“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster,” the fourth-year guard said. “We’ve had ups, we’ve had downs.
“Our downs have basically been mostly Covid and things of that nature. But I think for the most part we’ve put ourselves in position to be a good team.”
The Mavs have carved out a respectable 22-19 record at the midway point for a winning percentage of 53.7 percent and good enough for fifth place in the Western Conference standings. That’s slightly better than where they were at the midway point of last year’s 72-game truncated season when they owned a 19-17 record for a winning percentage of 52.8 percent.
More than anything, the Mavs have proven they can hold their own against teams expected to be in the heat of the race for this year’s NBA championship.
Dallas owns wins over the Golden State Warriors (99-82) and Chicago Bulls (113-99). The Warriors had the league’s best record at the time and ended that game with their lowest scoring output of the season, while the Bulls came to Dallas sporting a nine-game winning streak and the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Mavs also picked up a 104-96 victory at Memphis, which currently has an 11-game winning streak. And they dropped a pair of closely-contested games – one by seven points and another by eight points – in Phoenix while point guard Luka Doncic was sidelined with left knee and ankle sprains.
Most of the Mavs’ success this season can be credited to their ability to finally roll up their sleeves on the defensive side of the court. As of now, the Mavs are fifth in the NBA in fewest points allowed at 103.4 per game, and that has been their saving grace in numerous games.
“Our goal was to be a top five defense,” owner Mark Cuban said. “We have pretty much gotten there over the last six weeks.
“I’m super proud of our guys and the coaching staff for this accomplishment. We really play hard. We play together and it’s had a big impact on our success.”
Cuban gave kudos to Jason Kidd, who replaced Rick Carlisle last summer as the Mavs’ head coach.
“I really like what J-Kidd has done,” Cuban said. “He has built a culture of accountability and communication.”
Cuban, however, would like to see the Mavs find a way to put some more points on the board. Last year the Mavs were 17th in the league in scoring at 112.4 points per game, but this year they’ve slid down to 25th with 105.3 points per contest.
“I think our next step is to improve on the offensive side of the ball,” Cuban said. “When the ball is moving side-to-side our offense is really good. But sometimes we have a habit of dribbling too much or everyone taking turns shooting the ball rather than the ball finding the open man for the wide open shot.
“I think J-Kidd’s biggest challenge right now is with (the) offense. If we can have the same discipline on the offensive side of the ball as we have on the defensive side, we will be really, really hard to beat. Which leads to one big step forward from Jason.”
The Mavs ended the first half of the season winners in seven of their last nine games. That includes piecing together their first six-game winning streak in nearly six years.
During the six-game winning streak, the Mavs averaged 108.7 points, shot 47.3 percent from the field, 38.7 percent from three-point range and averaged 27.5 assists. And their opponents averaged just 93 points and converted 42.5 percent of their field goals and only 28.7 percent of their three-point attempts during the streak.
Of course, the first half of the season was met with its share of heartbreak losses as the Mavs were 4-7 in games decided by six points or less. That includes the Dec. 15 home game against the Los Angeles Lakers when the Mavs led by three points, and teammates Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber had a defensive rebound slip through their grasp in the closing seconds and bounce right into the hands of Wayne Ellington, who buried a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
Lakers rookie Austin Reaves then drilled a three-pointer with just 0.9 seconds remaining in overtime for his team’s improbable 107-104 victory. And then there was that buzzer-beating three-pointer by Sacramento’s Chimezie Metu that clipped the Mavs, 95-94, on Dec. 29.
However, Doncic also brought his usual brand of theatrics to the court on Nov. 6 as his three-pointer at the buzzer gave the Mavs a dramatic 107-104 win over the Boston Celtics. In addition, Doncic produced three triple-doubles during the first half of the season to run his career total to 39 as he passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles by a player 23 years old or younger in NBA history.
“It’s been a different season,” Doncic said. “We started a little slow. I think we picked it up now — not (including Wednesday’s 108-85 loss to New York), obviously.
“It’s a long season. There’s going to be ups and downs, so we just got to stay consistent.”
And what improvements would Doncic like to see the most in the second half of the season for the Mavs, he said: “A better record. Winning games.”
Cuban wouldn’t mind seeing those same improvements.
“We play to get better as a team,” Cuban said. “Sometimes teams can focus on one game as if it’s the entire season.
“With Jason’s approach, we let guys and lineups play through their mistakes and learn from them. As long as the group learns and improves, he goes back to them. I think this helps build confidence, improve efficiency and makes us a better team over the course of the season.”
What also could have made the Mavs a better team over the course of the first half of the season is a low number of COVID-19 cases.
But unfortunately, the Mavs had 11 players miss a total of 59 games due to the health and safety protocols. That includes 10 games by Trey Burke, six each by Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, and five apiece by Reggie Bullock, Doncic and Porzingis. And Kidd has missed the past three games while in the health and safety protocols.
In addition, 11 players have missed 51 games due to injuries or non-COVID-related illnesses, with Doncic and Porzingis each sitting out 10 games and Kleber being sidelined for nine games.
“It’s tough on everyone,” Cuban said. “Not just the players, but the staff as well. There are not enough superlatives to describe the work of the basketball operations, the business side and the training side of the team.
“They have been incredible, despite all the stress they have gone through. I’m really proud of all of them!”
Cuban also is proud that Kidd has found a diamond in second-year forward Josh Green and newcomer Moses Brown. Also, a pair of players – Marquese Chriss and Theo Pinson — who originally signed 10-day contracts under the NBA’s COVID-related hardship allowance may wind up sticking with the Mavs for the remainder of this season.
Meanwhile, the Mavs are 9-0 this season when they shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 7-0 when they distribute at least 30 assists, 5-0 when they make at least 17 three-pointers, and are averaging 111.9 points and shooting 48.3 percent from the field in their 22 wins. But they’re also just 7-8 in the games Doncic has missed.
Brunson, who is averaging 16 points and 5.6 assists, said chemistry is the key to the Mavs’ success during the second half of the season.
“As long as we keep getting better and learning from our mistakes — learning from our wins as well — I think the sky’s the limit for us as long as we just keep buying in,” he said. “We’re buying in, holding each other accountable.”