Not that he’s searching for excuses, but coach Rick Carlisle knows there are valid reasons why his Dallas Mavericks started this season with a dismal 9-14 record.

And it had a lot to do with a very difficult schedule combined with losing five players – to a total of 41 games – due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

“Our first-half schedule, I believe, was the hardest in the league, and we had 13 of 19 (games) on the road with a very difficult schedule in terms of level of opponents to start the season,” Carlisle said. “That was going to be a big challenge regardless.

“It was going to test our ability to stay together and fight through difficult situations, let along the Covid thing.”

Despite those adversities, the Mavs have rebounded quite adequately to win 14 of their last 19 games, including emerging victorious in Wednesday’s 128-108 victory on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. That win, coupled with the San Antonio Spurs’ 134-101 loss to the Los Angles Clippers on Wednesday, moved the Mavs into first place in the Southwest Division with a 23-19 record.

“Guys have done a good job of staying tied together and figuring out ways to get through difficult times,” Carlisle said. “Right now, though we’re missing Willie Cauley-Stein, whose been a big part of our team this year.

“In his absence, Dwight Powell and Boban Marjanovic and Maxi Kleber are going to have to fill in at the center position, which really has been great for us particularly at the defensive end. We felt we had a good roster and a young veteran team that was gaining experience.”

Carlisle puts trust in Doncic: It often takes a minute or two for a player to gain the trust of his coach. Not so when it came to Dallas Mavericks point guard Luka Doncic.

Even in Doncic’s first year with the Mavs during the 2018-’19 season, it was evident that he was a next level  generational type player who knew how to quickly dissect defenses and rip them into itty-bitty pieces. Thus came the trust from coach Rick Carlisle.

“Each year he continues to put the work in, he continues to refine all aspects of his game,” Carlisle said. “Really since his first year I’ve encouraged him to do as much of the play-calling as he wants to do because he has a real good feel for what’s going on in the game.

“(He knows) how to involve teammates, how to attack certain defensive looks, etcetera. He’s just that good.”

And since Doncic just turned 22 years old last month, the ceiling on his graph will likely soar through the roof.

“As time goes on here, I just think he’s getting better and better,” Carlisle said. “As crazy as it sounds I think he’s got an amazing upside from here going forward. I just see him continuing to improve in all areas.”

Mavs lost two forwards: The Mavs found themselves in an unusual situation last week when they had two players who play the same position sidelined.

While forward James Johnson was sitting out five straight games – two for personal reasons and three due to the NBA health and safety protocols – forward Dorian Finney-Smith sat out two games due to the birth of his son. The loss of those two players put the Mavs in a pickle at the forward spot.

“Ironically when a guy like a James Johnson, who has not been a consistent rotation guy, has to leave the team because of a personal family situation, it’s extra unlucky when another guy at the same position – Dorian Finney-Smith—has to miss two games because the family is having a baby,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s a glorious occasion, but it’s just a bit ironic.

“Wes Iwundu did a great job filling in for both of those guys.”

On losing Johnson for five consecutive games, Carlisle said: “James is an important part of this team. He’s one of our spiritual leaders.

“He’s a guy that’s always into the game and he’s played well. He has some very unique skills with his ability to make plays and drive the ball and play point power forward. We’re real happy to have him back.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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