The NBA is a highlight-driven league.
Usually, it’s a dunk or a 3-point buzzer-beater or something else Luka Dončić or LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo does.
But one of the best Maverick highlights so far this season didn’t include Luka or Kristaps Porzingis.
Or even a basket.
It was Dwight Powell soaring head first across the sideline, Dennis Rodman-style, to save a loose ball that was headed out of bounds and into Golden State’s possession on Saturday.
The ABC crew immediately threw props toward Powell and he was toasted on social media sites, possibly by some of the same folks who are quick to denounce his showings when things aren’t going so well.
It was a moment that embodies the essence of being the sort of NBA player that Powell is.
“He just made some tremendous plays the last couple games,” coach Rick Carlisle said Tuesday. “Some of the effort plays – tipping out balls, the save he made against Golden State. (That was) just a breathtaking effort to give up his body. It’s great to see him more and more feeling like himself.”
Powell has had a rough year, going back just over 365 days to Jan. 21, 2020. That’s when he tore his right Achilles tendon. That ended his 2019-20 season and put this season in jeopardy.
He worked tirelessly and made it back for the delayed start of the season just before Christmas.
But, really, he wasn’t himself.
And still isn’t, thanks to missing 2 ½ weeks while dealing with COVID-19 and all the ramifications it brings.
But he does still have the same relentless work ethic and heart on the court. Look no further than his save on Saturday night, which led to a Trey Burke bucket early in the second quarter.
What would normally be a random play early in the game may have made a huge difference in the Mavericks’ season.
“It’s been a weird year,” Powell said. “I had a good 12 feet of head space that I saw cleared out, so I thought: why not? Let’s get another shot attempt here. I didn’t see any immediate danger. So I gave it a shot.”
As for the social media backlash, Powell said he appreciated it, but one of the creative posts that caught his attention was worthy of saving on his phone.
“I saw some guy photoshopped it into a WWE off-the-ropes kind of thing,” he said. “I saved that one to the camera roll.”
In addition to the hustle play, Powell has come alive in the last two games, hitting six of eight shots and averaging 10 points and six rebounds in 16 minutes of playing time. It’s notable that all eight of his shots have come from the paint, or nearby.
Carlisle said the time off in January to go through the coronavirus health and safety protocols may have actually helped the 6-10 Powell.
“At the beginning of the year, I thought he was playing with great effort and he had some good games,” Carlisle said. “But it didn’t seem like he really felt his best, or his normal self.
“You never want to go through COVID to get your NBA legs. But in some way, it seems to have helped him. Training camp was three weeks, the beginning of the season was a grind. And even though he was laid up with the virus, his legs got a nice chance to recover. And then, with workouts coming out of the virus, it does appear he’s feeling better. He says he’s feeling better.”
Powell is destined to have inconsistent playing time for a while. With Kristaps Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber looking solid as the front-court starters, that leaves Powell, James Johnson, Willi Cauley-Stein and Boban Marjanović coming off the bench as the primary big men.
Clearly, the minutes will be at a premium.
And Powell said he’s also still not where he wants to be in his recovery from the Achilles tear.
“The rehab process is ongoing trying to do everything in my power to get back to where I was athletically and conditioning-wise,” he said. “The grind doesn’t stop. The rehab process is going to be ongoing for quite some time.”
Revisiting Cuban’s visit: As it turned out, owner Mark Cuban’s chat with the team before Saturday’s game against the Warriors may have some lasting impact.
Powell said the message was a good one and that it never hurts hearing things from sources that aren’t always in your ear.
“The main message was that he has our back and that he expects great things of us,” Powell said. “He wanted us to know that we have a good team, we have great players and guys that are here for the right reasons, that want to compete. And we need to find ways to take advantage of all the tools we have.”
So far, the Mavericks are 2-0 since Cuban’s pep talk. So what have the Mavericks shown in the last four days?
“I think first and foremost is that we can and we will stick together,” Powell said.
Said Carlisle: “It’s a long year – 47 games to go. We still have the vast majority of the season left. We knew coming in with the schedule structured the way it was, even if we didn’t have COVID issues, we were going to be tested in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine, 13-of-19 on the road, the difficulty of the schedule, etc. The level of resolve has been good the last four games.”