Suns vs. Mavericks

Raymond Felton scores 17 points to go along with four assists to lead the Mavericks past the Suns, 104-94.

Hard things are hard.

That’s the new mantra of choice for Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle, who picked up the saying on the Mavs’ last road trip after seeing it inscribed on a plaque which sits in the Oval Office. While there are admittedly very few similarities between coaching a basketball team and heading up the Executive branch, the underlying philosophy behind the quote applies just the same.

The Mavericks have been injured this season. It hasn’t just been one or two players. Nearly the entire team has fought through something — whether it be a nick, bump, bruise, rupture, or major surgery. Collectively, this club is slowly beginning to find its footing, although a 14-11 record and fifth-place position in the difficult Western Conference might indicate that the footing has long been found. That isn’t the case, though, as most notably Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews spent the entire offseason recovering from major injuries and, to varying degrees, are both still playing under minutes restrictions. Both have had their standout showings and disappointing shooting evenings, but both are prime targets of Carlisle’s new favorite catchphrase.

“Talk to Wes Matthews about hard things,” Carlisle said after practice last week. “Wes has had to endure a lot, he’s had to work extremely hard, he’s had to endure terrible shooting nights, and he’s hung in. And his wherewithal leads to nights like Washington where he breaks through.

“What Chandler is going through is hard. It’s a recovery from an injury where you’re away from the game a long time, and we have got to help him, his teammates have got to help him, and he’s got to help himself by continuing to fight through it. There’s really no other way. There’s no switch you can flip, there’s no secret sauce, there’s no magic dust. It’s just a test of will and persistence, and he’s up to it. I have zero doubt that he is completely up to it.”

There might not be a better word to describe this season’s Mavs squad than “persistent.” It takes time to bounce back after major knee surgery, a ruptured Achilles, nagging calf issues, and ankle sprains, and in Dirk Nowitzki’s case it takes an entire day’s work just to get ready for the next one. This Mavericks team has to work hard just to get to a game, let alone play in one. But you know what they say about hard things.

“Look at (Raymond) Felton,” Carlisle said. “What he went through last year, it was months that he was having to endure a recovery from a difficult injury, and a lot of people doubting him, and this, that, and the other. The guy’s hung in, and now he’s one of our most productive player, because he has hung in when hard things are hard.”

Postgame: Chandler Parsons

Mavs F Chandler Parsons comments on his performance against the Suns Monday night.

This season has been one big process that hasn’t ended and quite honestly might not end. Parsons’ timetable to get back to 100 percent might extend beyond this month, or next month, or perhaps even the next month. And while Matthews is shooting 3s at better than 40 percent in the month of December, we’re only a week or so removed from the player himself calling out his own level of performance. Things won’t come easy for these guys, but I think that’s OK with them, because the potential reward for this perseverance is worth every ounce of effort it will take and has already taken to get to the finish line.

One win in December is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but last night’s win against Phoenix gave us a glimpse of what this team could be capable of once it gets there.

There will be nights like the one the Mavs had last night — when everything comes together, when everything clicks — and those nights will be sweet. Dallas’ 104-94 win was hopefully the first of many payoffs the Mavs will receive between now and the end of the regular season. Every player contributed in some form: Deron Williams led the team with 18 points one game after sitting out with a stomach ailment, Matthews hit three 3s, and Parsons scored 17 points. Nowitzki put on a clinic in the low post and Zaza Pachulia grabbed 12 rebounds. Devin Harris made 6 steals and Felton poured in 17 points of his own. The Mavs’ offensive engine hummed to the tune of 31 points in the third quarter on 81.3 percent shooting, good for 1.722 points per possession, as Dallas built a lead Phoenix couldn’t take back. The ball was flying all night, which led to sequences of ball movement like this.

Ball Movement

The Mavs also went small, playing a 5-out lineup with Nowitzki at center and Parsons at the power forward. That group creates maximum space for the Mavs’ guards, namely Felton, to relentlessly attack the basket for either a layup or kick-out pass. Not many teams have the personnel to slow down sequences like this one, when in a matter of five seconds every player has touched the ball.

More Ball Movement

Dallas checked off all the boxes in its runaway victory against the Suns. The Mavericks moved to 6-4 when Matthews hits at least 3 three-pointers, and 7-3 when Parsons hits at least half his shots. When Williams scores at least 15, Dallas is now 7-4, and the Mavs are 5-2 when Nowitzki imposes his will offensively enough to earn at least 5 free throw attempts.

Even the Mavs’ best lineup statistically this season — Williams, Felton, Matthews, Nowitzki, Pachulia — finished +5 in 11 minutes, with a 19.7 net rating to boot. That group still leads all high-minutes lineups in the NBA in net rating. On a team full of players working through nagging nicks or potentially career-altering injuries, that five-man unit has been constant, steady, and dominant.

GettyImages-501376740

Many analysts use the metaphor of a treadmill to describe the Mavericks’ positioning in the NBA landscape. That must be one pretty great treadmill the Mavs are on, because they’re chasing only five teams with more wins this season. Dallas is 10th in offensive rating despite its players missing a combined 37 games due to injury, including six by Parsons, perhaps the most important of them all. The Mavericks rank 13th in defensive rating and 11th in net rating.

If the Mavericks are on a treadmill, last night’s runaway second half is a big, juicy carrot: This is what the team will look like when it’s finally healthy. And while that might not be right around the corner — it could be a week, a month, or more — the best way to stay motivated is to see the fruits of your labor. Dallas blew the doors off in the third quarter, as every player who appeared shot at least 66.7 percent from the field. Everyone contributed and everyone played well. The treadmill was moving.

Parsons’ strong night — 17 points on 5 of 10 shooting, including hitting two 3s — is a strong sign of progress. But, as Carlisle warned, even nights when things look easy can’t detract you from continuing to work to reach the larger goal.

“There’s a big rock, and he’s got to keep chipping away at that rock. That’s how you do it,” Carlisle said after the win, repeating his words from last week. “It takes an amazing amount of persistence and wherewithal to get through something like that. Ask Wes Matthews, ask Parsons, ask Dirk [Nowitzki] when he came back three years ago. It’s extremely difficult. These guys are all strong-willed guys.”

Hard things are hard, but the Mavs are battling through the difficult part and, slowly but surely, are getting to the place they want to be. Last night might not have been the last step, but it wasn’t the first, either.

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