When Luka Doncic missed 10 games last month with an ankle injury and COVID-19 protocols, the Dallas Mavericks were expected to struggle. Instead, they managed to go 5-5 over that stretch and played much better basketball than the split suggested.
They won all of those five games by at least 12 points and lost the rest by no more than a margin of seven. In the absence of their superstar, the Mavericks leaned on their defense to pull off wins and by his return for the first game of 2022, the stage was set for a blistering run.
Dallas has won 10 of its last 12 games, highlighted by a pair of 17-point wins over the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies who are running second and third, respectively, in the Western Conference Standings. They have the best record in the league in this new year and their string of victories now has them fifth in the Western Conference with a 26-20 win-loss record–just three losses behind the currently health protocol-struck Grizzlies.
As expected, the returning Doncic has put up numbers throughout this stretch. He is averaging 23.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 9.3 assists, and 1.4 steals per game in January. The 22-year-old had his finest moment of the month in their most recent match versus the Toronto Raptors which was also their most thrilling win.
With the Raptors up by a point with less than two minutes remaining, Doncic calmly drove to the basket for a lay-up and followed it up on their next possession with a long three-pointer that gave them a four-point lead that they would not relinquish. He finished their 102-98 win with a gaudy 41 points, 14 rebounds, and seven assists.
While Doncic saved them versus Toronto, his prior outings leading up the contest were not as impressive. He has shot a meager 40.2% from the field and an even more atrocious 20.7% from three in January, although the gravity afforded by his mere presence on the floor still helps the team immensely. These types of shooting numbers from the Slovenian prodigy would have spelled doom to the Mavericks of old, but this team is proving to be different.
Albeit parading relatively the same roster that they have had over the previous two seasons, replacing their longtime head coach Rick Carlisle with the much-maligned Jason Kidd has worked wonders for them so far. They have refocused their identity, prioritizing defense over everything else, and the results have been spectacular so far.
After finishing last season with the ninth-best defense in the league, they initially dropped to 17th in November. Coincidentally, they made a leap to fourth in the month of December during Doncic’s absence and have taken over the top spot in their January games. This month, they have allowed a league-leading 95.8 points per game which 5.9 points ahead of the second-place Boston Celtics whose foes have scored 101.7 in the same span.
This suffocating stretch of defense has bumped them up to third in points allowed behind the Warriors and Cavaliers with 103.1 per game over the course of the entire season. Though Doncic’s buy-in and effort have been crucial, the biggest difference-makers have been their three starting frontcourt players.
The 7’3 Kristaps Porzingis, 6’10 Maxi Kleber, and 6’7 Dorian Finney-Smith make for an imposing trio based on their height alone. However, it is their switchability and quickness on defense that has made them as effective as they have become.
Porzingis, who was pelted by criticism in the wake of a disappointing playoffs last year, has had a renaissance season on the defensive end. He has regained his confidence and is playing with a level of toughness that is reminiscent of his early days with the New York Knicks.
It has translated to 1.7 blocks per game, up from a career-low 1.3 a night in the previous campaign. Beyond the statistics, his mere towering presence and renewed willingness to mix it up down low have an even greater impact on winning.
The hustle of Kleber and Finney-Smith on both ends of the floor should not be overlooked as well. On a team with Doncic and Jalen Brunson carrying most of the playmaking load, their inclination towards doing the dirty work, coupled with an underrated ability to knock down open shots, makes them a perfect fit as role players in this situation.
In the past, the common belief was that what Dallas needed was more offensive talent around Doncic in order to make it past the first round and finally take things to the next level. For now, Kidd’s focus on defense seems to have debunked those theories.
The blend of an elite defense with Doncic’s otherworldly shot-making ability is a throwback to the league’s past days where a singular offensive maestro was backed by a defensive-minded supporting cast. It remains to be seen how far this team can go come the postseason, but this impressive stretch of lockdown basketball–arguably their best run since Doncic’s arrival in 2018–has the potential to take them to the next level even without a major roster revamp.
While the Mavericks are looking great in January, it’s also fair to point out that they failed a big test against the Phoenix Suns today. After entering the fourth quarter with an 82-74 lead, both their shot making and their defense disappeared against the NBA’s top team.
The Suns were +13 in points off turnovers in a pivotal fourth quarter that saw them outscore the Mavericks 35-19, compelting a 16-point turnaround that ended with a final score of 109-101.
Chris Paul had his way with the Dallas defense as he put up 20 points, five rebounds, 11 assists, two steals and a block with zero turnovers. He also hit the dagger three that put the game out of reach.
The Mavericks will need to take a look at their fourth quarter meltdown against the Suns and pick up the pieces, but their current trajectory will have fans hoping for even better as the second half of the season continues.