When Kristaps Porzingis couldn’t go in Game 4 against the Clippers on Sunday, coach Rick Carlisle turned to Trey Burke to fill the void in the starting lineup.
That’s like trading in a Peterbilt for a Prius.
But, man, what mileage the Mavericks got out of that little electric machine.
Burke might be 15 inches shorter and 65 pounds lighter than the 7-3, 240-pound Porzingis. But he played huge in the 135-133 overtime win that evened the first-round series 2-2. Burke had 25 points and continued to be by far the best replacement player in the NBA bubble and arguably the nicest surprise of the season for the Mavericks.
Did we mention the five rebounds, two steals and 4-of-5 3-point shooting the 6-foot Burke had?
Not bad for a guy who was unemployed for nearly five months after being waived by Philadelphia in February.
Burke has fit in seamlessly with the Mavericks, partly because he filled a need when he was signed in July and also because he knows Rick Carlisle’s system. Burke was part of the Porzingis trade in the 2018-19 season, then left the Mavericks in free agency.
He played well in 25 games with the Mavericks last season and in the eight seeding games after he was signed this season, he averaged 12 points and 3.8 assists while shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point range.
He’s been even better in the playoffs, averaging 13.3 points and shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s been great,” Burke said of his return to the Mavericks. “I’ve had the luxury to come back to a team that I was pretty familiar with. So that’s always better. I wasn’t going into a brand-new situation. They treated me like one of theirs when I came last year, the Mavericks organization. So, When I came back, we just picked back where I left off.”
Burke’s scoring has been a welcomed addition. But his overall play has been better than could have been expected.
His defense, always a knock on him earlier in his career, is improved. And that’s by design, he said.
In addition, his motor has been constantly revving. He has been pesky. And a pest to the Clippers. In short, Burke is the perfect example of a player who has gotten an opportunity and made the most of it.
The fact that he’s in a comfortable environment certainly helps.
“The style we play is probably more conducive to him playing effectively than what Philly was doing,” Carlisle said. “We like him. He went through some things on the court, off the court. But he’s a fighter.
“And figured out who he was. He’s an NBA scorer that busts his tail on defense. For us, what he brings is one of the things we need.”
Burke has been in the right place at the right time. The NBA bubble is going smaller by the minute, not only in number of teams hanging around, but in terms of how teams are playing.
Houston’s not the only team playing with nobody bigger than 6-8 these days. The Clippers have done it on occasion.
That’s opened up some matchup opportunities for Burke.
And it’s also allowed him to show that he’s not bankrupt defensively.
“The biggest thing that stuck with me was them telling me to be yourself out there,” the former No. 9 pick of the 2013 draft said. “Don’t try to be anybody else. “We need you to be who you are on both ends of the court.
“Defensively, that’s what I really locked into on my time off. I wanted to change that narrative on me: ‘he can score, but he can’t defend.’ I know I can be a great defender.”
The Mavericks don’t necessarily need a “great” defender. Just one that works well in the team defensive scheme.
And that was one reason Carlisle and the management team liked Burke when it came time to replace Willie Cauley-Stein after he opted out of the bubble.
“If you looked at our situation at the time we needed a replacement player, there were three players that you could make a case needed to be replaced,” Carlisle said. “(Dwight) Powell was out. Cauley-Stein was not going to be joining us. And (Jalen) Brunson’s out.
“It was determined internally that Trey Burke was the best player available. There were some big guys. But none anywhere near as good an overall player at his position as Trey was. We felt it was more important to get the best possible player and to replace some of what Brunson did for us than to settle on somebody else.”
The performance of Burke in the bubble has raised the question of whether there is a long-term home for him with the Mavericks.
The staff would like nothing better, but there are many factors involved.
Brunson remains a strong piece of the franchise for the future. And when he returns from the shoulder surgery next season, his spot in the rotation will be secure.
Burke’s future with the team is a conversation for another day.
But one thing’s for sure with Burke. The price tag for his employment this fall in free agency is rising by the day.
And with good reason. He’s earning it.
“He’s molded his game to where he’s now an established NBA scorer, the way I view it,” Carlisle said.