Highlights: Mavs vs. Thunder

Check out all the top plays from Sunday night's 104-89 win over the Thunder!

The Mavericks are winning again, and winning basketball is fun to watch.

Nearly three months ago to the day, Dallas fell to 4-17 on the season after losing at home to Sacramento by 31 points. After the game, head coach Rick Carlisle held a late-night film session in the locker room with his team, and then had a ceremonial burning of the box score. The message was clear: It doesn’t matter how it happens, but the team must start winning again.

Since then, the Mavs are 22-19. Since inserting Seth Curry into the starting lineup and bumping Dirk Nowitzki up to center on Jan. 12, representing the complete philosophical switch to small-ball, Dallas is 15-9. Since Nerlens Noel made his first appearance for the Mavericks on Feb. 25, Dallas is 4-1.

Yogi Ferrell became the starting point guard during a stretch in which the Mavericks beat the Spurs and Cavaliers on back-to-back nights. Within the last month, Dallas also has wins against Utah, red-hot Miami, Memphis, and Oklahoma City.

Out of nowhere, the Mavericks have moved from dead-last in the West to, now, just two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Seth Curry, who’s averaging 23.3 points and 1.5 steals per game since the All-Star break, on 57.8 percent shooting from the field and 52.6 percent from deep. “Every game, we’re playing for something. You want to go out there and have a little bit of pressure on your shoulders playing basketball. That’s fun toward the end of the season. You don’t want to play for nothing in the bottom of the standings. It’s gonna be a fun chase toward the end of the season.”

No single move by itself has helped this team rise from the depths of the standings and into the middle of the playoff picture. Rather, it’s been a series of small moves since the end of the last season that, collectively, have resulted in a roster full of 20-somethings for the first time in more than a decade. Sunday night, the average age of the active roster that beat the Thunder by 15 points was just a hair over 26 years old. The average age of the 2015-16 roster was 30.3 years old.

“We have a bunch of young guys,” said 38-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, who’s contributed to the youth movement by moving to center and allowing 24-year-old Harrison Barnes to run all of his old iso sets from the 4-spot. “We make some mistakes, obviously, here and there, but we make up for it by playing together, by hard-playing, just by playing together. It’s been fun.”

At the end of last season, the Mavs front office publicly committed to getting both younger and more athletic. Gone were the days of the ground-bound Mavericks, over-reliance on Nowitzki’s brilliance, and prioritizing veteran savvy over youthful energy when rounding out the roster.

Dallas inked 25-year-old Dwight Powell to a four-year contract early in free agency, then signed 24-year-old and Most Improved Player contender Barnes away from the Warriors as a restricted free agent. The Mavericks would later sign 26-year-old Seth Curry to what’s quickly becoming one of the most team-friendly contracts in the NBA, and perhaps the best move of the summer by any team.

Throw in the additions of undrafted rookies Dorian Finney-Smith, Nicolas Brussino, and Yogi Ferrell, each of whom were 23 years old at the time they signed with the Mavericks, and Dallas rolled into the All-Star break with an emerging core of young, skilled players at every position.

And then the Mavericks traded for Nerlens Noel, who’s quickly shown he has the potential to become one of the best young big men ever to play for this franchise. He’s already set to become the youngest full-time starting center in Mavs history, and at just 22 years old has already put together a 15-point, 17-rebound game in a win against the Grizzlies. He put together that stat line against Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, which is no easy feat.

Dallas swapped Andrew Bogut and Justin Anderson for Noel at the trade deadline, one of the most shocking deadline-day deals Donnie Nelson has pulled off during his tenure as general manager. Noel is a restricted free agent this summer, and he figures to be a big piece of the Mavs’ future.

“I want to help this team continue to win games like this, against these tough Western Conference teams that we’re seeing on a nightly basis,” Noel said. “As these games continue along, we just have to keep the momentum, keep playing the right way, and just stay with it.”

All of this much-needed youth, coupled with Nowitzki moving to center and creating a wide-open, 5-out offense that not many other teams can replicate themselves, has transformed the Mavericks in one year from perhaps the slowest team in the league to, now, one of the most athletic top-to-bottom in the NBA. Nowitzki and Noel sharing the floor has some intriguing potential, too.

For example, when was the last time a Mavs center had the ability to make all three of these plays — in the same game?

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[wp_hyena imageurl=’https://www.mavs.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Noel-block-gasol.gif’ data_hyena='{“slate”:”300,0.10,15″,”player_fade_speed”:”500″,”control_opacity”:”0,0.9″,”fade_speed”:”250,250″,”style”:2}’]

[wp_hyena imageurl=’https://www.mavs.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Noel-pass.gif’ data_hyena='{“slate”:”300,0.10,15″,”player_fade_speed”:”500″,”control_opacity”:”0,0.9″,”fade_speed”:”250,250″,”style”:2}’]

Noel can dunk, jump, dribble, attack the basket, protect the rim, rebound, see and read the floor, and move the ball effectively. The Mavs can now run the floor in transition or the secondary break and create looks at the rim seven seconds into the shot clock.

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And they can run spread pick-and-roll with both Noel and Nowitzki, along with other wide-open sets, which allows the German legend to either spot up or attack the basket himself instead of spending all his time screening for the ball-handler. And that does all sorts of crazy things to the defense.

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[wp_hyena imageurl=’https://www.mavs.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Noel-roll-gravity.gif’ data_hyena='{“slate”:”300,0.10,15″,”player_fade_speed”:”500″,”control_opacity”:”0,0.9″,”fade_speed”:”250,250″,”style”:2}’]

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And then there’s Seth Curry. His brother has become famous for pushing the limits of what we thought was possible. Seth himself isn’t quite there just yet, but he definitely plays to the beat of his own drum. The 26-year-old somehow never got a fair shake with any of his previous four NBA teams since 2013, having never even appeared in more than 44 games in a single season until this year with the Mavericks. He has certainly made his new team feel lucky with his play so far.

He’s put together a prolonged stretch of extremely efficient offensive play: Over his last 40 games, he’s averaging 14.2 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting from the field and 48.9 percent from beyond the arc. He’s top-five in the NBA in 3-point shooting for the season, and his current streak of nine straight games with at least two made treys ties for the longest run by any Maverick since the end of the 2011-12 season.

Whether he’s in halfcourt offense or the open floor, Curry appears to be playing the game at his own pace. It’s hard to describe, frankly, but he gets to his spots so easily, whether it’s to pull up for a jumper or, in this case, getting all the way to the rim against long, athletic defenders.

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“I have a lot of confidence right now,” Curry said after scoring 22 points on 16 shots against the Thunder. “I’m trying to play with a lot of energy and have a lot of fun out there. I feel like it’s contagious right now. Everybody’s getting a chance to show what they can do and have a fun time playing basketball. So we’re just trying to keep this run going and, most importantly, win ballgames during this home stretch and have a chance to make the playoffs.”

It bears repeating: The Mavs have shaved four years off their average age in less than one calendar year. Mark Cuban has openly said due to all the roster turnover this could be considered a rebuilding year, but the wins have recently come at a rate that doesn’t suggest the team is tanking. Dallas was 4-17 in its first 21 games; in its last 21 it’s 12-9. The Mavericks have played 51-win basketball since putting Curry into the starting lineup. This team is now both less reliant on veterans and also playing good basketball.

It would have been easy, especially for the younger players on the roster, to lose sight of the big picture when the record sank as low as it did. But 30-year-old Wesley Matthews, who went from second-youngest starter last season to second-oldest this season, said the Mavs aren’t run that way.

“This organization, this franchise is built around certain types of players — not even necessarily what they do on the court, but their demeanors, their mentalities,” he said. “So when you get guys that are gonna fight, and they’re gonna compete over the course of the season no matter what happens, they’re still gonna continue to compete because that’s in their nature, that’s in their DNA.”

It’s been an accelerated rebuild. The losses came in bunches in November, but the wins have come in bunches ever since. And, during that time, the Mavericks traded one veteran and released another, replacing them with a 23-year-old undrafted rookie — who won Western Conference Rookie of the Month in February — and a 22-year-old center with sky-high potential. The future is brighter in Dallas than it’s been in years, but the present has been a ton of fun in the meantime.

It’s been an astonishing turnaround, and with the club’s next three games coming at home against teams outside of the playoff race, the Mavs have a golden opportunity to extend their winning streak and make up more ground in the West. Before long, this could maybe, somehow, improbably have a spot in the postseason.

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