Following that 14-point shock-to-the-system home loss to the lowly Sacramento Kings on Sunday, the Dallas Mavericks’ journey to the playoffs took a significantly positive turn with Wednesday’s 127-117 victory over the Detroit Pistons at American Airlines Center.
No, it wasn’t the type of wire-to-wire beatdown the Mavs may have preferred against one of the NBA’s worst teams. But at this point, and with the way they’ve been struggling lately, the Mavs will take a win any way they can get it.
Especially with the world champion Los Angeles Lakers coming to town for a pair of games on Thursday and Saturday.
“We got off to a bit of a rough start,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I thought we were playing hard, but they were just playing a little better.
“As I’ve been saying, all these games are tough. If NBA games weren’t tough, they’d be getting all the people off of Zoom calls and off the streets to play them — and behind the desk. They’ll be pulling guys like me playing, and that wouldn’t be good.’’
Detroit took an early eight-point lead and actually led, 36-33, after the first quarter behind 15 points from Jerami Grant. But the Mavs went to a zone defense in the second quarter, and that effectively slowed down the Pistons considerably.
Meanwhile, Jalen Brunson came off the bench to pour in 18 of his 20 points in the first half, which ended with Dallas nursing a 67-58 lead. Brunson gave the Mavs the type of energy and fire they needed as they improved to 31-26 and moved to within half-a-game of Portland (32-26) for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
“We didn’t do what we wanted to do in the first quarter,” said Brunson, who was 8-of-12 from the field and also contributed five assists. “Our offense kept us in it, but when it comes to winning games we’re going to have to play some defense.
“We’re going to have to play lockdown (defense) and stick together, even if the team and players are making tough shots. We’ve got to tip our hat and still stick together. We’ve got to continue to have that next play mentality.”
Armed with that next play mentality, the Mavs proceeded to mount a 17-point lead – 109-92 – with 8:31 remaining in the game following a 3-pointer by Tim Hardaway Jr., an alley-oop dunk by Willie Cauley-Stein off a feed from Luka Doncic, and a put-back basket by Doncic.
Dallas coasted to the finish line after that as a three-point play by Cauley-Stein via a pass from Brunson built the Mavs’ lead to 124-112 with just 53.3 seconds left.
“I don’t think there was any message that needed to be said,” said Hardaway, who tallied 15 points. “Just go out and play harder, play more aggressive and will your team to victory, basically.”
Willing his team to victory was part of the recipe Doncic employed as he finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and two steals in leading the charge for the Mavs. Doncic scored 11 of his points in the first quarter when the Mavs were basically just trading baskets with the Pistons.
Then came the game-changing second quarter when the Pistons were handcuffed by the Mavs’ zone defense.
“I think we had a lot of fun in the second quarter,” Doncic said. “That’s when we went up.”
That change in defensive strategies left its mark and resonated for the rest of the game. Particularly since Grant tallied just 11 of his team-high 26 points in the second half while being guarded by Dorian Finney-Smith.
“The problem tonight was that Grant got us on some cross matching, he hit a couple of early shots, he got a couple of and-ones,” Carlisle said. “That got them going and it got us up against it a little bit, but we kept our poise and kept battling in there.
“Grant had a big night, but Finney-Smith got the Defensive (Player of the Game) belt really because of what he did in the second half slowing him down at least a little bit in the second half.”
Needing a spark after coming into the game with losses in five of their previous seven games, Carlisle replaced Maxi Kleber in the starting lineup with Dwight Powell. Why the change?
“The other night against Sacramento when we were really struggling, (Powell) came in and changed the game with hard physical play,” Carlisle said. “I just thought it was a changeup that we needed.
“Going forward, we’ll see. There’s going to be some fluidity with the lineup based on matchups.”
Kleber was limited to just 14 minutes after suffering a low back contusion when he took a charge in the first half. X-rays were negative on Kleber’s back, Carlisle said, but he doesn’t know yet if he’ll be able to play in Thursday’s game against the Lakers.
In the meantime, Kristaps Porzingis was in constant foul trouble before fouling out late in the game with 19 points, seven rebounds and three steals in 33 minutes. Porzingis normally doesn’t play both ends of a back-to-back, but Carlisle remains encouraged that he’ll be able to play in Thursday’s game.
“We’re trying to win as many games as we can, obviously,” Carlisle said. “It really is more about how (Porzingis is) feeling.
“I’m hopeful that he will be good for tomorrow. I wouldn’t make any assumptions at this point.”
It’s been a long and frustrating season for the Pistons, who own the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Carlisle has sympathy for Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who was an assistant coach on Carlisle’s staff when the Mavs captured the 2011 NBA title
“They’re kind of alternating playing their starters some games and then playing their second line guys as starters the next, and they’re a little dinged up,” Carlisle said. “But some of it involves rest and development, and so I think they’re in a really good position.
“I think their management people have done a terrific job of creating a real direction, and Dwane’s executing it really on a high level. If you follow basketball they have a direction and they’re executing that. I have great respect for Dwane. He was a great contributor here, particularly in the year we won the championship.”
Against the Pistons, the Mavs shot 50 percent from the floor and 37.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, while Detroit converted 50.6 percent of its field goals and 40.6 percent of its 3-point attempts.
Now the Mavs turn the page to the Lakers, who are 35-23 and in fifth place out West and are just three-and-a-half games ahead of the No. 7-seeded Mavs. Will the Mavs have any fresh legs left while trying to capture both halves of a back-to-back?
“I think this is half the battle – winning the game in the first half of it,” Hardaway said. “But we all know it doesn’t really matter if you don’t come out and compete the next game.
“Tomorrow we know we’ve got a very tough opponent in the Lakers and we know they’re going to bring it, so we’ve got to be ready.”
“The Lakers are coming in here with (Anthony) Davis and (Andre) Drummond and a lot of good players,” Carlisle said. “So we’ll look at everything and see what’s what before tomorrow.”