begins.
"Our goal,'' Mavs coach Rick Carlisle told our Mike Fisher in an exclusive pre-re-boot interview, "is to move up.''
Um, what’s Plan B?
The Mavs will be in the postseason for the first time since Barack Obama was President, and that achievement alone makes an otherwise world-wide beyond-basketball sh*tshow of 2020 a success. But the drama bubble has already burst. With only six games remaining – continuing Tuesday at 1:30 against the Sacramento Kings – they are locked into the 7th seed and, most likely, a first-round playoff matchup in two weeks with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Two kick-to-the-crotch losses to the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns over the weekend assured there’s no chance of improving their standing. There is still, however, ample time for the Mavs to tweak their DNA and toughen their crunch-time exterior.
Their offense can at times transform central Florida’s ESPN campus into Dizzyland. But come NBA playoff time – regardless of the setting – scorers have to scrap, scrappers have to score and teams with double-digit leads have to be smart enough and fundamentally sound enough to hang on.
In their two bubble games, the Mavs in the first half scored 85 and 73 points. Inexplicably, they are oh-and-2.
Through a series of basic basketball blunders, they managed only 20 and 23 points in the two fourth quarters and badly botched both potential game-winning possessions at the buzzer.
Until further notice the Mavs are the golfer who dazzles with 350-yard drives, only to disappoint by choking a two-foot gimme to lose the tournament. In their history they have never won a game in July or August, and they have the scars to prove it.
In Friday night’s re-opener the Mavs – for almost 48 minutes – were a delightful combination of the Harlem Globetrotters and 1990s Loyola-Marymount. Frenetic pace. Furious ball movement. Allowing the Rockets a layup, but raising it with a 3-pointer at the other end. Behind-the-back passes. Lob dunks. Shocking Houston with eight triples and 31 points from a guy – Trey Burke – it probably didn’t even have in the scouting report.
The Mavs led by 14 points with two minutes to go in the third quarter and by seven – s-e-v-e-n – with 45 seconds remaining. They lost in OT.
Said Carlisle that night: “I just know that this is a tough loss. This is about as tough as it gets, and it just comes down to basic execution.”
Two nights later, bad got worse.
Dallas led by as many as 13 points and was up nine and seemingly cruising midway in the third quarter when the Suns’ two best players – Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton – went to the bench with five fouls each. The Mavs, however, were outscored, 26-13, to end the quarter. They lost.
Said Carlisle, “You don’t win when you play as poorly as we did in the third. Disappointing.”
These aren’t novel hiccups, but rather serious, season-long symptoms. The Mavs, turns out, are an analytics enigma.
They’re one of the best teams in NBA history in offensive efficiency. But when the games get “clutch” (defined as the final five minutes of regulation or overtime in which neither team has a lead of more than five points), they implode into one of the worst teams in the league. In the clutch, their offensive rating plummets from 1 to 29, field-goal percentage from 13 to 30, 3-point percentage from 9 to 30 and free-throw percentage from 17 to 28.
The later in the game and the closer the score, the worse – much worse – the Mavs are at simply putting the ball in the basket.
Result? They are 6-18 in games decided by five points or less and have now coughed up an unfathomable 13 leads of 10+ points. (NBA teams with seven-point leads in the final 45 seconds had been 711-2.) Hang on to less than half of those leads – just six of the 13 – and the Mavericks would have 46 wins, which would rank behind only the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference.
But instead of a No. 2 seed, the Mavs are a fatally flawed 7th-seed we realize is a year or two – and a piece or two – from being a true contender for an NBA title. The improvements will eventually arrive, in the form of a more polished closer and fewer cracks in their fundamental foundation.
Doncic’s triple-doubles are sexy headline-hoggers. He stuffed the stats against Houston, and against Phoenix recorded 40 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. (He has five games this season of 40-10-5, joining Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, James Harden and Russell Westbrook in that exclusive club.) Asking him to do more seems irrational. But, at age 21 going on 31, yes, he must do more.
Pressure and pace be damned, the Mavs aren’t built to grind out wins. They are sprinters, not marathoners.
Doncic can’t afford to downshift into passivity, regardless of what the score and clock suggest. He also, of course, needs to spend less time and energy whining at referees and, even more vital, missing free throws.
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We’ve been treated to his half-court kick-ins and enthusiastic trick shots off ceiling beams in the Orlando bubble, but against the Rockets we would’ve gladly settled for the simple success of making an unguarded 15-footer. With only digital fans and coaches eschewing ties for golf shirts, at times the NBA’s bubble vibe is more Summer League than Game 7. But the games count. The trophy presented in October will be legit.
In the loss to the Rockets, Doncic was 1 of 9 on 3-pointers, committed eight turnovers and missed four free throws including one with 1:37 remaining.
Considering his immense skill, Doncic evolving into a 90-percent foul-shooter is just a matter of concentration. Just a matter of time. A point he confirmed Sunday against the Suns, when – after working on free throws after Saturday’s practice – he made his first 11 and finished 18 of 19.
His potential awes every NBA observer, including ABC analyst Mark Jackson ,who said of Doncic in Friday’s pre-game, “He’s a combination of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.”
Nonetheless, he had chances to atone for his team’s ghastly lapses and pull out both losses.
With the game tied against Houston, the Mavs called a timeout with 3.3 seconds remaining. With enough time to dribble or, heck, even get to the rim, Doncic instead heaved a 30-foot unanswered prayer that looked more like a man given only 0.3 seconds. And down two against the Suns with 3.2 seconds remaining, the Mavs’ final possession featured Doncic curiously inbounding the ball to a teammate (Tim Hardaway Jr.) who had missed 10 of 11 shots including all seven 3-pointers.
Carlisle is highly regarded as one of the game’s best in designing end-of-game set pieces. But in consecutive games with three seconds on the clock and the game on the line, the Mavs’ plan and performance was atrocious.
They are not a good defensive team, at times appearing to take the art of social distancing a bit too far. They surrender comically easy fast-break layups. Sometimes, like against Houston, they fail to block out on a key free throw.
Others, as against the Suns, they fritter away a big lead by settling for 11 consecutive missed 3-pointers instead of continuing to be aggressive.
The Mavs are entertaining. But, for now, also exasperating.
“These kind of games, we have to use them as fuel for us to keep working and keep getting better,” said Porzingis, who like Luka has put up terrific numbers during the 0-2 start. “This is part of the process. We’re going to get through this and get better and won’t let these things happen again.”