Failure to close out games and an inability to take charge in third quarters were two of the Mavericks’ most glaring issues last season.
So far in the exhibition season, including Monday’s dress rehearsal that featured long runs by the starters and key reserves, those problems have disappeared.
Powered by the backcourt of Luka Dončić and Josh Richardson in the third quarter and with a flock of high-energy reserves dominating the fourth, the Mavericks rolled past Milwaukee for the second time in three days with a 128-112 victory at Fiserv-Forum arena.
The starters played plenty of minutes, which coach Rick Carlisle said was partly for conditioning purposes, but also to get them more connected on the court with only three preseason games and a shorter-than-normal training camp.
The result? The Mavericks overcame a 10-point halftime deficit with a lethal third quarter in which the starters played virtually throughout. Then the reserves hit the floor in the fourth and turned a two-point lead into a runaway by hitting 56.5 percent of their shots, including 6-of-11 from 3-point range.
“The second half was terrific,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “Concentration was great, the spirit was there . . . the bench was into it. The second half is what we want to do and how we want to play. And we got to learn from the first half.”
That was being kind as the Mavericks sputtered in the first 24 minutes.
But they persevered, thanks largely to the starting backcourt, which combined for 50 points before taking a seat after the third quarter.
“It was a big step,” Dončić said. “I felt way better. I think the whole team felt better.”
It’s never too early to set tones for the new season and the Mavericks liked the way they came out in the third quarter and took charge against a team that once again is one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference after leading the NBA in victories in each of the last two seasons.
“We got them pretty well in the first game (winning 112-102) and they wanted to come back and go at us,” said Tim Hardaway Jr. “It was all about how we were going to take their punch. And I think the first group and the second group did a great job in the second half, made sure we got stops and pushed it on the offensive end.
“Just coming out at halftime, coach said: set a tone. J-Rich started to get going again. Luka drove to the basket. That really set the tone and really helped our defense go a long way in the third quarter.”
This appears to be the strategy that Mavericks’ fans should get used to, at least until Kristaps Porzingis returns sometime in January.
Carlisle said the starting five of Dončić, Richardson, Dwight Powell, Dorian Finney-Smith and Hardway has been working together almost exclusively – hence why they were together almost all the time Monday.
“Part of this is conditioning, part of it is getting to know one another,” Carlisle said. “The group has played together virtually every day of training camp. We haven’t mixed up the teams a whole lot because we had some new guys.
“And the second unit has been together virtually every day as well. When we get into games, it’s not going to be hockey line changes in terms of substituting. Everybody’s going to have to be ready.”
The second group certainly was when they tore away from the Bucks at the start of the fourth quarter. It was a repeat of what that unit did in the third quarter of Wednesday’s game.
“As a group, they stuck together,” Carlisle said. “It was a long wait to get back in because I decided to play the starters basically the entire third quarter, both to see them close out a quarter and to get some conditioning. And the second unit came out at the beginning of the fourth and did a really nice job.”
That the Mavericks moved to 2-0 in the preseason after two games against the high-powered Bucks is encouraging. Their last preseason game is Thursday at American Airlines Center against Minnesota.
But they got a lot of the work they needed in the two games against the Bucks.
Dončić had 15 of his 27 points in the third quarter, when he and Giannis Antetokounmpo put on the kind of show befitting two superstar MVP candidates.
In that regard, the Bucks have provided an excellent blueprint for the Mavericks to follow. The Greek Freak had a five-year head start on Luka, but the Mavericks are hoping that they get to Milwaukee’s stature as a legitimate championship contender sooner than later.
When Antetokounmpo was drafted in 2013, the Bucks had missed the playoffs in five of the previous seven seasons. When Dončić was drafted, the Mavericks were in the throes of a three-year absence from the playoffs, finally returning last season.
If the first two preseason games are an accurate indication, the upward progression is continuing.