For the Dallas Mavericks, the long wait to restart of the 2019-20 NBA season under the bubble in Orlando is finally here.
Through a coronavirus pandemic, patience, quarantines and three scrimmages, the Mavs have persevered and will finally get to see the fruits of their labor when they face the Houston Rockets Friday at 8 p.m. Dallas time in Orlando. It will be 142 days – many of them painfully agonizing — since the Mavs last played a meaningful game, and they can’t wait to get back on the court and strut their stuff.
“It always felt like everyone really wanted to restart the season,” coach Rick Carlisle said after Thursday’s practice. “In my capacity as the president of the (National Basketball) Coaches Association, I was in a lot of discussions with the league during the hiatus, with people from the league during the hiatus. They did it the right way.
“They took a lot of time, they were very methodical, they were very thoughtful, they thought of as many of the scenarios as they could possibly think of, and at the same time left open the fact that there would be things that were going to have to make this whole situation fluid. And it’s been very fluid. Everyone has adjusted (and) adapted.”
And while those adjustments continue, the time has come for the Mavs to tip off what amounts to an eight-game regular season, with all games being played under the bubble in Orlando. That includes the playoff games, which start on Aug. 17 and which the Mavs will be a part of for the first time since 2016.
These games will be extremely different, because they will be played without fans in the stands, although virtual ones will be on hand and noise will be piped into the arena.
The Mavs can conceivably move up three slots in the Western Conference standings if they take care of business.
At 40-27, they are seeded seventh in the Western Conference standings, just one-and-a-half games behind Houston and Oklahoma City Thunder. They also are only three games behind the No. 4-seeded Utah Jazz (42-23), who opened the restart of their season on Thursday with a 106-104 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Carlisle discussed the significance of getting off to a good start against the Rockets, especially since this game represents a two-game swing in the standings.
“This eight-game set, these games are all super meaningful,” Carlisle said. “This isn’t like at the beginning of an 82-game season where there’s a tendency for everybody to kind of ease into it.
“Every game has a high meaning, so a good start is something that we would love to have. And we’ve worked hard and we feel we’ve got a chance to do it.”
Since the Rockets are second in the league in scoring (118.1) and the Mavs are third (116.4), forward/center Kristaps Porzingis is expecting an up-and-down game Friday with 3-pointers being hoisted up all over the place. Houston leads the NBA in 3-pointers attempted (44.3) and Dallas is second (41.5).
But the Mavs would like to improve their defense, rebound efficiency and free throw shooting as they move forward in this historic season.
“I think it’s just more of us maybe not leaning as much on our talent,” Porzingis said. “A lot of times in games, we just lean on our talent.
“We know we’re going to be able to do certain things just because we can score the ball. I think we’ve got to catch ourselves in those moments and just come out ready.”
Guard J.J. Barea believes the Mavs are more than ready for whatever challenge the Rockets are going to present.
“The team looks great,” Barea said of the Mavs. “They’re excited that we’ve got a real game tomorrow night. We have handled this (long layoff) as a team really good.
“Everybody is positive and enjoying time with each other. Personally, I feel great. The break was good. I’m healthy and I’m ready to go.”
Barea could become a key figure the remainder of the season since the Mavs will be without backup guard Jalen Brunson, who had season-ending surgery on March 14 to fix a labrum injury in his right shoulder. Barea played just 26 games during the regular season, but hopes his name frequently gets called for the balance of the season and playoffs.
“Some games I’ll play less, some games I’ll play more,” said Barea, who averaged 15 minutes per game this season. “Whenever they need me I’m going to come out with a lot of energy and try to put on a show for the Mavericks’ fans.”
Guard Antonius Cleveland, who tallied 14 points in just 17 minutes during Wednesday’s scrimmage against the Philadelphia 76ers – a 118-115 overtime victory for the Mavs – also hopes to see some meaningful action.
“First of all, I’m just happy to be here,” Cleveland said. “I think that’s what’s important to me, and everything else that I need to be asked to do I’m just going to take it and accept the challenge and just enjoy it along the way.”
Of course, point guard Luka Doncic and Porzingis are expected to make the biggest impact on the game for the Mavs. One of the top players in the NBA, Doncic leads the league in triple-doubles (14), is fourth in assists (8.7), sixth in scoring (28.7) and 19th in rebounding (9.3). Meanwhile, Porzingis is averaging 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.
In order to defeat the Rockets, the Mavs know they must find a way to control guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
“We’ve been working on it for about a week, studying them,” Doncic said. “They have two amazing players, and we’re going to have to stop them.”
Barea wholeheartedly agree.
“They’re All-Stars, vets, a lot of minutes, a lot of years,” he said. “Especially in a game like tomorrow night, they’re going to come out super aggressive, extra aggressive.
“James Harden, if not the best, is one of the best guards in the league, so he’s going to create all of the attention. And Westbrook — a competitor — he’s never going to stop playing hard. So we’ve got our hands full for tomorrow and we better be ready.”
While admitting the long-term ramifications of the game against the Rockets in regards to playoff seeding, Carlisle acknowledged that his players are eager to restart the season. They even taught him a thing or two during this hiatus for the Mavs.
“Our players have really inspired me during this whole period getting back in the gym eight weeks ago,” he said. “The work that they did there (in Dallas) to re-establish a base, and then when we got down here (in Orlando) they were very, very anxious to be back together as a team and compete together in (training) camp to get ready for the game.
“Again, it’s been a long time coming. It’s been close to five months, but a lot of anticipation.”