Coach Rick Carlisle clearly is playing this busy second half of the NBA season with a sharp eye focused on the future.
The playoffs may be a little over two months away, but games like Thursday’s 116-108 loss to Oklahoma City could ultimately have a profound and positive impact later in the Mavericks’ season.
Carlisle and the medical staff made the decision to hold out Luka Dončić (right ankle) and Kristaps Porzingis (right knee) for injury recovery. It was the second night of back-to-back games after the Mavericks nicked San Antonio 115-104 on Wednesday in their first game out of the All-Star break.
“This was one that was pretty much on the schedule since before the All-Star break,” Carlisle said before Thursday’s game. “There will be more of these along the way. I will not talk about them ahead of time. It’s just not a way to do business. I don’t know when the next one is going to be. And there may be other guys we rest or sit or have injury-recovery situations. That’s where we’re at.”
The rest for their two best players in the same game has a major impact far beyond this individual game, although the outcome was regrettable considering the Mavericks gave themselves a chance in the final minutes.
The bigger picture, of course, is to keep Porzingis and Dončić just a little bit fresher as the rapid-fire second half of the season progresses. The Mavericks have nine more back-to-back situations after this one and will play 38 games in 68 days in the second half.
“It’s a long season, so whatever we got to do to keep those guys fresh when it comes playoff time, we got to do it,” said Josh Richardson, who had 11 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter when the Mavericks made a furious charge that came up short. “We’re a next-man-up team and the next time it happens we’re going to have to step up again, and hopefully earlier.”
In addition to getting their stars some rest, sitting them affords other players a chance to get extra action in a meaningful situation, which could come in handy come playoff time.
And, obviously, the Mavericks expect to be a playoff team, even if they are on the borderline at the moment after a rough night in OKC.
Their energy was lacking from the start and the Thunder rolled up a 33-16 lead before the first quarter was over and the Mavericks never fully recovered. But that wasn’t for lack of effort late. After trailing 80-59 late in the third quarter (remember, the Thunder only scored 78 in the entire game last week against the Mavericks), the lead was down to 103-101 after a flurry of 3-pointers.
But Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had 10 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, drained a slew of free throws down the stretch and the Thunder held on.
The loss halted the Mavericks’ four-game winning streak that bridged the All-Star break. It was the third time that they have had a four-game streak this season. And they’ve never reached five.
It also dropped them to 19-17, sandwiched in between San Antonio and Memphis in the Southwest Division standings.
“(It) was a horrendous start for us,” Carlisle said. “We just weren’t right. The ball wasn’t moving. Defensively we weren’t concentrating well enough, so we’re looking at a difficult night.”
Among the problems was getting outrebounded 55-37 and allowing the Thunder – the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the league by percentage – to make 16-of-32 from beyond the arc.
“The level of physical presence wasn’t there,” Carlisle said. “We played smaller in the second half, which made it more difficult (to rebound). But when a team gets outrebounded like this, it almost always points to the fact that you didn’t have the physical posture or mental edge at the beginning of the game. We just needed to be better.”
Not having Porzingis and Dončić certainly had an impact.
But this was not a situation where the Mavericks rested Porzingis and Dončić based on the opponent. The Thunder are the only team in the first seven games for the Mavericks after the break that are not playoff bound.
In addition, the Mavericks beat the Thunder in Dallas by nine points last week before the break – and did so without Dončić, who was out with the ankle problem.
However, Carlisle said this “is certainly no disrespect to Oklahoma. They’ve overachieved based on what expectations were.”