Saturday was the start of a flat-out wicked stretch of the Mavericks’ schedule. But also a part of the season filled with opportunity.
Their game at Denver was the first in a run of five matches against teams above them in the Western Conference standings.
This span – two against the Los Angeles Clippers and two at Portland following the Nuggets – will do a lot to determine just what kind of noise the Mavericks can make in the West.
It was a terrific start on Saturday with the 116-103 win over the Nuggets. That will no doubt help in terms of convincing opponents – and maybe themselves – that the Mavericks can compete with anybody.
They say in the NBA you have to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat and then try to hold your own against the others.
But it’s even better when you can beat the teams that raise the competitive bar. After all, you’re going to have to do that in the playoffs eventually if the Mavericks expect to get where they want to go.
So far, they have not exactly struck fear into their competitors. However, the win over Denver upped the Mavericks’ record to 7-9 against the other nine teams that at the moment would be in the playoffs or play-in games.
San Antonio, Golden State, Portland and Memphis have worse records against the top 10 teams in the West.
“We had a rough start with guys out and it took us longer than we wanted to really start playing better basketball,” Kristaps Porzingis said after the win over Denver. “But now we know what we’re capable of. And I think it’s starting to show.”
It’s not surprising that the teams with the best records against the West’s elite are the ones at the top of the standings. Utah is 9-3, Phoenix is 11-4, followed by the Clippers (8-6) and Lakers (9-7).
Each of the 10 teams that presently would make the postseason will play three games each against the other nine for 27 games total.
There is always the chance that Oklahoma City, New Orleans or Sacramento could rise into the top 10. But for now the top 10 have these records against each other:
Paying homage to Nellie: The Nuggets have one of the most versatile offensive attacks in the league, thanks mostly to center Nikola Jokic.
Coach Michael Malone has the option to use the 6-11 Serbian in a variety of ways. And he’s taken a page or two out of former Maverick coach Don Nelson’s strategies.
“The options are limitless,” Malone said before Saturday’s game. “That’s why Nikola’s a great player (and) can be used in every manner on the court.”
Malone said Jokic is a capable ballhandler and screener, which means he can operate effectively in either aspect of pick-and-roll situations, usually with guard Jamal Murray.
“You name it, he’s able to do it,” Malone said. “Most five men are not used to guarding another center that is used in the number of ways Nikola is.
“And the second part of that is that both he and Jamal are interchangeable in every two-man action. And you reminisce about Don Nelson back in the day, who was a great coach and Don Nelson would use guys in really unorthodox ways and I think a lot of similarities with how we use Jamal and Nikola.”
Local Luka knowledge: Denver’s 5-10 rookie Facundo Campazzo might be a relative unknown in the NBA, but his international footprint is huge.
The 29-year-old Argentine point guard played with Luka Dončić on a championship team at Real Madrid, in addition to playing for his national team in most major tournaments in recent years.
“I talked to Luka about him,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He and Luka played together at Real Madrid (and) they kind of alternated playing on and off the ball. He’s a fiery competitor. He has a great feel for the game.”
He also has another asset – the same no-quit perseverance that served former Maverick J.J. Barea so well.
“Facu has a lot of big games under his belt, whether it’s playing for his national team in Argentina, or playing at a very high level for Real Madrid,” Malone said. “This was a dream of his to come here. But not once did I ever think that Facu felt overwhelmed or didn’t believe in himself.
“He’s got supreme confidence. J.J. Barea had an unbelievable career. I think Facu has a lot of the same attributes, not just because they’re smaller in stature, but they both play with a chip on their shoulder and they both have extreme toughness to their games.
“That’s what’s allowing Facu to be the player he’s been. He’s got an incredible work ethic and incredible toughness and most importantly, just an incredible belief in himself.”
Campazzo has averaged better than nine points and three assists over the last 10 games.