Consider the end of the third quarter the Mavs’ “last call,” because this season if Dallas is in the lead after three, once the fourth quarter starts it’s already over.
The Mavs are 30-0 this season when leading after three quarters, per Basketball-Reference, the only perfect record in the NBA. Thirty and zero.
Over the years, Dallas has boasted some pretty awesome records when out in front after three. The club was 30-2 during the 2011-12 season, 44-3 during the 2009-10 season, 53-3 in 2006-07, and 49-4 in the 2002-03 season. But no Mavs team, not even the championship squad in 2010-11, has put together a perfect record in such instances.
As great as the Mavs’ competition has been in the Western Conference this season, especially upcoming opponents Portland and Golden State, no team’s record when leading after three compares.
To be clear, anything over .900 is incredibly good. But 1.000 is something special. Right, Dirk?
“We’ve been decent with leads,” the humble Nowitzki said. “We get in trouble when we have suspect first halves and we need to chase all game, and then we run out of gas in the fourth. But we’re usually pretty good when we take the lead.”
Success or failure early in games has been a topic head coach Rick Carlisle has talked about a lot this season. Many of the Mavs’ more difficult losses this season — near comebacks, like the one at home against Golden State — have come when Dallas has trailed early. Carlisle views an undefeated record when leading after three as taking care of business.
“The history of the league is if you go into the fourth quarter with a lead, you have a great chance to win, globally,” Carlisle said. “And that’s why first halves and the first three quarters are so important.”
In many respects, the first three quarters of the game directly influence the final quarter. Teams protecting leads are much more likely to slow down the pace and play a protective brand of basketball, focusing on ball control and finding quality shots, even if that means milking the shot clock in ways they wouldn’t earlier on.
For example, the Mavs play the slowest pace among the top-10 teams in fourth-quarter net rating. Despite having one of the best offensive ratings in the NBA during fourth quarters, Dallas plays at one of the slowest tempos.
Many of those teams, particularly Golden State, play slower in the fourth than in other quarters. That’s natural. But none of those teams take better care of the ball than the Mavericks, who turn it over just 11.6 percent of the time in the fourth quarter and have the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA by far in the final frames.
Much of that has to do with Monta Ellis, who usually quarterbacks the offense in the fourth quarter. Ellis typically begins the frame on the bench and then comes in sometime around the nine-minute mark to take the team home. It’s his show once he checks back in, as it was last night against New Orleans, and he almost always produces.
“Monta’s been phenomenal, our closer,” Nowitkzi said. “We go to him almost every time down the stretch and he’s come through more than not, making touch shots, making plays for others.”
“He did it again tonight,” Carlisle added about the starting 2-guard. “He really closed the game down. He made plays, he made shots on offense.”
There’s likely not a massive correlation between record when up after three and playoff success, as most playoff teams commonly have very, very good records in those situations. Good teams lose in the postseason every year.
But if there’s one thing to pay attention to, it’s the AST/TO ratio and the pace numbers. The game slows down in the playoffs. It’s more of a physical and mental grind, as every possession carries much more weight than in the regular season. You’re playing against a team that knows every play you’re running, and after every mistake it feels like the game is over.
That’s why it’s a good thing that the Mavs have been able to take such good care of the ball down the stretch in games this season. The Mavs turn it over a league-low 2.7 times per fourth quarter and record a league-high 2.3 steals every final frame, meaning they don’t give up easy points but they have plenty of opportunities to do so themselves. You hear all of those clichés about how every possession matters for a reason. Those momentum swings impact the outcome of the game.
As the season wears down and the Mavs’ schedule gets tougher, fourth-quarter performance is going to become even more important. If Dallas builds a lead after three quarters, the club will have to find a way to close it out. The Mavericks have done as much so far this season, so it’s just a matter of continuing to do what they’re doing: Find good shots, play patient, play smart, and D up. (And keep feeding that Monta Ellis guy the ball. He’s pretty good.)
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