Nothing comes easy for the Mavericks, even when they are full strength.
So it sure wasn’t going to be a stroll down Bourbon Street when they didn’t have Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis on Saturday night in New Orleans.
Especially not with Zion Williamson throwing his considerable weight around.
The Mavericks got a heavy dose – emphasis on heavy – of just how destructive Williamson can be as the young star put on a show, particularly at crunch time, to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 112-103 victory over the Mavericks at Smoothie King Center.
It was the start of a five-game trip for the Mavericks and, with the big picture in mind, they decided to sit their two stars.
That opened the door for Williamson to dominate, which he did with 38 points, two more than he had in the first meeting against the Mavericks last month in Dallas.
Rick Carlisle called the 6-7, 284-pound Williamson a beast, then compared him to a speeding train. And not just any speeding train.
“It presents huge challenges for a defense – and for the officials,” Carlisle said. “He is just creating collisions out there. This is a Shaquille O’Neal type force of nature with a point guard skill set.
“ If you back off him, he’ll just take up space and keep coming at you. You got to have a lot of courage to stand in there and get run over by that guy because he’s coming at you fast. It’s not just an Amtrak, it’s the Acela. It’s the fast one that doesn’t stop in Westport or wherever, it just goes straight to New York City. It’s something else.”
The express train that was Williamson took charge in the second half with 23 of his points as the Pelicans broke free down the stretch. The Mavericks, who once again fell behind by double digits in the first quarter, had New Orleans in the crosshairs late when the game was tied at 95.
But Williamson and sidekick Nickeil Alexander-Walker went to work, combining for 14 of the Pelicans’ last 17 points and the Mavericks could not keep pace. Williamson consistently got the ball outside the paint and made quick, spinning moves that either resulted in a basket or a trip to the free-throw line.
The Mavericks knew it was going to be a tough assignment without Dončić and Porzingis. But after their regrettable start, they got a strong-willed effort from Tim Hardaway Jr., who came off the bench to pour in 30 points, his third 30-plus-point game this season.
“We knew we were shorthanded and guys just fought and tried to give ourselves a chance to get the win,” Hardaway said. “We just came up short. The first quarter really put us in a bind. As a team, we just got to start better.”
It was Hardaway’s defensive play in the second quarter that lit a fire under the Mavericks when he took a charge from the bull in the china shop. Said Hardaway of standing in front of an oncoming Williamson:
“Taking a charge – let alone picking him up off the ground helping him up – that guy is very, very strong, strong as an ox. So, he’s a great player. Does an amazing job of attacking the basket.”
Jalen Brunson, who started for Luka and had 24 points, simply said “wow” when asked what it’s like trying to step in front of Williamson.
The Mavericks lost for the second time in two nights and fell to 23-21. The Pelicans are 20-25.
Dončić missed the game not with lower back tightness that kept him out on Friday night, but with an illness that Carlisle said was not COVID-19 related.
Porzingis was out for injury management after playing a season-high 38 minutes on Friday in the loss to Indiana.
And, by the way, there were some similarities in the two losses within 24 hours.
The Mavericks shot 8-for-35 (22.9 percent) from 3-point range on Friday in the loss to Indiana. They followed that up with a slightly better showing from deep, going 10-for-31 (32.3 percent). But it was a bit deceptive. Take away Hardaway’s hot night and the Mavericks were 5-of-21.
Suffice it to say that J.J. Redick can’t get healthy fast enough. The sharpshooting guard acquired at the trade deadline is rehabbing a heel problem.
But the good news is that when he does join the team, the Mavericks will be getting someone who absolutely will help their situation.
That’s coming from his former coach, the Pelicans’ Stan Van Gundy.
“Experienced, smart, tough and can shoot the ball,” Van Gundy said. “Who wouldn’t want that (if you’re) making a playoff run. He started slow this year, then he was playing really, really well. Over the last few weeks he was here, he was back to himself, shooting 46 percent from three.
“And he doesn’t get enough credit I think, he’s not going to make defensive mistakes. He’s going to be in the right place. He’s a smart, tough guy and he’s been in a lot of big games. Nothing’s going to bother him. He’ll help them a great deal.”