Kick-starting a team’s season can happen at the most unexpected times and in ways that aren’t so obvious when they occur.
The Mavericks have been playing pretty well lately. But if they are looking for that one spark to ignite them on the sort of surge that will vault them up the Western Conference standings, look no further than a moment in time at the 8:14 mark of the first quarter Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Josh Richardson, whose defensive grit might just be slowly rubbing off on the rest of the Mavericks, hit the floor hard to fight for a loose ball against the Clippers’ Paul George. It was a nasty scrum, like when a pile of football players scramble to recover a fumble.
Richardson came away with the ball and before a bunch of Clippers could converge, he got a timeout called.
It was the kind of hustle & heart play that fans appreciate and coaches adore.
“That set the tone for the entire game,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “That was a signal to everyone in the arena that we were here, that he was here and we weren’t going anywhere.”
Which, of course, means the Mavericks were going places in the game that the eventually won 105-89 with one of their best defensive showings of the season.
“That’s a big moment, a big play,” Carlisle said. “Oftentimes, a playoff series can hinge on one play like that. Your season can hinge on one play like that at times. It just depends on which game, when and what it means.
“We’re nowhere near the end of the season, but that play was symbolic of what our team stood for (against the Clippers). And that was that we were going to fight all the way and we were going to be defiant.”
It’s a trait all good teams possess, a certain refusal to get outworked.
That doesn’t mean it will be evident every single game. Every team experiences a blah night from time to time.
But making them few and far between is the Mavericks’ mission during these dog days of the season. The trade deadline may still be a week away, but the Mavericks and a lot of other teams are not expected to make any major moves.
And that’s a sensible approach, given how the signs have been mostly good for the last six weeks as the Mavericks have gone 12-4.
And they have done that damage during a time when the schedule isn’t particularly friendly. They are in a stretch of playing five consecutive games against teams that are above them in the West standings.
Two games at Portland starting Friday night will pose more challenges. The Blazers, who also play Thursday night at home against New Orleans, are two games in front of the Mavericks.
The crush of high-quality foes can be a little jolting for players who aren’t used to it. In the Eastern Conference, for instance, Richardson knew there was an occasional softer opponent to break up the run of difficult challenges.
Not so in the West, sometimes.
“It’s my first year in the Western Conference,” Richardson said. “Seeing all these tough opponents every night is tough. It’s a grind.
“But I think we have the players and the depth to fight through that and be able to go out and battle.”
The good news against Portland is that the Mavericks should get Dorian Finney-Smith back. The starting forward missed Wednesday’s win because of the birth of a son.
“We missed Dorian,” Richardson said. “But a few of us had to collectively step in and bring that toughness that he brings every night.”
Hence, the rolling around on the deck for a loose ball, even though it was early in the first quarter.
Richardson ended up with three steals and a block. Not to say that it’s contagious – kind of a no-no to use that word these days – but Luka Dončić had three steals and two blocks and the Mavericks rebounded well enough behind Kristaps Porzingis (13 boards) to make up for the 18 turnovers they had.
It’s the kind of gritty showing that a team can look at and, maybe, have a light bulb switch on for them.
Briefly: The Mavericks play eight of their next nine games on the road and used Thursday as a travel day to Portland, where they play Friday and Sunday against Damian Lillard and Co. . . . James Johnson will not be with the team in Portland as he goes through the COVID-19 protocol program. He did not test positive, but after he left the team to tend to a family matter, he must complete a series of tests before he can rejoin the team.