Mavs Monday Donuts: How Unicorns and Workhorses Better LeBron's Lakers

Steven Kilpatrick

DONUT 1: Mavericks 114, Lakers 100

It didn’t start pretty, but it finished the way a lot of games have lately for the Dallas Mavericks: with Luka Doncic sitting on the bench while the backups eat up the last few minutes of garbage-time basketball. It’s just strange that it happened vs. the 17-win Lakers.

“My first half was awful,” said Doncic, who started 2-of-9 from the floor. “It was awful for me.''

Sunday at Staples was the 80th time the Mavericks faced the Lakers in LA, and despite the early bumps, it went about as well as it possibly could. .... 23 second-chance points, a strong defensive effort, another huge night by Luka (especially his 16 points in the third quarter), and some great complementary outings from Delon Wright and Justin Jackson (at both ends of the floor).

Early officiating seemed to distract the Mavericks, but by the end it was the Lakers who couldn’t maintain their composure (at one point in the third they had more technicals called against them than field goals made). 

It doesn’t make up for the previous-meeting Dwight Howard horse tackle, nor the fact that this should probably have been the second Mavericks win vs. the Lakers this season, but it does bode well that the Mavericks, now 13-6, weren’t shaken by their early bad luck.

DONUT 2: The Sky Was Falling

After five wins in a row, each of them a little more optically impressive than the last, the Mavericks lost to the Clippers. That loss, based on what I read on Twitter and heard from talk radio, meant that the Mavericks had been eliminated from the NBA playoff picture, and all their recent success is a pointless mirage.

In reality, the Clippers are a really good team, and a team that Vegas gave pretty sold odds to win the NBA championship this year. They had both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard available, and they’re already tough to beat when they only have one of those guys on the floor.

Since the sky fell vs. the Clippers, we know what happened. The Mavericks beat the current Western Conference eighth seed (the Suns) and the current No. 1 team in the NBA (the Lakers). The back-to-back victories make them 7-1 in their last eight games, and move them into the fourth spot in the West (a half-game behind the Clippers).

DONUT 3: The Bad and Good of Delon Wright

Let’s start with the bad, because it’s admittedly a small problem: At times, especially late in the clock, Wright refuses to step up and be a playmaker. I had an exchange with DBcom alum Michael Dugat on Twitter the other day where we agreed that the downside of the bench is that it’s filled with guys who defer a little too much. The worst example of this vs. the Lakers was a late-clock play in which Delon got the ball back with about five seconds, and rather than going to work, he dumped the ball to a covered Dwight Powell in the left corner. It was a lack of both killer instinct, and awareness of personnel.

Dwight has some strengths - but those don’t include driving the ball from the outside to the interior with less than four seconds on the clock.

If you ever wonder why Wright doesn’t always get the minutes he probably deserves, it may come down to the ripple effect of decisions like that one. It’s something he can and should work on.

The good, on the other hand, is very good. Delon had 17 points, nine assists, and five rebounds to go with four steals and a lot of active movement on and off the ball in his hometown of LA.

"I came into the game knowing I was going to be way more aggressive and take the shots that are there and knock them down with confidence,'' said Wright, who conceded that his approach may have been fueled by his folks being in the building. “Yes, you have friends and family watching. My phone is probably going crazy.”

(The Mavs in LA were also under the watchful eye of ... 

... Dirk!)

Watching Delon play reminds me of Shawn Marion - but with even better court vision. His stat-line is phenomenal, but seems pedestrian only because we’ve gotten so used to Luka putting up near triple-doubles every night. Make no mistake: most teams would give up a lot for a guy who can get you the production of Delon Wright, and he’d probably start for 25 teams in the NBA if he could do that consistently.

Once Wright fixes some of the quirkier downsides to his game, don’t be shocked if he starts leeching the minutes of guys like Brunson.

DONUT 4: The Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

It’s hard to believe anyone dared to say LeBron James was washed after his first season in LA. LeBron was only a year removed from an NBA Finals appearance, but a lot of people wrote, and said aloud, that he was the third best player on the Lakers this year.

Turns out, for at least one more year, he might still be one of the three best players in the NBA. Yeah, he got some extremely favorable calls on a couple of defensive plays in Sunday ... but that doesn’t take away from the fact that LeBron was active on both sides of the floor, and willing to step in and put his body on the line. Plus, more than once we watched LeBron go coast-to-coast and finish at the rim with seemly no defender able to stop him.

He finished with 25 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals. He leads the league in assists this year (Luka is second), he’s 10th in points per game, and he’s still pulling down 7.1 rebounds per game. His PER is 27.86, which is good enough for sixth in the NBA.

Yes, James is closer to his twilight than he’s ever been, but if you can push past the sports hate (more on that later) then try to appreciate what one of the greatest ever is putting together this season, even after everyone said his career was over. He’s putting together a case that he’s still easily one of the best in the world, and it’s not much of a debate.

DONUT 5: That’s Good for Luka

We saw it against the Clippers, but let’s go ahead and say it again here: Luka’s young, and sometimes we forget that being young is worth more than just praise. It also means that we need to have patience. Luka will not always be perfect for 82 games. In fact, when the Mavs beat a really good Denver team early this season, Luka had one of his worst games.

He wasn’t terrible against the Clippers by any means, but he wasn’t perfect, he was off from three, and after the game he preferred not talking to the media. Part of that is a maturity issue. Once he’s lost enough games over a decade of professional basketball, he’ll be better at standing in and taking that in stride. But part of that is also related to the MVP narrative that’s sprouted up around him. 

Rick Carlisle warned us all that we’re putting a lot of pressure on the shoulders of a really young guy. Try to honestly recall (and don’t lie to yourself) the fragility and uncertainty that came with being a 20-year old.

Yeah, Luka didn't want to do media that night. That’s not ideal. But, try to remember that he’s a 20-year-old kid, away from home, with the greatest expectations foisted onto his shoulders. When asked about it the next day, he said that he felt like he let everyone down. Go ahead and get self-righteous about the money, the professionalism, and the expectations of a pro athlete. But also, imagine your son being thousands of miles away, and imagine he calls you in tears, and says, “I feel like I let everyone down.” Tell me that you care how old he is, or how much money he makes.

Luka needs LeBron to stay among the best. Luka needs Harden to drop 60 points in three quarters. Luka needs Giannis to continue to improve, and to dominate both sides of the ball. He’s not the best player in the NBA. Not yet. But that has the power to be such a great revelation not just for the fans, but for Luka. It’s OK to be ONE of the best. It’s OK when you lose to a two-time Finals MVP on one of the best teams in the world.

It’s also OK to be so confident in yourself and your teammates that you believe you should have won. But only if the setbacks are accompanied by emotional health and compassion.

DONUT 6: Physicality Issues

The Mavericks faced three teams in a row that took it to them physically. There will be something "physical,'' too, about the end-of-a-road-trip game on Tuesday at New Orleans. Stay tuned with DBcom ... we'll break this down for you in an upcoming piece.

DONUT 7: Schadenfreude

I’ve written about "sports hate'' before, but all "sports hate'' is, really, is a for of socially acceptable Schadenfreude. Your team loses, I feel happy. A tale as old as time.

In Dallas, most of the biggest sports hate is reserved for the always bombastic (but not always successful) Dallas Cowboys. Just look at the high-yield market Stephen A. Smith gets when he takes a run at the Cowboys. It’s a social-media goldmine any time he puts on a giant Cowboy hat and acts a fool (nobody tell Stephen A. Smith that as bad as the Cowboys are this year, they still have as many wins than the Giants and Knicks combined).

Lately, the Schadenfreude seems to be directed at not just the Dallas Mavericks, but specifically at Luka Dončić. Any time Luka has a tough game, or even a great game that results in a loss, you can bet that bitter fans and bloggers from Atlanta, Phoenix, or Sacramento will let you know that it’s the bad games that prove his value as a player, and not the good ones.

Kristaps Porzingis has experienced his own wave of Schadenfreude, but it’s predictably from New York Knicks fans and media. If Porzingis has a tough shooting night Knicks fans behave like they’ve won a playoff series. One popular meme has the “1969-70 World Champions” banner hanging alongside a new banner than reads “2-0 vs Porzingis” in the Madison Square Garden’s rafters.

It’s been a long time since Mavericks fans could drink the sweet and salty tears of haters. Appreciate the success that’s led to the impotent grasping at straws from the world outside.

That’s part of being a sports fan.

DONUT 8: Luka vs. Harden (the Eye Test)

There are a lot of people saying that James Harden and Luka play the same kind of game. Ergo, they think it’s strange that people don’t complain about Luka as much as they complain about James. People seem to enjoy watching Luka play, whereas many people (including a lot of his teammates) seem bored with the way Harden plays basketball.

Why is this? Am I being too pro-Luka here and too anti-Harden? Let's think this one through ... and I'll have a "think piece'' on it later in the week.

DONUT 9: Dorian Finney-Finish

For a few years now there’s been a feeling that if Dorian Finney-Smith could develop a reliable three-point shot, he’d be a fine complimentary piece in the modern-day NBA. He can play defense all over the floor (he got a big block Sunday on full-speed LeBron, which feels like a true rarity), he’s active with and without the ball. In fact, he may be better without the ball in his hands than with it, which his perfect for a guy trying to fit in next to a high-usage point guard like Luka.

He doesn’t always knock down his open threes. He’s only hitting them at about 33 percent, and he didn’t shoot a lot vs. the Lakers (but still hit 40 percent). But he’s always ready now. There was a time when Doe-Doe looked almost afraid to shoot, but now when he spots up in the corner, he’s carries himself as if he thinks it's going in. He’s not that timid kid in right field hoping the ball stays away.

What the Mavs need next is for teams to recognize this. DFS’s shooting still isn’t impacting the spacing yet, because opposing teams don’t seem to realize he can knock down his open shots. That’s great for Dorian as long as he keeps getting open, but it’ll be even better for the Mavericks overall once the threat of his shot takes pressure off of everyone else on the floor.

DONUT 10: Myth vs. Reality — Porzingis is Playing Well

Look, I know you wanted him to come in here and score 30 points a night (even though nobody has ever done that in a Mavs uniform before Luka). I know you wanted him to get 20 rebounds a night, and hit seven treys. I know you wanted him to block the basketball and watch it hit Paul George in the face, and explode into unicorn-scented confetti. The fact that he hasn’t done that makes you worried that KP was a bad investment in draft picks and money.

You should calm all the way down.

Porzingis is averaging 17.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 2.2 blocks per game. His PER is above average (it hovers between 1.5-2.5 points above average). Beyond that, he’s active on defense. Even when he’s not getting blocks or rebounds, he’s amazing at keeping possessions alive. A tip-out doesn’t count as a rebound, but it still helps the team just as much if he knocks the ball to Delon Wright and keeps a possession alive. It means a lot that he’s big and skilled enough to take a rebound right out of Dwight Howard’s hands.

It’s also a testament to his character as an NBA player that he doesn’t allow his frustrations on offense bleed into his defensive effort.

Unicorns are great, but workhorses win more championships.

DONUT 11: Mavs Step Back Podcast MFFLs, we're so on it that not only do we have a game story from the Lakers game, and these Donuts (which I hope you enjoy and discuss with me on Twitter at The Mad Spin,) but also the fella have cooked up a Mavs-Lakers podcast.

Mark Cuban and the Mavs themselves seem to enjoy it. Enjoy along with them!

DONUT 12: The Final Word “We move on to another hard game on Tuesday on national TV, and New Orleans will be sky-high for that. Every time we have a game like this people are more than ever throwing their best game at us.” - Mavs coach Rick Carlisle.