There might not be any unicorn sightings in Dallas tonight, but that doesn’t mean the basketball we see won’t occasionally still feel futuristic and fantastical.
The Wizards will be shorthanded as former Maverick Kristaps Porzingis is out with an ankle sprain while yesterday Rui Hachimura was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Both have manned the frontcourt for Washington throughout the season, but they’ll be absent tonight. The Mavs, meanwhile, are still without big man Christian Wood, who will be reevaluated later this week after fracturing his left thumb against the Atlanta Hawks earlier on this four-game homestand.
Without Wood, the Mavericks have at times played super small-ball with Dorian Finney-Smith at center. In recent years Mavs fans have probably gotten used to seeing the former small forward transition nearly full-time to power forward, but he and Jason Kidd are taking the transformation one step further in response to injuries to Wood and Maxi Kleber. Both could be back hopefully soon, but Dallas is getting creative in the meantime.
Like the Mavericks do with Dwight Powell and JaVale McGee, the Wizards do still have big men on the roster, primarily Daniel Gafford and Anthony Gill. But I suspect, given the matchups and the injury situations, we’re going to see plenty of small-ball tonight. There should be wings and guards galore on the floor with plenty of space to operate. That means individual defense is going to be of the utmost importance, as there might not be much rim protection on the floor for either team for large stretches of this game. Rebounds, too, will matter; both teams rank in the bottom-11 in offensive rebounding rate, but with so many big men missing there might be some extra second chances to be had for those who hustle the hardest.
The Wizards have found their form lately, winning two straight by double-figures after dropping five out of six. Despite their 12th-place ranking in the East, this game will by no means be easy. Bradley Beal is as dynamic a scorer as there is in the league, and forward Kyle Kuzma has taken huge strides this season. Let’s not forget either that Washington beat Dallas earlier this season without both Beal and Porzingis. Dallas will have revenge on the mind, and the surest way to achieve that is with defense. In each of the Mavs’ last seven losses, their opponents have scored at least 110 points.
Now that the tactics are out of the way, let’s get to the standings implications of this game. Those now feel obligatory on a nightly basis given how jam-packed the Western Conference is, with just 2.5 games separating the fifth-place Mavs from the 13th-place Blazers. Dallas finds itself perched just atop a traffic jam in the middle of the conference, but that could change at any moment. And with nine of the team’s next 10 games coming against teams who currently rank between third and 10th – and seven of those nine coming on the road – suffice it to say that defending homecourt tonight is paramount.
The Mavericks sit on the brink of potentially a season-defining stretch against Western Conference playoff hopefuls, but they can’t lose sight of the game in front of them tonight. Closing out this homestand with a win would be a perfect sendoff to a road-heavy portion of the schedule with heavy seeding implications.
Despite the size on the floor tonight, or quite possibly the lack thereof, Dallas will have to come up big to get the momentum train rolling once again.