Mavericks vs. Trail Blazers

Deron Williams scores 30 points, Dirk Nowitzki adds 28 and the Mavericks beat the Trail Blazers in overtime 115-112.

After enjoying a 6-4 record in their first 10 games, the Mavs went 5-5 in this last 10-game stretch, which included dramatic comeback wins on the road in Boston and Portland. Dallas appears to be getting healthier day by day, which is an extremely positive sign moving forward.

Nine of the Mavs’ next 11 games are against Eastern Conference teams, and that includes two trips to the East Coast. It should be a challenging run for the Mavericks, as the East is off to a better start this season than in any in recent memory. But as Dallas continues to improve its play — and especially as Chandler Parsons continues to see a rise in minutes — the Mavs are in a good position in the near future to improve its 11-9 record and climb up the Western Conference standings.

But that’s for the future. Let’s take a look back at some of the major trends and storylines of the last 10 games.

DERON WILLIAMS IS IN COMMAND

Deron Williams looks more in control of the Mavs offense every game. While he did fight through an 8-turnover game against the Rockets on Friday night, a performance like that is certainly more the exception than the rule these days; he’d turned it over just 1 time in each of his previous four appearances. Sometimes games like those just happen, but Williams was still extremely productive against Houston, finishing with 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting. That’s on the heels of his best regular-season performance in quite some time, as he notched 30 points against the Trail Blazers on Tuesday night on 11-of-17 shooting, adding 8 assists for good measure.

His best quality to this point, however, has been his ability to combined his scorer’s mentality with the nuanced, intelligent play of a point guard. He can create offense both for himself and for others out of the pick-and-roll, the post, and in isolation. He makes wise decisions that make things easy for his teammates, and ultimately that’s the job of an NBA point guard, for an average of 73.8 passes per game. The offense flows through him and he spreads the ball around appropriately and responsibly.

Heading into the Houston contest, he’d made the second-most passes of all NBA players (1,328), behind only Rajon Rondo. Williams is averaging 7.05 assists plus secondary assists (also known as “hockey assists”) this season. His average has been on a steady climb for 11 games. Below is a chart showing his AST+SAST each game along with his season average through the Houston game.

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It should also be noted that, during that time, his points per game average has been on the rise as well. He’s scored 21.0 points per game over the last four games since Thanksgiving on 48.4 percent shooting from the field. If he can continue to produce at that level, the Mavs’ offense will be in good hands — literally — the rest of the way.

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EFFECTIVE BALL MOVEMENT

Williams isn’t the only Maverick moving the ball. Before the tilt with the Rockets, the Mavs were averaging 339.5 passes per game, according to SportVU, which ranked third among all NBA teams behind only San Antonio and New York. While the Mavs averaged only 21.6 assists per game in those contests, Dallas was able to generate 2.8 “free throw assists” in addition — a free throw assist is a pass which leads immediately to a shooting foul. Williams and Raymond Felton have combined to average 1.5 a night, with most of those passes going to Zaza Pachulia underneath the basket. Pachulia is an expert at pump-faking defenders into leaving their feet so he can draw contact.

Pachulia and Dirk Nowitzki have each made some very nice passes themselves this season, often connecting with each other on the interior for layups or dunks. When your big men can share the ball effectively from the elbow, low block, or anywhere in the lane, it makes defending very difficult. If you’re a defender and you raise your arms vertically into the air to contest a shot, it’s easy for the offensive player to sneak a pass by your hip, but the second you start playing the pass is when the offensive player will go up for the shot.

In that sense, it almost works to the pair’s advantage that neither are particularly explosive. Everything develops slowly for Pachulia and Nowitzki, meaning they can diagnose what the defense is doing and react accordingly. It’s led to several easy shots for the Mavericks, in particular on passes from the Georgian center: The Mavs are shooting 48.1 percent from the field following a Pachulia pass, per SportVU, including 40.0 percent on three-pointers.

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SMALL LINEUPS PLAYING BIG

One major threat the Mavs pose to opposing defenses is the team’s ability to swing the ball from one side of the floor to the other with relative ease and at great speed. The Mavs often play two point guards at once — most prominently, the combination of Williams and Raymond Felton — which gives the team a pair of players who can attack in the pick-and-roll and create. Normally Chandler Parsons would fill that role, but he’s been working on a minutes restriction and has therefore missed all of crunch time this season until the Houston game. (More on Parsons and what he means to the team later.)

Frustrating as that might be for Parsons, the Mavs’ small-backcourt lineup of Williams, Felton, Wesley Matthews, Dirk, and Pachulia has been the best lineup by volume in the NBA this season — among the 30 lineups with at least 100 minutes played this season, that group leads the way with a +20.7 net rating in 16 appearances. It’s led to plenty of success in the clutch for the Mavs. That group has shooters and passers at every position, so what it might lack in athleticism or explosiveness it makes up for with craft, savvy, and cleverness.

Defensively, Williams’ good size for a point guard gives him the ability to defend some shooting guards, leaving Felton to defend opposing point guards. The Mavs aren’t really playing at too big a size disadvantage when that group plays, as there are only so many 2-guards in the league with the kind of size that can overwhelm that pair. And, for those who can, Matthews can slide over to defend them. Defensive versatility is more important now than ever in this league because so many teams play multi-skilled players at almost every position, but the Mavs have the personnel to limit it.

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Other Dribbles…

  • Dirk Nowitzki is still incredible, but you already knew that. He torched the Blazers late in the comeback win in overtime. He’s averaging 17.4 points per game during a season in which his minutes are down and many of his teammates are new. At one point very recently, he was shooting higher than 50 percent both from the field and from the three-point line. You knew that number would come down a bit, but Nowitzki has already set a standard for what will hopefully be yet another productive season.

  • Parsons has looked much better in recent weeks. He was used in a sixth man role against the Rockets and made an instant impact off the bench, scoring 7 points and handing out 2 assists before the first quarter was over. In his previous appearance, he scored 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting against Sacramento before reaching his minutes limit. He appears to be finding the extra gear he had last season, and I’m sure some of that has to do with confidence and his aggressive mentality more than his physical strength. At any rate, it’s been a welcome sight. It’s no doubt been a frustrating experience for Parsons, but as Rick Carlisle has said, the big picture is much more important than the short-term. And the small forward doesn’t appear too far away from getting back to playing 30-plus minutes. At this rate, it’ll only be another few weeks to a month, if that.

  • Wesley Matthews has already positively influenced the Mavs’ defense, bringing with him to Dallas a different attitude and disposition on that side of the ball than what we’re used to seeing around here. The Mavs are 3.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when Matthews is on the floor, according to NBA.com, and 2.6 points per 100 worse when he’s off the floor. The only player with a larger gap than that is Felton. Even as Matthews works to regain the high shooting percentages from the field (and especially from deep) that made him so attractive to Dallas as a free agent, we’ve already seen why Matthews was so coveted. He’s a gamer (in every sense of the word), a true warrior, and there’s no doubt that he’s going to give it all each and every night.
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