Since the All-Star break, no team has scored more efficiently than the Mavericks.
Dallas has scored 116.0 points per 100 possessions in five games since the break, which leads the NBA. To give you an idea of just how dominant that is, Golden State’s 112.6 rating leads the league for the entire season. Now, as Rick Carlisle pointed out, the Mavericks have had a relatively easy stretch of schedule in the back half of February, so this is no time for his players to revel in their own success — “We can’t fall in love with ourselves,” he warned Monday — but there’s no denying the Mavs have shown positive signs of progress in the last couple weeks.
You can’t control who you play in this league, but you can control how well you play, and Dallas has done just that as of late. For example, in the six quarters (plus an overtime period) since halftime against Denver on Friday night, the Mavericks have scored 206 points. That’s an awful lot of points, and outbursts like that don’t happen by accident.
One huge source of the Mavs’ offensive success, especially in the last few games, has been the team’s nearly exclusive shift to a 4-out offense. Earlier in the season Dallas would play plenty of minutes with two traditional big men on the floor, but lately that hasn’t been the case, as Chandler Parsons has picked up almost all of the backup power forward minutes, even in situations when he was at a size and strength disadvantage. Against Minnesota on Sunday night, Parsons frequently matched up against the much bigger Karl-Anthony Towns or Gorgui Dieng, and he even guarded Jahlil Okafor last weekend in a win against Philadelphia.
The Mavericks have once again uncovered and embraced the pure, wide-open 4-out offense that has separated good offenses from great ones in recent seasons. And while the offensive surge the team is enjoying has been short-lived — so far — there are plenty of trends and sequences worth taking a look at that can help to explain why the Mavericks have been playing so well, and how that can perhaps translate into future success. And, when you’re talking about a good team performing at a high level, it only makes sense to start with the stars. On this team, that’s the “Four Horsemen:” Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews, and Deron Williams, and, conveniently, much of their individual success is tied to one another. Let’s see how.
There aren’t many players in the NBA whose numbers will jump off the page like Parsons’ this past month. Dating back to Jan. 18, the forward is averaging 20.3 points on 53.5 percent shooting from the field and 50.5 percent from deep, to go along with 5.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists. He’s getting buckets and he’s doing it efficiently.
First and foremost, Parsons has scored a ton of points at the power forward position. While correlation doesn’t always equal causation, one could make the case the move has benefited Parsons to a huge degree.
Dallas has of course been creative when it comes to getting its rising star in position to take advantage of a mismatch, too, even when Parsons is playing small forward. You’d expect nothing less from Rick Carlisle. Here, Parsons sends an inbound pass to Nowitzki, who immediately flips it back to the forward and sets a ball-screen, forcing the defense to switch. Then Parsons — out of a classic triple-threat position, no less! — drives right around the outmatched Kenneth Faried and has his bucket counted after the Nugget commits a goaltending violation. (Click to view the .gifs.)
At one point against Minnesota, Parsons found himself guarded by the much bigger Dieng in the corner. As he prepared to catch a Raymond Felton pass to the corner, Parsons took a step toward the basket, putting himself in position to attack immediately off the catch. That’s a smart move, especially when he already has a quickness advantage over his defender, as it makes him impossible to stop en route to the rim.
What has really stood out about Parsons’ play this season, particularly in recent weeks, now that he’s inching closer toward the finish line of his recovery process, has been his play in transition. He’s scoring 1.311 points per possession in those situations this season, which ranks second in the NBA among players with at least 100 transition possessions, according to Synergy Sports. Against the Timberwolves, he scored eight fast break points himself.
With between 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock, he’s got a 68.8 effective field goal percentage this season, which ranks 10th in the league among 139 players with at least 50 attempts within that range. With between 18-15 seconds remaining, his eFG climbs to 69.3 percent, which ranks second in the league among 160 players with at least 50 field goal attempts in the range. That is some seriously effective offense early in the clock, which makes the fact that he’s now beginning to implement Nowitzki’s famous trailing three into his game even more terrifying for opposing defenses.
As scorching-hot as Parsons has been, Matthews has been equally sizzling. He’s hit 15 of his last 31 three-point attempts, averaging 17.0 points in his last four games. During that time, he has a 72.2 eFG% on catch-and-shoot jumpers, including a 48.1 three-point percentage.
As the Mavs’ offense has heated up in other areas, especially as 4-out has become more prevalent, it’s opened up better opportunities outside for Matthews to exploit. On this play, the Mavericks work the ball all the way around the horn off of Raymond Felton’s penetration, and Matthews ends up with a wide-open corner 3.
There are only five defenders on the floor at any given moment, so if you can draw two or more into the lane on a drive and then kick the ball out and move it around the arc, there’s just no way the defense stands a chance. Basketball players are the best athletes in the world, but even they aren’t capable of covering 30 feet front-to-back and 50 feet side-to-side. Sharp ball movement and precise spacing is simply too much for defenses to counter.
David Lee’s passing ability opened up a great look for Matthews against Minnesota. The Mavs’ new big man made a pass to a cutting Devin Harris from the top of the key, which forced Matthews’ defender, Shabazz Muhammad, to mull over sliding down to help out. Lee’s pass actually led Harris just a bit too far for the 2-guard to take a layup, but Matthews moved as soon as Muhammad turned his head, and ultimately he wound up wide-open for another trey. The Mavs had zero players in the lane as this play developed, which opens up a ton of real estate to work with on offense. Matthews, once again, took advantage of the resulting impact on the defense. No matter how athletic the opponent is, playing 5-out basketball like this is playing chess while the defense is playing checkers.
Also promising for Matthews is this: In his last four games, he’s also hit half his shots when he touches the ball for more than two seconds, indicating he’s getting more comfortable creating shots for himself and scoring in ways other than simply catching and shooting. He’s attacked off the bounce and he’s posted guys up, and the latter element in particular has set him apart from other players at his position in recent seasons.
The Big German is shooting well as of late. He’s hit 30 field goals combined in his last four games, the most he’s hit in any four-game stretch (without missing a game) since sinking 31 between Dec. 1-7. In the five games since the All-Star break, he’s made multiple 3s in four of the five games.
Nowitzki sliding to the 5 showed just how much respect opposing teams still give him, even at age 37. When he made the move against the Nuggets, Denver coach Mike Malone was forced to pull starting center Nikola Jokic from the game so his team wouldn’t have a serious matchup problem on the defensive end. Nowitzki remains too quick and just plain too good on the outside to be defended by big men who lack experience checking guys in that area of the floor.
Now, when teams go small against the Mavericks, that also opens up opportunities on the inside for Nowitzki as a conventional roll man. In the play below, there’s no one but a point guard to impede the 7-foot German’s progress to the basket.
One solution is to collapse the weakside defense down into the paint in order to clog things up so Dirk doesn’t have such an easy look at the rim, but that leaves shooters wide-open on the far side of the floor. Nowitzki has always been an underrated passer, and this play demonstrates his court vision.
The most notable thing about the two plays above is how simple they are. The pick-and-roll is one of the oldest plays in the book, but as teams have begun playing smaller and smaller and dotting the floor with more shooters, there’s a lot more nuance when it comes to defending it. Rotations have to be precise, communication has to be strong, and decision-making has to be instinctive and immediate.
As a defender, you can’t hesitate. If you do, you risk being burned for either a dunk or a three-pointer. Dallas made 18 shots inside the restricted area against the Timberwolves, for example, with many of them coming out of pick-and-roll sets. The Mavs have also made double-digit 3s in six of their last seven games, too.
Williams has averaged 8.0 assists plus secondary (“hockey”) assists in his last seven games, a huge step up from the 4.3 he averaged in his previous six appearances. In these last four games, his teammates are connecting on 51.4 percent of their 17.5 field goal attempts per game following a Williams pass, including 61.4 percent on 11.0 2-point shots.
Sometimes a point guard’s best trait is knowing when to score and knowing when to distribute the ball. Williams has done a terrific job walking that line this season, as he’s been one of the best closers in the NBA while also operating at the helm of a Dallas offense that’s beginning to sharing the ball at an extremely high level. The Mavericks have dished out 20+ assists in seven straight games, their second-longest streak of the season, and recorded a season-high 34 against the Wolves. Williams finished with nine dimes in that game against 10 field goal attempts.
He also has the awareness to know when to take the shot, when to swing the ball, and when to attack. The decision isn’t always an easy one to make, but Williams has been in this league a long time and he has a better feel for the game than most guys in this league will ever develop. This play is a good example.
His first thought was to swing the ball to Parsons in the corner, but the Nuggets defense had already committed to taking that away. Once that failed, rather than trying to gather himself and take a forced three-pointer, Williams instead saw a wide-open driving lane and attacked the rim, forcing an already scrambling Nuggets defense even further out of position, resulting in a wide-open trey for Matthews in the corner.
Plenty of other players on the roster have contributed in the last four games, including new addition David Lee, who’s been stuffing the box score since putting on a Mavs jersey for the first time. But the core of Parsons, Matthews, Nowitzki, and Williams has been so in-sync the last several games, and that’s the biggest reason for the Mavs’ success of late. The hope, of course, is that this wave of momentum can carry the team all the way through to the playoffs, but there’s still plenty of basketball left.
If Dallas continues to play 4-out, move the ball effectively, and take advantage of mismatches at various positions, scoring won’t be an issue for the Mavericks. They’ve played inspired offensive basketball, especially in the last six quarters. The numbers speak for themselves.