Thermodynamics (n.) – the science concerned with the relations between heat and mechanical energy
Last week, I called the Mavs the “winless warriors.” Since then, they haven’t lost a game. Coincidence? Surely not. Really, there’s only one reasonable conclusion: every single Mavs player reads this column religiously and was motivated to prevent me from concocting another disparaging, alliterative team nickname this week.
And prevent it they did. The Mavs went 4-0 this week, claiming just their second undefeated week of the season (Ed. note: for purposes here, we use a Thursday-Wednesday game week). It was, obviously, a marked improvement over their previous stretch of losing 10 of 11, and probably the most cohesive team play we’ve seen since very early November.
So what was the catalyst for this sudden turnaround? And which areas still need improvement? Let’s discuss.
Week 12 (@Kings, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Rockets)
1) Closing Games
For a team that’s had serious trouble finishing games all season, this week was a pleasant surprise. The Mavs outscored the Kings by 10 in the fourth quarter — in large part thanks to the clutch play of Vince Carter — and finally won an overtime game. Later, after allowing the Timberwolves to cut a big lead down to eight with just three minutes left, the Mavs promptly got a clutch three-pointer from Darren Collison and proceeded to put the game away. Finally, last night against the Rockets, the Mavs got clutch baskets, clutch free throws, and clutch stops (including an incredible block by Elton Brand on James Harden) to put away a close game. We’ll see where this leads, but for now, it’s nice to say that the Mavs have finally overcome some on-court adversity to win tight contests.
2) OJ Mayo
Mayo has made the Thermodynamics hot on several occasions this season, but this time is a bit different. Previously, Mayo has earned a spot here due mostly to torrid shooting and scoring numbers. This week, he’s here because of his all-around game, which has improved drastically of late. Mayo averaged a commendable 18.3 points per game this week on 23-of-46 (50%) cumulative shooting, but more important were the other things he did. He averaged 6.5 rebounds per game — including a whopping 10 in Sacramento — and matched that mark with 6.5 assists per game. To put these numbers in perspective: Mayo has had two 18-point, eight-assist, six-rebound games in his entire career, both of which came this week. Further, he dramatically improved his ball security, totaling just five turnovers in four games. Over at ESPNDallas, Tim MacMahon has an interesting article about Rick Carlisle pushing Mayo to become a better all-around player. At least for the past few games, those efforts are paying dividends.
3) The Matrix
By and large, it was a terrific week for Shawn Marion. He notched 19 points and 10 rebounds in Sacramento, going 7-of-12 (58%) from the floor. He was the Mavs’ best player in a blowout win over a very good Memphis squad, dropping 20 points on 9-of-13 (69%) shooting. His scoring numbers took a step back against Minnesota (just five points), but he found a way to contribute with eight rebounds, three assists, and a strong defensive effort. Closing out the week against Houston, he had yet another vintage Matrix statline: 18 points on 8-of-13 (62%) shooting, nine rebounds, three assists, and a terrific defensive performance (along with Dahntay Jones) against James Harden, the league’s fourth-leading scorer. A round of applause for Numeral Zero, whose versatility and energy are much needed and much appreciated for a Mavs roster that lacks many true all-around players.
1) “Defending” the Foul Line
The Mavs did a poor job this week keeping their opponents off the foul line. The Kings shot 32 free throws, the Grizzlies 26, the Timberwolves 29, and the Rockets 30. The final three of those games took place in Dallas, where you’d typically expect the Mavs to get the benefit of the doubt on borderline calls. They didn’t. To give the numbers above more context, the Mavs have been the second-worst team in the NBA this season at giving up free throws (26.1 per game, behind only the Toronto Raptors). This week they were even worse than their already bottom-feeding average, conceding 29.25 free throws per game. Of course, part of the reason was the schedule: Minnesota is 3rd in the league in free throws attempted per game (25.8), Houston is 6th (25.6), and Sacramento is a fairly respectable 14th (22.4). Even still, all four opponents shot more free throws against the Mavs than they typically shoot. And not just a negligible amount more — the Mavs conceded 5.4 more free throws per game this week than their opponents’ season averages. But this isn’t really a surprise, is it? The Mavs have some glaring defensive deficiencies; namely, they can’t guard the perimeter and they don’t have a consistent interior presence. Until one or both of those issues are fixed, the Mavs will continue to struggle with keeping opponents off the line.
2) PG Management
Rick Carlisle’s handling of the point-guard spot has been puzzling. After the Derek Fisher fiasco, Carlisle installed Darren Collison as the full-time starting point. Ever since, Collison has played some pretty good ball. But outside of Collison’s on-court performance, pretty much everything about the Mavs’ PG spot has been a mess. For a bit, it looked like Roddy Beaubois would get the lion’s share of backup minutes. But then the Mavs brought in Mike James, a 37-year-old who hasn’t been a good enough NBA player to actually stay in the NBA for the past several years. That decision put Beaubois on the backburner once again, as James has been getting most of the backup PG minutes.
But it didn’t stop there. The James acquisition has also affected Collison; twice this week, Carlisle benched Collison during crunch time and instead used James as his closer. In Sacramento, James played the last eight minutes of a tight fourth quarter, and then the last thirty seconds of overtime. Last night against Houston, Carlisle removed Collison with two minutes to go in a tie game and rode James down the stretch. The Mavs won both games, but let’s not get trapped up in results-oriented thinking. Going with James in those situations makes little sense. He doesn’t shoot well—he went 0-4 over those two fourth-quarter stretches—doesn’t defend well, and lacks Collison’s dynamism. What’s more, Carlisle used James in a very counterintuitive way. If there’s any reason to play James over Collison late, it’s because Collison has trouble throwing entry passes to Dirk in the post. So what did James do last night? He didn’t throw entry passes to Dirk in the post. Instead, he ran pick and rolls with Dirk, which is baffling considering that (1) the defender was going under the screen and daring James to shoot (which he did, missing twice); (2) it typically takes longer to get Dirk the ball running pick-and-rolls than post-ups; and (3) Collison, for all his flaws, is probably more skilled at the pick-and-roll than James.
I’ll call this one as I see it—Carlisle loves vets. In fact, he loves vets even when their younger counterparts are superior in just about every way. He showed it with Brandan Wright and Troy Murphy, he showed it with Roddy Beaubois during his dazzling rookie year, and he even showed it with young Tayshaun Prince back when Carlisle coached the Pistons. Now, I can’t say Carlisle shouldn’t ever favor vets, and I certainly can’t say that he’s not a terrific coach (in fact, I think he is the second-best coach in the league today). But this is one of the few things I wish I could change about his thinking. When you have a young talented player, play him. Accept the mental mistakes and coach him up, even when things get tight. Don’t fall back on your crutch of veteran players—who, by the way, still make plenty of mistakes and, unlike young players, often lack the physical talent to counterbalance those mistakes. Ride out the storm, Rick.
Well, not actually “nothing.” There are plenty of other things we could discuss in this space. But in honor of an undefeated week, I’m going to leave this column purposefully unbalanced—three hot items to just two cold items. Consider it a sign of respect for a Mavs team that needed just one week to gain 2-4 games in the standings on four of their playoff competitors (Lakers, Blazers, Timberwolves, and Rockets). A playoff spot remains unlikely, but it’s not entirely out of reach just yet….
Travis Wimberly lives in Austin, Texas and writes about the Dallas Mavericks on Al Gore’s Internet™. Travis enjoys shenanigans, claptrap, and frivolity. Follow Travis on Twitter @TravisRW.