Mavs Monday Donuts: Luka and Streaking Dallas are ‘This Week’s Champs’

Steven Kilpatrick

DONUT 1: Mavericks 137, Rockets 120

The Dallas Mavericks scored 45 points in the first quarter and they had 78 points in the first half (the fourth-most points in a half in Mavs history), but Houston still found a way to claw back into the game in the fourth quarter. The Mavericks pushed their lead to 20 points, and then watched the Rockets chip-chip-chip their way back, cutting it to a five-point lead with nine minutes to go.

Then Luka Doncic went to work as he often does. In fact, he was so effective (both offensively and defensively) that he was able to sub back out of the game for good with 1:48 to go and the game well in hand.

Luka finished with 42 points, six rebounds, and 10 assists, but the reason the Mavericks were able to dominate a division rival that sports not one but two recent MVP winners is because Luka got a lot of help.

Kristaps Porzingis was 9-of-17 for 23 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block. He also had five personal fouls—but some of those were heads-up defensive plays that took away easy buckets.

Tim Hardaway Jr. also pitched in with his best all-around game of the season, but I’ll talk more about that later.

Our Step Back Podcast on the game and more can be heard here, and Dalton Trigg's game story is here.

The game moved the Mavericks into third place in the Western Conference, and though divisions are mostly meaningless these days, it’s worth noting that they now lead the Southwest Division by a half-game (with a tiebreaker over the Rockets).

DONUT 2: The Champions Gauntlet

You’ve probably heard by now, but through a fluke of scheduling, the Mavericks just played (and beat!) the last four NBA champions back-to-back-to-back-to-back. If Miami had been on the schedule in this stretch it would have represented the last nine years of NBA Finals champs dating back to 2012. Admittedly, the Cavs have bottomed out without LeBron, the Warriors are starting a G-League team, and the Spurs have lost 10 of 12 games heading into their matchup with the Lakers. Still, Toronto is pretty good, even without Kawhi, and winning four row has been a tall order for Dallas in any context—so it’s worth celebrating.

DONUT 3: Luka Disappearing in the 4th

Dirk scored 31,560 points in his career, but the most memorable of those points, it seems, came in the fourth quarters of some pretty big games. It makes you wonder how Dirk felt sitting courtside on Friday night, his first visit as a fan, seeing Luka vanish on the scoreboard for the final 12 minutes of the game.

With Dirk, Michael Finley, and Shawn Marion in the crowd, they were treated to the second game in a row that Luka had a hot start and then was a complete no-show during the fourth quarter. When it happens in a win, nobody seems to talk about it, but star players simply cannot vanish in crunch time in back-to-back games. Period.

DONUT 4: Ha! Just Kidding

I worry that I gave some high-strung fan a panic attack just now. Consider that last Donut my Stephen A. Smith impersonation. If you’re reading this because you discovered a loved one catatonic and slumped over, wave some smelling salts under their nose and tell them I’m sorry.

The reason Luka was a "no-show'' in the fourth quarter is because the Mavs were so dominant in the first three quarters that there was nothing left for him to do. He didn’t get a triple double in both games, but if he’d spent even a few more minutes on the floor vs the Cavs there’s no doubt he’d have found the last three rebounds he needed.

In the six quarters he did play vs. Golden State and Cleveland, Luka’s combined stat line was outstanding. He hit 22 out of 36 shots to finish with 65 points, 17 rebounds, 25 assists, four steals, and only five turnovers in about 51 total minutes.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, Luka had 13 points, two steals, 1 block, one rebound, and two assists in the fourth vs. the Rockets.

It's fair to suggest that history will someday remember that Luka, like Dirk, will do special things in all of the quarters.

DONUT 5: Record-Level Scoring

On November 20, the Mavericks scored 142 points in regulation against the inept Golden State Warriors. Two days later, they scored 143 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The combined scores for the two games: 285-195. A 90-point difference over two games is crazy talk.

I’ve been watching basketball for nearly three decades, so over the years a lot of stats and numbers have become demystified. But there was a time in the 2018-2019 season that I watched the Mavericks lose (on my couch, so at least traffic wasn’t involved) to the 19-win Phoenix Suns by the final of 99-89. The Mavs just scored over three times that amount in two games. Then added another 137 points vs the Rockets.

Try to enjoy these moments.

DONUT 6: Point Differential

Leading up to their games against Golden State and Cleveland, the Mavericks had a very respectable Average Point Differential of +3.3. Some close losses (Portland, New York twice) and a lot of wins that felt like the Mavericks didn’t know how to keep the gas pedal to the floor (See Orlando and San Antonio) were tucked in. For a team with a winning record, but a tendency to play up or down to their competition, their +3.3 point differential seemed about right—maybe even fortunate.

It was also the lowest positive point differential in the league. Everyone below that number gives up more points than they get - which really represents the difference between a team that gets a lucky bounce or foul call vs a team that doesn’t (see the NBA apology for the Lakers game and Dwight Howard’s horse-collar tackle on Seth). In other words, the Mavs were a winning team with a point differential that suggested they could just as easily be a losing team. And if any of us are honest, that visual checks out.

It took a four-game win streak and two blowouts before Mavericks fans were able to breathe again. Now, 10-5 is a pretty good record. Just a week ago that was 6-5 and 0-2 vs. the Knicks. If I’d told you the Mavericks had a -3.3 average point differential four games ago, based on the optics I’ll bet you wouldn’t have argued with me, at least not to my face.

Heading into their matchup at Houston, and thanks to the aforementioned 90-point differential vs. Cleveland and Golden State, the Mavericks had boosted their Average Point Differential to a +8.8. They bumped it up to a +9.2 after their 17-point win vs. the Rockets. That moves them from the middle of the pack all the way to second in the NBA (just behind the Milwaukee Bucks and their +9.6 differential).

DONUT 7: MVPre-Mature

I know Luka’s great. We all know that. Everyone who doesn’t have "Rashad'' somewhere in their social-media name knows it (apologies to all the thoughtful "Rashads'' out there holding it down. Oh, and I'm at Twitter as The Mad Spin if you need me). I also know that Luka is part of some mystical new stat category every day. Feel free to share that he had the first triple-double in NBA history for a player under 25 with both a tvrdo and a meko in his name.

Still, isn't 15-to-20 games into a season way too soon to start chanting “MVP” when he’s at the free-throw line. Ponder this ... I'll address it in a coming piece.

DONUT 8: On the Other Hand ...

We had a similar early buzz for Luka last year, but that time it was for Rookie of the Year and an All-Star appearance. He obviously went on to dominate the ROY vote, but he did not make the All-Star team last year. There were plenty of people upset with that, but most of them couldn’t tell you which amazing player would be left off in favor of Luka. On the other hand, if Luka continues playing as well as he has this year, it would be a miscarriage of justice to see him in street clothes during the All-Star Game in Chicago.

So let’s unpack this: If Luka is good enough to go from missing the All-Star team, all the way to being in the MVP conversation (not winning the MVP, but getting some votes), then there’s a real argument that Luka is the Most Improved Player in the NBA this season. He also has a pretty good shot at making an All-NBA Team at point guard. I know it’s not the top of the world, so it won’t satisfy every Mavs fan out there ... but if Luka achieves either of those two accolades, it should be considered a successful sophomore season.

DONUT 9: Tim Hardway Jr.

Things change fast in the NBA. Just a week ago, if Tim Hardaway, Jr. was in the game, a wash of Tweets would let you know it. Fans and media would repeat the same question: Why is Tim Hardaway Jr. in the game instead of (insert your favorite bench member here).

But on Friday after the win over the Cavs, coach Rick Carlisle said something about "giving consideration'' to THJ as a starter.

And it worked again, as he saved his best game of the season for the matchup against Houston. 31 points on 10-of-18 shooting, 6-of-7 from the line, four rebounds, five assists, two steals and only a single turnover.

If this is the Tim Hardaway Jr. you get as a starter, the Mavs might’ve found their third option a little sooner than we expected.

DONUT 10: Normalizing Greatness

Last week Russell Westbrook rightly reminded NBA fans not to normalize greatness. We see media members, owners, and fans all throw shade at players like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Luka Dončić by dismissing their work as “stat-chasing.” But, as The Weeknd said in "Sidewalks,'' “If you really made me, then replace me.” 

In other words: if it’s so easy to get buckets, go get ‘em. If it’s so easy to notch triple-doubles, why is it still so rare? 

These guys are getting buckets, getting rebounds, getting assists, and they’re also getting wins. Root against them because it’s in the best interest of your team—but don’t pretend they aren’t great.

DONUT 11: Whats on Tap

The Mavericks host the hard-to-predict LA Clippers on Tuesday night at the AAC. The Clippers handled the Pelicans in a late game Sunday night, so they''re 12-5. Both teams are on pretty good win streaks (five in a row for the Clips, five in a row for the Mavs), and they’ve both beaten the Rockets this week.

What’s tough to figure out is which Clippers team to expect game to game. My guess is that given the Mavericks’ recent success, they’ll see a full-powered Clippers squad (and any rest for Kawhi will come elsewhere.)

I’d never have said this after the Mavericks finished getting swept by the Knicks last week, but I’ll bet this is a pretty good game, and either team could walk away with the win.

DONUT 12: The Final Word

“This is my 21st year of calling Mavs games. I’ve never called the team at a time when a guy on the Mavs was averaging 30 points a game. I don’t know what in the world I’m gonna do!”

-Mark Followill gushing about likely Western Conference Player of the Week Luka Dončić during the closing moments vs. Houston.