Going into their game at Houston Monday night, the Mavericks were tied for last place in the Western Conference and their superstar had looked out of sorts in the season’s first 10 days.
The view was way, way better after Luka Dončić looked every bit like the MVP candidate he is against the Rockets.
The third-year point guard unleashed a monster game that produced his first triple-double of this season and powered the Mavericks to a 113-100 victory over the Rockets in front of a smattering of fans at Toyota Center.
Dončić returned nicely from missing Sunday’s game at Chicago with a left quad contusion, torching the Rockets with 33 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists. Those gigantic numbers dwarfed his eight turnovers and helped move their record to a more respectable 3-4.
It was the 26th triple-double of Dončić’s career. It’s the third time the 21-year-old has had 30-plus points, 15-plus rebounds and 10-plus assists in a game. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the rest of the players in NBA history have combined for two such games before turning 22.
The Mavericks also tweaked their lineup, inserting Maxi Kleber and Willie Cauley-Stein and bringing Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dwight Powell off the bench.
The move paid dividends with Cauley-Stein and Dončić running the pick-and-roll to perfection on numerous occasions, but the biggest plus was what the Mavericks got from Hardaway, who was sensational with 30 points in the role of sixth man.
But everything started with Dončić, who had been OK during the first five games before sitting on Sunday.
“Luka’s one of many players that had heard the season wasn’t going to start until January or February,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We started the year in December . . . so his preparation schedule was thrown off and he just got behind the curve.
“It’s pretty clear now that he’s working his way back to where he needs to be. All his physical and conditioning indicators are really going in a good, strong direction. And you can tell on the floor. You can see that he’s getting better and better as each day goes by.”
The Mavericks led virtually the entire game against the Rockets, but when James Harden made a 3-pointer with 6:41 to go, their lead was just 94-92.
But Dončić converted a bucket in the paint and then he got help from Dorian Finney-Smith and Hardaway as the Mavericks scored 12 consecutive points to stash the game away with just over two minutes remaining.
Dončić said that his quad injury was “nothing serious” and that the rest of his conditioning is coming along.
“I’m ready to play,” he said. “I’m going to keep doing the conditioning and keep getting in better shape.”
Luka’s play made life easier for everybody, particularly Cauley-Stein, who had 15 points and seven rebounds in his first starting assignment of the season.
Coming off the bench, Hardaway made 11-of-14 shots, including eight of his 10 3-point tries.
“It’s coach’s decision,” Hardaway said of the move to the bench. “You got to be a pro. I said from Day One, I’m here to help this team anyway I can. Coach called someone else’s number and I just had to make sure I was a pro, stayed engaged in the game and contribute anyway I can.”
He added that seeing a couple shots got through the net helped make everything better and made the ball “feel like a feather” in his hands.
The decision to alter the lineup was something Carlisle had been toying with, given that the Mavericks had lost four of their first six games.
“I felt we needed to get bigger and more physical to be a better defensive team,” Carlisle said. “When I change the lineup, I don’t like changing one person. It never really feels right to me. You don’t blame how things are going on one person. We looked at some numbers and some film and the two guys that made sense to start were Maxi and Willie. They did a good job, but Powell and Hardaway were terrific, too. It was a really strong, character performance by Tim.”
Something that brought back memories for Carlisle.
“We saw this in 2011 in the NBA finals,” he said. “DeShawn Stevenson went from being a solid starter to being a high, high impact player off the bench because he was all about the team and he approached it the right way.
“Tonight, Tim Hardaway showed you what class and professionalism is responding to a lineup change. He knew it wasn’t a personal thing. We need to get better as a team. You get a guy like that who’s willing to come off the bench and play even harder and be even more focused, you got something special there.”
And, the overall effort was much more consistent than it was the previous night in Chicago. One of the Mavericks’ biggest problems has been that consistent mental toughness was missing.
Cauley-Stein called it “staying in it when stuff is not going our way.”
Carlisle saw that on Monday.
“The effort was exceptionally good from start to finish, much better than last night,” he said. “Holding these guys to 100 is a really good accomplishment defensively. They made a run late third, early fourth. Our second unit bent but did not break. Those guys did a great job of getting the lead back.”