Here’s our five takeaways from the Mavericks’ 128-121 loss Friday night against the Houston Rockets.
Toting the load: This was the fifth game this season that Luka Doncic has missed. He was out for four games with a sprained right ankle in December and was out on Friday with a similar injury. He’ll miss at least five more games, too. What the Mavericks have learned in the first five games the superstar point guard has missed is that Kristaps Porzingis will rise to the occasion when the need arises. He had a season-high 35 points to go with 12 rebounds. When you factor in the four December games that Doncic missed, Porzingis is averaging 25 points and 13.4 rebounds. The Mavericks now are 2-3 in games Doncic has missed. Porzingis is not a post-up sort of center. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be effective inside the 3-point line. He took advantage of what Houston gave him when the Rockets went with a super-small lineup. “We had some bigger lineups in there that were pretty effective,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Porzingis had one of his best games of the season offensively. I loved his cutting and movement off the ball in the lane. He was catching the ball with two feet in the lane and that really causes problems. Shooting over guys but doing it in a way where he wasn’t having to back in and fight them with traditional post-ups).”
Barea at the ready: J.J. Barea has had a great season in terms of production. He just hasn’t gotten the volume in terms of minutes on the court to do a lot of damage. He was averaging 21.6 points per 36 minutes played. The problem is he had played less than one-third of the games. Against the Rockets, Barea had 11 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes. He showed again why he’s still a contributor in his 14th season. It remains to be seen if Barea continues to get more playing time in Doncic’s absence. But he’s shown time and again that he won’t hurt the team when Carlisle chooses to utilize him.
First time for everything: Ryan Broekhoff found out at the team’s breakfast meeting that he would be making his first NBA start on Friday. “I was actually nervous,” he said. “I haven’t been nervous for a game in a long time, maybe my first game in the NBA last year in Phoenix.” He said he knew he was a little too excited on his first shot. “That first three, you could tell I was a little hyped up,” he said. “It went a bit long. But after the first minute or two . . . I felt comfortable out there.”
Third quarter blues: The Mavericks did not play a bad game against the Rockets. They competed well and just got beat by a team that got hot in the fourth quarter from 3-point range. Other than that, the Mavericks owned the fourth period. But the third quarter left them with too much ground to cover. Six Maverick turnovers led to 54-percent shooting for the Rockets, who outscored the Mavericks 36-25 in the third quarter. That left the Mavericks staring at a 101-85 deficit and while they played well to quickly cut into that gap and got it down to 107-104, they missed their only chance to tie the game when Seth Curry’s 3-pointer missed. After that the Rockets scored and the Mavericks never got closer than four the rest of the way.
Production, expected and unexpected: The Rockets were shorthanded without center Clint Capela, which is why they went small all game long. The Mavericks were without Luka Doncic and Dwight Powell. The Rockets are not a deep team to begin with, but their three reserves that played, Ben McLemore, Thabo Sefolosha and Austin Rivers, all had important moments. That said, the Mavericks’ bench had a big night. Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry, Willie Cauley-Stein and Maxi Kleber all had a positive plus-minus. It would not be surprising to see one or more of them in the starting lineup at some point while Doncic is out. And by the way, while the reserves were helpful, the Rockets got big-time performances by James Harden (35 points, 16 rebounds, six assists) and Russell Westbrook (32 points, nine assists, six rebounds). Those two still know how to make life miserable for the Mavericks and most other teams.