A lot went into coach Rick Carlisle’s decision to start center Willie Cauley-Stein for the first time this season in Monday’s game against the Houston Rockets.

“It isn’t just numbers,” Carlisle said. “You’re looking at work habits, you’re looking at personality in terms of commitment to team and those kinds of things. Look, he’s checking a lot of boxes.

“The other thing I like in the Houston game — he started the game — he played to exhaustion and asked out five or six minutes in. When you get guys playing that hard and to the point where they actually ask to come out of the game, that’s a really positive thing for a team. Look, I tell our guys if you play that hard and ask out, I’ll make sure I get you back in. This is what it’s all about. It’s hard play, attention to detail and unselfish play.”

Cauley-Stein produced six points and three rebounds in the first six minutes of the game against Houston, and finished with season highs of 15 points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes. He also manufactured three lob dunks via passes from Luka Doncic, sprinted down court and received a long pass from Doncic for a breakaway dunk, and was an active participant on the defensive end of the floor.

“In terms of his work and his development, he’s still a young player, still getting better,” Carlisle said. “He’s worked a lot on his shooting, his free throw shooting is better this year and he’s been a big presence.

“When he’s been on the floor this season we’ve been a significantly better defensive team, and that was one of the things that went into the decision to start him against Houston. We need the best possible defenders in the game that we can get.”

The Mavs acquired Cauley-Stein from the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 25 for a second-round draft pick. The six-year veteran only played 13 games for the Mavs last season, then opted out of the bubble for the birth of his daughter.

But the Mavs always knew the sixth overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft had some exceptional skills that will work well with their program. So when Cauley-Stein opted out of the final year of his contract, the Mavs were there to sign the seven-footer to a new deal.

“Willie’s a great team guy,” Carlisle said. “Even when he had made the decision to opt out of the bubble this summer he was in here working out every day. It was a family decision.

“He bought a house in Dallas. He really likes it here. He did opt out of his deal because that was a business decision, but his hope was that he would land back here, which he did.”

And the Mavs are glad he did.

Mavs love challenge of tough schedule: Of the Mavs’ seven games they’ve played so far, they’ve already played the two teams – the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat – who were in last season’s NBA Finals. They also opened the season against a much-improved Phoenix team that went 8-0 in the bubble and added Jae Crowder and Chris Paul to the mix.

In addition, the Mavs have already played two other high-caliber teams on the road — the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets.

Now comes another of the NBA’s elite teams for the Mavs, who will face the Nuggets in Denver on Thursday at 9 p.m. in a nationally televised TNT contest. The Nuggets lost to the Lakers in year season’s Western Conference Finals and believe their chance at championship stardom is just a few bounces away.

“You’ve got to love the challenge of our schedule and you’ve got to look at it that way,” Carlisle said. “It’s very, very difficult, it’s very aggressive in terms of the number of road games versus home games.”

The Mavs will play 11 of their first 16 games on the road. That could help toughen them for the balance of the schedule and put them in position to be a much more productive team during the stretch run of the season.

“We’ve got to play the team that they put on the schedule,” forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “We were fortunate to get a tough first couple of games . . . to see what this team is made of.”

Hardaway “is an NBA starter”: Just because Tim Hardaway Jr. was a sterling success against the Houston Rockets Monday when he didn’t start doesn’t mean he has been permanently moved from the starting lineup. So said Carlisle, who added: “My answer is he is a starter. He is an NBA starter.

“Whether he actually starts or comes into the game five minutes in, he proved the other night that he can handle it and we’re going to need everybody to handle some of these lineup fluidity situations. There’s going to be a lot going on with lineup stuff in the coming days and weeks with (Kristaps Porzingis) coming back sometime soon.”

Against the Rockets, Hardaway played 31 minutes off the bench, scored a season-high 30 points, was a red-hot 11-of-14 from the field and an equally hot 8-of-10 from behind the 3-point stripe. It was clearly Hardaway’s most productive game of the season.

“I have great love for Tim and what he stands for as a guy that works his butt off,” Carlisle said. “He’s committed to team, he wants to win, he really wants to find a home here in Dallas and I think he’s willing to do whatever and I think he would tell you that.

“In terms of what we’re doing lineup-wise tomorrow, I’m obviously not going to get into that. But do I see him starting other games this season? Yeah, I do. I don‘t know exactly when or where. But if he doesn’t start, he’ll be in there quick.”

Porzingis will return soon: Forward/center Kristaps Porzingis will make his regular season debut sometime in the near future. Porzingis has been making substantial progress after undergoing surgery on Oct. 9 to address a lateral meniscus injury in his right knee.

“In terms of a timetable, we’re not talking weeks,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’re talking sometime in the next week (or) week-and-a-half. If all things continue to go well I think there’s a chance we can see him playing. But I’m not going to commit to a certain game or anything like that.”

Carlisle said not to expect Porzingis to play Thursday at Denver or in Saturday’s home game against Orlando.

“He’s really looked good the whole time,” Carlisle said. “Everything’s gone without an issue, which is great. “

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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