Dennis Smith Jr.’s ‘constant attacking mode’ gave Mavs goosebumps in win vs. Raptors

Dennis Smith Jr. had a night so good that Rick Carlisle caught himself looking ahead at what’s to come for his team’s 20-year-old rookie point guard.

“Tonight convinced me that this kid’s gonna be a great player,” Carlisle said.

Wait: He’s talking about the Smith that scored just eight points on 3-of-14 shooting, right? Based on the box score, this was one of the rookie’s least impressive statistical performances of the season. But if there’s one thing we learned tonight, it’s that box score stats alone can hardly tell the story of a game.

“I had a perfect statistical stat line,” Smith said. “We won the game.”

That aside, here’s one stat that will shine a little light on what made his night so glorious: Smith led the team with 21 paint attacks, per team analytics, which by my unofficial tally is a career-high for a game. He did it in just 26:36 of playing time, too, meaning he drove the lane almost once per minute. He was relentless, especially in the first quarter. The Mavs got the ball into the paint on 20 of their first 25 possessions of the game, and turned those 20 trips down the floor into 25 points. On a night in which Wesley Matthews’ defense on DeMar DeRozan led the way on that end, Smith was unquestionably the driving force on the offensive side.

“He was just in a constant attacking mode,” Carlisle said. “Defensively, he was really good and aggressive. He pushed himself to a level tonight that gave our team goosebumps to watch.”

“(Carlisle) gave me the green light,” Smith said. “What I did tonight, that’s what he wants me to do every night: Come out and attack, find guys that are open, make it easier for everybody.”

One man can’t beat a defense by himself, but Smith is in a unique position of power within the Mavs’ offense. Carlisle admitted earlier this season that not only has the rookie had to adjust his game to the pros and his team’s system, but the coach has also had to adjust his own style to meet the needs and strengths of his first-year player. That entails not only giving Smith the green light to attack at all times and from every angle – even if it means waving off ball screens and going one-on-one – but it also manifests itself in the Xs and Os. Carlisle added more width to the Mavs’ fast break whenever Smith is on the floor, moving the wings all the way out to the 3-point line, in an effort to give him virtually the entire floor to work with. The earliest example of that shift I can remember is when the Nuggets came to town earlier this month. Smith had a field day in transition in the first half of that game.

Carlisle’s thought process: If Smith can get to the paint it means that defenses are going to have to adjust in one way or another, and the Mavs have the personnel to exploit every counter. For example, if teams put quick point guards on Smith, Dallas will run a bevy of pick-and-rolls and off-ball screens until that player is matched up against the bigger Dirk Nowitzki or Harrison Barnes, both of whom can punish size mismatches with the best of them. One alternative is to put a longer player, like a small forward, on Smith to start a possession, but then you run into the problem of who’s switching onto him after a ball screen. Is Nowitzki’s man, often the center, going to guard Smith one-on-one? I don’t think so. Many power forwards aren’t agile enough for the challenge, either. When the 20-year-old maintains an attacking mindset, there aren’t many players in the world who can stay in front of him.

The best way to limit him is to swarm him at the rim, but that results in helping off of a shooter or a roll man, which leads to easy points. Smith would almost prefer that tactic, not only because it gets him easy assist opportunities but also because it helps his teammates get off to strong starts. “Whenever I’m attacking early, it sets them up for easy shots,” Smith said. “It gets everybody into a rhythm.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Smith takes a beating most nights and he’s rarely rewarded with whistles for his efforts. Before the Toronto game, he ranked 17th in the NBA in drives per game at 12.3 (a number that will rise a bit after tonight), but he earns just 1.0 free throws per game on those drives, per NBA Stats. Among the top-50 qualified players by drives that’s the seventh-lowest free throw rate, and many of the players “ahead” of him on that list pass out of drives significantly more often than Smith does. Rookies have to earn whistles, or so they say.

He’ll also develop better moves than simply straight-line driving into a prepared big man. Smith is working on adding a floater to his arsenal, and one can only hope that he’ll learn some of J.J. Barea’s whirling dervish moves by osmosis. Barea is a master of contorting his body to protect himself and the ball, and although Smith is a much more explosive athlete, picking up on some of those techniques would likely lead not only to a higher field goal percentage, but also potentially to more free throws, too.

Despite all that, the rookie has maintained a sense of humor about his low free throw rate, joking that his girlfriend isn’t a fan of all the scratches and bruises he’s collecting along the way. The officials probably won’t take that opinion into consideration, but Smith still smiles about it. “It’s all good,” he said. “It ain’t gonna stop nothing. It’s gonna be the same thing: Keep attacking.”

“It’s hard,” Carlisle said. “It requires so much energy and will.”

“It’s just about being fearless,” Smith added. “Just go in, take the hits. It is what it is. That’s what I’m supposed to do – go in and attack, regardless of whether they’re there or not.”

This was just his 27th NBA game, with hundreds more still to come. It’s important to remember how long this process can take for young players, but Smith put together one of the most impressive 3-of-14 nights you’ll see in this league. If he can play with that level of aggression and force every night, he’ll have no problem turning those shooting numbers around in time, as his wisdom catches up to his otherworldly athletic talent. The win might be the only stat that matters to him, but the rest of his numbers will be a heck of a lot prettier, too.

Game 33: Mavs at Heat

Smith Jr. Deep Three

Dennis Smith Jr. bails out the Mavericks with a deep 3-pointer just before the shot clock expires.

Despite rough start, Dennis Smith Jr. provided Mavs with what they’d missed during six-game absence with hip strain

DALLAS — While he admits that it took some time to get back into the flow after missing six games due to a left hip strain, rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. provided the Dallas Mavericks with exactly what they missed in his return Wednesday night during a 110-93 runaway victory over Detroit.

Scoring 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, Smith filled up the stat sheet with five rebounds and five assists to boot during Wednesday’s win. He also provided the Mavericks (9-23) with lockdown defense by picking up fullcourt, helping the team work out of an early nine-point deficit. And after helping the Mavs to end a three-game losing streak, Smith quickly earned the praise of head coach Rick Carlisle and 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki following the win.

“It was bad, great, shaky and good,” Carlisle candidly said while grading Smith’s return. “Look, it’s going to be tough coming off of two weeks and not playing an NBA game. The beginning was a struggle, but I’ve got to say the way he helped us finish the first half was probably the difference of the game. So, he’s extremely important to us.”

“We needed that,” Nowitzki echoed. “We were missing some of the stuff that he brings, obviously. With his mindset of always attacking in the open court, he made some great plays at the rim early. That set a good tone for us.”

On the season, Smith is averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in his 24 outings, giving the Mavericks consistency at the point guard position. He’s also shooting just 39.7 percent from the field and 30.7 percent from three-point range, showing that the 20-year-old still has plenty of room to grow. Still, after effectively returning from a lengthy layoff, Smith expects to improve on those numbers as his conditioning continuous to improve.

Perhaps more importantly, Smith hopes to utilize the lessons he learned during his six-game absence after watching from the sideline as the Mavericks competed without him. That said, Smith believes the best is yet to come during his rookie campaign as he learns when and where to attack.

“I was just coming out and trying to do what I do. My legs were heavy at first, and I had to get my second wind,” Smith explained while summing up his night. “Second quarter, we closed it out strong. I started pressuring the ball some more, and we picked up the intensity as a whole defensively. We hit some shots, and that’s probably what changed it.

“I feel good. I feel real good. It’s going to take some time, but really I feel real good today on my wind. Like I said, my legs were heavy at first, but as soon as I came back in I felt great,” he added. “You know, I learned a lot about how Yogi (Ferrell) could be effective in the game, and I can do some of the same things. J.J. (Barea) and Devin (Harris), it’s the same with them. And I learned some of the personnel, like Maxi (Kleber), [Dwight Powell] and Dirk. You know, it’s a different perspective whenever you just sit from the first quarter to the fourth and watch.”

Note: The Mavericks will now hit the road for a two-game trip, traveling to Miami for Friday’s matchup against the Heat. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM ESPN. The game will also air in Spanish on KFLC AM 1270.

The Mavs return to their home floor on Tuesday night at American Airlines Center against the Detroit Pistons. The game will tip off at 6 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM ESPN. The game will also air in Spanish on KFLC AM 1270. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by visiting Mavs.com, or by calling (214) 747-MAVS.

Injury updates:

Dorian Finney-Smith (left knee quadriceps tendinitis) — out
Seth Curry (stress reaction, left tibia) — out
Josh McRoberts (lower extremity injury) — out
Nerlens Noel (left thumb surgery) — out

The faster, the better for the Mavericks offense

Dennis Smith Jr. is known for his thunderous dunks, but his most destructive play Monday night in San Antonio was a layup.

Smith took the ball out of the basket after a Brandon Paul bucket and raced it up the court, lifting off while there were still 21 seconds left on the shot clock and catching everyone — including even the camera crew — by surprise. Smith’s man ended up on the floor so the Mavericks had a 5-on-4 opportunity, and the rook took control of the situation, turning it into two easy points.

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle wants Smith to do things like that more often. You might only get one or two chances at a play like the one above per game, but generally speaking if Smith could run the ball up the floor with a little pace every time, Carlisle is confident the opposing defense could bend or break earlier in the shot clock.

“Put pressure on the D. He can do it like no one else we’ve had here in quite some time,” Carlisle said. “He’s getting better and better with things like that, with things defensively, with recognition, seeing where his shots are coming from, and seeing how to play with teammates.”

This season, the Mavericks have been very good at scoring after opponents’ misses, with an effective field goal percentage of 52.6 percent in those situations, per nbawowy. For reference, that would rank ninth in the NBA for the season. However, Dallas’ team eFG% after opposing made baskets or free throws is just 47.5 percent, which would rank 29th in the league. That’s a significant split in efficiency, and Carlisle is certainly aware of what happens when his club begins an offensive possession against a set defense.

“The defense has early position that they want. They’re in their shell, or however you want to term it,” he said. “Frequently in those situations if you try to call plays, things are scouted well, teams are relaying calls. It’s just an inherently, intrinsically more difficult way to play.”

In other words, if you walk the ball up the floor slowly against a set defense, you’ve got an uphill struggle ahead of you. You might be able to fool teams with a couple set plays throughout a game, but generally opposing scouting is so good these days that most teams know exactly what you’re running. Watch Dirk Nowitzki, for example, before every inbound pass, for example: He calls out the opposing play to the Mavs staff, who then shouts back the action. Dallas ranks third-best in the league defensively in points per possession allowed against both baseline out of bounds plays and plays following a timeout, per Synergy Sports.

For the season, the Mavericks have been very good offensively early in the shot clock. Their team effective field goal percentage is 60.1 percent when they shoot with 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock (considered “very early” by NBA Stats), 55.2 percent when there’s 18-15 remaining (“early”), and 52.7 when there are 15-7 seconds (“average”).

But as the clock winds down, so does the accuracy: Dallas shoots just 37.9 percent from the field when there are 7-4 seconds left on the shot clock (“late”) and 38.2 percent when there are 4-0 seconds left (“very late”). It’s hard for most players to create something out of nothing. It should be noted, though, that Carlisle worked with Smith on late-clock shooting after Monday’s practice.

If Smith could turn just three or four opposing made baskets into fullcourt sprints the other way, it could really play to the Mavs’ advantage. Maybe it only results in an extra two points across the course of a game, but an extra bucket here or there could keep you in a close game down the stretch. Points are points, no matter how you get them.

Tonight could be a good example of end-to-end sprints. The Brooklyn Nets rank second in the league in pace (to the Mavs’ 25th, though they’re rising), and per NBA Stats more than 21 percent of their shots come with 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock, second-highest in the league. Dallas, by comparison, takes just 10.6 percent of its shots that early in the clock.

“When you score on (the Nets), they’re as good an answer-back team as I’ve seen in this league,” Carlisle said. “The other night against Memphis they took the ball out of the basket and zoomed it up full-court and laid it in like three or four times. That’s really a disheartening thing for your defense.”

This could be the same kind of thing coaches always preach against teams that like to press: Sometimes the best way to combat their stuff is to throw it right back at them. If Smith can push the ball the other way back at the Brooklyn defense, it could lead to plenty of easy points for Dallas. The Nets rank 27th in defensive rating this season and have allowed at least 117 points in four of their last five games.

This is the game within the game tonight: Can Smith push the tempo every now and then, just enough to squeeze out an extra couple points? These teams could combined to score 220 tonight, but an extra two could make all the difference in the world.

Despite pushing Spurs for 48 minutes, Mavs took no moral victories from loss in San Antonio

DALLAS — Despite pushing the Southwest Division-leading San Antonio Spurs for the better part of four quarters Monday night, the Dallas Mavericks returned home disappointed in their performance after suffering a hard-fought 115-108 loss on the road.

Finishing Monday’s game with seven scorers in double figures, the Mavericks (5-16) displayed plenty of balance on the offensive end. The Mavs also attempted to lock in on defense after claiming back-to-back wins and three victories in their previous four outings. But after surrendering a pivotal 10-0 San Antonio run late in the fourth quarter that took the Spurs’ lead from one to 11, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle wasn’t happy with his team’s play down the stretch. That said, Carlisle confesses that the Mavericks left the court with no moral victories after fighting valiantly against one of the NBA’s upper-echelon teams.

“Well, there were usually mistakes that led to runs for them,” Carlisle explained. “You know, we had some untimely turnovers. We didn’t have a big turnover total, but we had some untimely turnovers that started runs. There were times we got hurt with their length and not recognizing that there’s big, tall tress in the lane. We’ve got to do a better job with that kind of stuff. And then we just had a few mistakes with coverages. On the road in a game where you need precision, we just can’t have those things happen.

“Balance is a very important thing, but it’s all a little bit pointless to me if the result isn’t where you need it to be,” the coach added. “It’s good to do a few good things, but no one around here is into moral victories, especially with the first half that we played. And then to come out and not play well for some significant stretches in the second (half) is very disappointing. We have work to do.”

The Mavericks certainly held their own in the first half, taking a 53-46 advantage into the intermission to overshadow Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge’s 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting through two quarters. The Mavs also outshot the Spurs in the half, 48.8 percent to 47.4 percent, claiming a 21-19 rebounding edge, converting San Antonio’s eight turnovers into 10 points and holding a 27-12 advantage in bench scoring to boot.

However, that all changed during the final 24 minutes of action as the Mavericks were outscored 69-55 in the last two quarters. And according to rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., the team left the locker room disappointed with how it performed in the latter stage of the game.

“This was a chance for us to really make a statement,” Smith explained after tying a team high with 19 points on 9-of-17 shooting in the loss. “We had just won two in a row and coming on the road against the Spurs, a really good team. This was a chance for us to make a statement, so we came in believing we could win the game. It didn’t turn out as planned, so everybody’s disappointed.”

All told, Aldridge scored a season-high 33 points on 13-of-19 shooting to lead six Spurs in double figures, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing four assists as well. The Spurs also outshot the Mavericks for the game, 52.4 percent to 48.2 percent, ending the night with a 43-40 rebounding edge and 17 points off Dallas’ 11 turnovers. That said, the Mavericks know it was an opportunity lost after leading by as many as 13 in the defeat. And according to 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, the team’s costly mistakes down the stretch most be corrected before Wednesday’s matchup at home against Brooklyn.

“We were still right there in the fourth. We had some bad turnovers against their length, we missed some good shots, and they made some big shots,” Nowitzki admitted. “(Bryn) Forbes made a couple ones in transition, Pau (Gasol) got hot, and LaMarcus had it going all night. They have some good players. We just made a few mistakes and missed some coverages. We know in this building we’re against a great team, and you can’t allow mistakes. We just made a few mistakes and a few too many at crucial times.”

Note: The Mavericks will now return to their home floor Wednesday night at American Airlines Center against the Brooklyn Nets. The game will tip off at 7:30 p.m. CT, airing locally on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM ESPN. The game will also air in Spanish on KFLC AM 1270. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by visiting Mavs.com, or by calling (214) 747-MAVS.

Injury updates:

Dorian Finney-Smith (left knee quadriceps tendinitis) — out
Seth Curry (stress reaction, left tibia) — out
Josh McRoberts (lower extremity injury) — out

Game 21: Mavs at Spurs

Powell Alley-oop

J.J. Barea throws up the alley for Dwight Powell to finish the oop with a slam.

Game 19: Mavs at Grizzlies

Harrison Barnes Game Winner

Harrison Barnes banks in a desperation 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds left to win the game for the Mavericks, 95-94.