The Mavericks have won nine of their last 13 games and are slowly beginning to solidify their playoff odds in the Western Conference. Much of Dallas’s mid-season resurgence — the Mavs have won 17 of their last 26 games to move to 14 games above .500 in a stacked West — has to do with the team’s prolific bench production.
The thing about the Dallas team that won the Finals in 2011 was that every single player played a vital role. Dirk Nowitzki was obviously the team’s star and most valuable player, but the other 11 active players all served a role. Without JJ Barea, Dallas could not have dissected defenses. Jason Kidd was the brain. Jason Terry gleefully took big shots. Shawn Marion was the stopper. Tyson Chandler was the heart. The list goes on.
That’s what has driven the team’s success this season. The Mavericks have somewhat replicated their 2011 roster by surrounding Nowitzki with players with very specific roles who are very good at specific things. Monta Ellis drives, and Brandan Wright throws down vicious dunks. It’s been said throughout Nowitzki’s career that he makes players around him better simply by just being on the court. The Big German affects defensive coverage to such an extreme that his mere presence at the top of the key opens enormous driving and passing lanes all over the court. That’s why Ellis has been so magnificent this season, for example, and that’s also what has led to Dallas’s unbelievable bench production.
Nowitzki checks out halfway through every first and third quarter so that when he returns, he shares the floor with members of the Mavericks’ second unit: Devin Harris, Vince Carter, Wright, and either Jae Crowder or Wayne Ellington. Since Harris’s return on Jan. 18, the Mavericks score more than 110 points per 100 possessions when any of those six players take the floor. The bench was solid before Harris was healthy, but it’s been since his return that the team has experienced such significant offensive success. Rick Carlisle and his players have developed a second-unit system that relies on very specific skills from certain players, and the wealth is spread so evenly that it’s almost impossible to determine which player’s impact is the most tangible. To whom could you give the credit for such outrageous production? The answer: everyone.
The Mavericks’ most unstoppable and equally devastating play in the last few weeks has been a pick-and-roll with Harris as the ball-handler and either Nowitzki or Wright as the screen man. Carter and Wright perform a pick-and-roll that’s equally difficult to defend, but Dallas executes the Harris pick-and-rolls with unfair efficiency. Because the Dallas second unit is full of specialized players with specific skill sets, there’s really nothing opponents can do to stop it.
Here’s an example of the pick-and-roll play from Monday’s game against Boston. The play begins with Nowitzki setting a high screen on Harris’s right side. You’ll see the Celtics’ Phil Pressey went over the Nowitzki screen, isolating Kelly Olynyk against Harris as the point guard turns the corner.
Olynyk is a fine player, but Harris is much quicker. He’s in a rough spot, but his misfortune is amplified because Pressey went above the screen and is chasing Harris rather than sticking to Nowitzki, as most teams choose to do. Olynyk and Monta Ellis’s defender on the weakside, Avery Bradley, both notice that Nowitzki would be wide-open if neither of them prevent the pass, but they both help on Nowitzki at the same time, leaving no one to defend Harris.
Two defenders are minding Dirk at the top of the key, and no one is near Harris, the more immediate threat, who now has a massive driving lane. Also notice how open Ellis is in the far corner. While that would normally be Vince Carter, a terrific three-point shooter, Ellis is still a threat behind the arc, particularly from the left corner, where he’s hit 15 of his 26 attempts this season. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson is defending Wayne Ellington in the near, strongside corner, and if he takes one step toward Harris, the sharpshooting Ellington will have a wide-open look from the corner. Essentially, Dallas has turned this possession into a 3-on-1 featuring Harris, Ellis, and, oh yeah, Brandan Wright.
Jared Sullinger, the center, steps up to contest a potential Harris shot, but that shot never comes. Instead, Harris lofts a 14-foot lob to the athletic Wright, who gathers the ball and slams it down. See the whole play here. Just off a single Nowitzki screen, Harris has broken down the entire Boston perimeter defense and the Mavericks have created three good shot opportunities. The Harris/Wright connection will always work: Despite the fact that Harris has played less than half the season, he’s already assisted Wright 30 times this season, second-most on the team.
Dallas’s spacing the last few weeks has been excellent, and the above play is a perfect example. Ellis and Ellington understand that staying in the corner gives the Celtics defenders a tough decision: Do they help on a speedy driving guard or mind their own man? What they don’t know, though, is that no matter what they choose, it’s the wrong choice. This single play is simply unstoppable, no matter how an opponent defends it.
Perhaps the most exciting iteration of this play appeared in the Mavericks’ stunning 109-86 victory at Oklahoma City on Sunday. At the end of the third quarter, with Dallas making a run to extend its lead from 13 to 21, the Mavericks ran this same exact play. Kevin Durant was defending Nowitzki and Reggie Jackson was checking Devin Harris.
The Thunder attempted to defend the play differently — because Durant is so quick for his size, he tried to cut off Harris on his way to the basket. OKC switched on the screen and is defending the play well. Jackson is clinging to Nowitzki atop the three-point arc, and Caron Butler and Derek Fisher both are sticking to their men — Vince Carter and Jae Crowder — in either corner. Oklahoma City has put the onus on Harris not only to beat Durant to the basket, but to either finish himself or lob it to Wright.
Well, Harris succeeded. Even the All-World Durant isn’t fast enough to slow down the blazing Harris as he turns the corner. And although Wright is lurking on the other side of the rim, OKC’s Nick Collison has to step up to stop Harris, just as Sullinger would do a night later. Even if you didn’t see the game, you definitely saw the end result: Wright threw down one of the best dunks of the year.
Keep in mind this is just one small example of what makes the Dallas second unit so effective. Nowitzki’s spacing effect, Wright’s athleticism and world-class finishing touch, Harris’s driving ability, and the shooters surrounding them run dozens of plays that work almost as well, but there’s no one set in Dallas’s playbook that’s as effective as the very simple Nowitzki/Harris pick-and-roll.
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