With wins against juggernauts Golden State and Chicago, photo-finishes against Sacramento, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, and some classic Dirk Nowitzki performances mixed in, the last 10 games has been perhaps the most exciting stretch of basketball the Mavs have played all season. We’ve seen terrific offense, stalwart defense, and some really good basketball.

Believe it or not, the season is already halfway over, so teams are now starting to figure out exactly who they are, what they do best, and what they must improve on. Some might think that Dallas is still searching for its identity, but I’d argue the Mavs’ identity is going to be fluid this season. The Mavs will adjust if need be to make things work, and that chameleon-like approach is valuable. We’ve seen Rick Carlisle tweak the rotation and give the low-minute guys chances against the Pelicans and Thunder. Chandler Parsons has played some power forward. J.J. Barea had one of the hottest stretches of the season by any player, let alone on his own team. Dallas is able to beat you so many different ways, and that’s been a huge reason why the club is 23-18 at the midway point.

Let’s take a look at some of the major developments during the last 10 games.

JaVale McGee has opened up the offense

JaVale McGee went from not playing at all, to playing spare minutes, to now acting as the primary center backing up Zaza Pachulia. He’s had a rather meteoric rise up the Mavs’ depth chart, and it all has to do with what he brings to the offense.

At seven feet tall with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and a monster vertical, McGee has the length and athleticism the Mavs had previously been missing at the center spot. No disrespect to Pachulia, obviously, who’s having one of the more surprisingly productive seasons of any player in the league. But just as McGee can’t do some of the things Pachulia can, the opposite also holds true. McGee’s impact on Dallas’ pick-and-roll game has been hugely positive and equally vast — so much so that the Mavericks have even been occasionally using Chandler Parsons at power forward alongside a three-guard lineup to maximize space for a pick-and-roll with McGee as the centerpiece.

McGee is going to have the athletic advantage in almost every matchup he ever faces on the court, which means he’s always going to be a prime candidate to receive an alley-oop lob. If he can get running downhill into the lane and the opponent doesn’t find a way to stop him — which often means just packing the paint with bodies in hopes of halting him with human traffic — it’s going to be either a McGee dunk or a guard layup.

Mcgee pr lob

The only problem is when the Mavericks load up the lineup with jump-shooters and use pristine floor-spacing to stretch the defense to its limits, opponents must make a choice. They can either flood the lane or play true man-to-man and just hope their big man can beat the Mavs’. We’ve already seen how McGee can make that choice seem foolish, so here’s an example of what happens when the defense collapses.

Defense sucked in parsons 3

In that example, Parsons is the power forward and is guarded by DeMarcus Cousins, a center by traditional standards. He’s not used to having to scramble out to the three-point line to contest a shooter and therefore leaves the Mavs’ prized forward all alone for a wide-open three.

That’s not even when McGee’s impact has been most positive, though. Since Christmas, the trio of McGee/Parsons/Dirk Nowitzki has been sensational. Check out the Mavs’ advanced stats with that trio on the floor during that time as opposed to the club’s averages during the same time frame.

Offensive Rating Defensive Rating True Shooting % AST/TO Ratio
Mavs Averages 104.3 102.2 53.6 1.73
Parsons/Nowitzki/McGee On 114.2 99.5 62.2 2.38

Much like the spread offense in football, the NBA’s spread pick-and-roll is all about simplifying the game as much as possible for a point guard. Coming off a screen, a guard can either shoot for himself, lob it up to the big man, or kick it out to an open shooter. Ultimately, the defense will make that decision very easy by declaring which of those three options it elects to stop. Fortunately for the Mavs, it’s next to impossible to stop all three, and Dallas has enough clever point guards to identify the correct play to make. And while defenses will try as they might to stop the alley-oop option first and foremost, having McGee on the roster gives Dallas an unfair advantage against almost every opponent it will face in this league.

Unfortunately, asking McGee to repeatedly sprint to the rim and leap through the air puts a lot of pressure on him physically, so the Mavs must keep the blitz in its back pocket for just a few minutes of use at a time throughout a game, similar to how we saw Dallas deploy Brandan Wright during his years as a Maverick.


Wesley Matthews is such a beast

We really ought to take more time to appreciate just how incredible what Wesley Matthews has done this season is. It’s easy to take for granted how quickly he came back from an Achilles injury he suffered in March — in time for opening night in October. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if even Matthews takes it for granted, although not in the way you’d think. Matthews didn’t plan on missing any games, you see. He expected to recover quicker from a ruptured Achilles faster and more effectively than perhaps any athlete ever in the history of sports. But as crazy as it sounds, he turned out to be right.

And boy, is he producing. Matthews has been on a shooting tear for the last month-plus, launching his famous three-point arrows all over the country. He shot 42.5 percent from deep during the month of December and is shooting 35.4 percent from beyond the arc so far in the month of January, both impressive marks coming on a high volume of attempts, as well — both also are massive improvements over the 30.3 percent mark he achieved in November. Matthews’ presence alone on the outside is enough to make smaller defenders think twice about leaving him unguarded in an effort to double-team Dirk Nowitzki or help against a rolling big man. He stretches the floor in ways we haven’t seen a Mavericks shooting guard do since the days of Jason Terry.

Speaking of taking things for granted, his defense is something else, as well. It’s very easy to forget just how difficult it is to play lock-down defense on the perimeter in this league, let alone to work that hard on one side of the ball while also taking a ton of jump shots on the other end. Friday night he held Chicago superstar Jimmy Butler to just 4 points on 2-of-11 shooting one night after he scored 53 against Philadelphia. That’s one of the most dramatic scoring turnarounds in a two-game span in NBA history, and Matthews is the one who deserves the most credit. Matthews truly is an iron man, and so far during his time in Dallas he’s been everything the Mavs had hoped he’d be and then some.

The defense has improved

The Mavs have posted a 101.1 defensive rating during the last 10 games, which has helped them climb up to 14th in the league in defensive efficiency at 101.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. It’s the eighth-best defensive rating in the NBA during that time, according to NBA.com.

Specifically as Parsons and Matthews work themselves back to 100 percent, we knew the offense would improve as the season went on. What we didn’t necessarily expect, however, is this type of defensive resurgence. The Mavs held the Warriors, Kings, and Bulls all under 100 points per 100 possessions, which is an awfully impressive feat. Those are three of the more talented teams in the NBA.

The Mavs offense also benefits from the defense playing better, though. Dallas has a 47.8 effective field goal percentage following an opponent made shot or free throw, according to nbawowy.com. After a defensive rebound, that number climbs up to 49.7 percent. After a turnover, the eFG soars to 54.7 percent. When the defense does its job, the offense can do its duty just fine.


Other dribbles…

  • This might be stating the obvious, but lately when Dirk Nowitzki is on the floor, the Mavericks offense has been humming. For the entire season, Dallas scores 107.6 points per 100 possessions with the Big German on the floor, the second-highest rate on the team. Over the last 13 games, however, the Mavericks are pounding opponents with Nowitzki present, scoring 114.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game. By comparison, the best offense in the league (Golden State) scores 111.9 points per 100, so essentially when Dirk is playing, the Mavericks are nearly three full points better than the best team in basketball. If they can somehow find a way to carry that rhythm forward for an extended period of time, it’s fun to imagine where this offense can go.

  • The Mavs rested a huge chunk of the starting lineup against New Orleans on Jan. 6 and again in OKC on Jan. 13, and the “Stay Ready” Mavs were able to win the first of those two games. Dallas is now 2-1 this season when Rick Carlisle rests multiple starters, with the other win coming in Houston on Nov. 14. While the win in New Orleans was very impressive, one of the biggest standout performances of the season by any Maverick came against the Thunder, as Salah Mejri scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in his first lengthy spell of playing time this season. He looked great in that game, even throwing down one of the better dunks you’ll see this season — and over All-NBA defender Serge Ibaka, no less. It’s great to see the young, low-minute guys step up when their numbers are called, and performances like Mejri’s could perhaps earn them more playing time in the future. It’s all about staying ready and then producing when you have the opportunity to play.

  • Over the last 10 games we’ve gotten a very good glimpse of what the Mavericks want to do very late in tight games. For example, Deron Williams got the last shot against Sacramento, one of the most exciting regular-season games at the AAC in some time. That came on an inbound play, however. He’d get another last-second look against the Bucks that came out of a normal set, unfortunately narrowly missing a wide-open mid-range off-the-bounce jumper. Nowitzki got a look in the low post late in that game, also getting a touch in the high post late in the Cleveland game. Against Chicago, it was a combination of Williams, Nowitzki, and Parsons that close the game for the Mavericks. The late touches might change on a game-to-game basis depending on the matchup and how the defense has been covering certain plays, but seeing so many crunch-time minutes lately has given us a good look at what Dallas thinks is the best way to close out games.
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