Take away players. Add players. Mix and match to your heart’s content.
When Luka Dončić is rolling like this, none of it really matters to the Mavericks.
The point guard went crazy once again on Wednesday night against Charlotte, running up massive numbers and leading the Mavericks to a 104-93triumph that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated and perhaps helped ease the pain of the 19-point whipping they took from the Hornets on Dec. 30 in Dallas.
The Mavericks had five players out because of health and safety protocols. And while they welcomed back Kristaps Porzingis for his first action of the 2020-21 season.
But this was Luka’s show as the Mavericks won their fourth consecutive game and pushed their Southwest Division-leading record to 6-4.
Dončić finished with 34 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists, narrowly missing his third triple-double of the season. Over the last four games, Dončić has averaged 31.3 points, 12 rebounds and 10.8 assists.
But wait. There’s more.
Dončić blocked a career-best four shots and while he’s in no danger of catching Hakeem Olajuwon for the NBA’s all-time blocked-shot record, it was another sign that the Mavericks are embracing this new notion that defense matters. They have quietly risen to No. 3 in the NBA in defensive rating.
And the active hands start with Dončić.
“The hands are very important in basketball, but the other part is the effort, too,” Dončić said. “The way you win championships is with defense. If you don’t have defense, you’re not going to achieve anything. I think that’s why everybody’s willing to sacrifice. That’s the key to our team.”
The salty defensive effort started by limiting Charlotte to 25 percent shooting in the first quarter as the Mavericks built a 16-point lead that never dipped below nine the rest of the way.
“Young players realize as time goes on the importance of being able to be real solid at both ends, otherwise, teams in this league are going to attack you mercilessly,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “And early in the game, he did a great job on (Gordon) Hayward. He’s really worked at it, as well as every other part of his game, which is great to see.
“The numbers don’t lie. When we have the grit and we focus defensively, we take our game to another level. The best players set the tone. When Luka and KP are invested in the importance of defense, everybody just falls in line.”
Which is what happened on what turned out to be a special night not just for Dončić and Porzingis, but for Carlisle, too.
This was Carlisle’s 800th victory as an NBA head coach, making him the 16th coach to reach that plateau. He joins two other former Maverick coaches, Don Nelson and Dick Motta, in the club. Nelson finished his career as the all-time leader in wins at 1,335. Motta retired with 935 wins.
Carlisle credited the ownership he’s worked for at Detroit and Indiana before joining Mark Cuban and the Mavericks. He also gave a nod to players like Chauncey Billups and Chauncey Billups in Detroit and Reggie Miller and Jermaine O’Neal in Indy.
And then, he said, he “rode the Dirk (Nowitzki) train for a long time.”
“I’ve just been extremely fortunate,” Carlisle said. “And now we got two great young players with Luka and KP. You got to have all those things to be around as long as I have and I’m just extremely grateful. I don’t take any of it for granted. It’s a privilege to be one of 30 coaching in this great league.”
And to have the return of Porzingis after missing the first nine games of the season.
Considering he hadn’t played an NBA game since the injury in the playoffs in August, the 7-3 Porzingis didn’t look like he was rusty. He hit two of his first three 3-pointers and made a nifty layup on a baseline drive during the second quarter. He would finish with 16 points in 21 minutes.
He said he was guilty of trying to do too much because of the minutes restriction.
“Sometimes you don’t make the best decisions,” Porzingis said. “But it’s OK. I wanted to be aggressive for the time I was going to be out there.”
Said Carlisle: “It was great to have KP back out there. I thought he played exceptionally well, given the circumstances. He’ll only get better from here.”
Porzingis put in considerable time at power forward instead of center, where he spent most of his time last season. That could continue given the Mavericks’ shorthanded situation.
They know they are going to face some difficult times in the coming two weeks with five players dealing with COVID-19 issues. Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Josh Richardson, Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell all are out indefinitely.
But you get the feeling with Dončić rolling like he is, Porzingis regaining form and the defense playing like they mean it, the Mavericks can survive just about anything at this point.