Mavs’ second unit has maximized minutes since trade for Nerlens Noel

The Mavericks may have traded for Nerlens Noel with the intention of making him their full-time starting center in the very near future — be it this season or in those to come, assuming he’s re-signed this summer, as the Mavs have made it clear they hope to do — but since coming to Dallas he’s come off the bench in eight of his nine games.

For a team that has needed a burst off the bench all season long, Noel has almost proven to be a panacea for all things ailing the Mavericks. Dallas is 7-2 when Noel plays, and 6-2 when he plays as a reserve.

Not all the credit belongs to him, however. His arrival to the team has coincided with many other factors, many of which have proven to be fortuitous for the Mavericks, and the second unit in particular. Dorian Finney-Smith, for example, ran straight into the rookie wall in the month leading up to the All-Star break but appears to have forced his way through it. Since the break, he’s shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.

Devin Harris, who Rick Carlisle considers the team’s unsung hero, has done the same; extending all the way back to Jan. 20, the backup off-guard is shooting 37.3 percent from deep, adding 2.6 assists and nearly a steal in just under 18 minutes per game. It helps, too, that J.J. Barea made his long-awaited return from injury six games ago and already had a 13-assist game before putting up 20 points yesterday in Brooklyn.

And Dirk Nowitzki, who plays a considerable amount of his minutes with backups, has been nearly unstoppable lately. Since Noel joined the team, he’s averaging 16.3 points on 50.6 percent shooting from the field and 42.0 percent from deep. In his last eight contests, those numbers have increased to 18.6 points on 53.1/47.2 shooting splits, and he’s recorded three double-doubles.

GAME RECAP: Mavericks 111, Nets 104

Dirk Nowitzki leads the way for the Mavericks scoring 23 points as they take down the Nets, 111-104.

Together those five have formed quite the second unit, and the fact that the group plays much (if not all) of its minutes against backups is unfair. Nowitzki is scoring at an astronomical rate for a player his age and Noel has All-Defense potential, yet they play at least a dozen minutes each against opponents’ third and fourth big men. Barea, meanwhile, played the best basketball of his career last season as a starter in the thick of a playoff race, and he’s remained in charge this season when healthy. Down the stretch against the Nets, Barea ran pick-and-roll on nine straight possessions and the Mavericks scored 12 points en route to a win.

It’s easy to forget about backups, simply because they don’t play a ton of minutes. Harris, for example, has only played more than 20 minutes in eight of his 52 appearances this season. Since Dorian Finney-Smith relinquished his starting spot to Seth Curry full-time in January, he’s filled in as a starter for injury purposes just four times in 33 games and has played at least 20 minutes in only eight of them.

That doesn’t mean they don’t make an impact. Since Noel’s team debut on Feb. 25, the Mavs are 8-5. Finney-Smith has finished with a positive plus-minus seven times, Harris has done so six times, and Nowitzki eight times. Noel missed three of those games (and Dallas lost two of them), but in the 10 he’s played, he’s finished above zero five times.

In yesterday’s seven-point win against the Nets, Nowitzki, Harris, and Finney-Smith all finished +12 or better. In the 11-point win against the Lakers on March 7, Harris, Nowitzki, and Noel all finished +11 or better. Finney-Smith’s +22 on Feb. 25 led the team in the 13-point win against the Pelicans.

Their per-game numbers might not jump off the page, but it’s hard to argue with the on-off splits: Suddenly, the Mavs have one of the league’s most effective second units, and the team is beginning to win games because of it.

Second unit, by the numbers

Since Devin Harris made his season debut on Nov. 30, the Mavericks are 27-26. Any time he’s shared the floor with Finney-Smith and Nowitzki for at least one second, the Mavericks are 20-15. Across an 82-game season, that’s nearly a 47-win pace.

Those numbers climb exponentially higher when factoring Noel into the mix, as well. Those four players have shared the floor for only 26 minutes combined spread across six games, which is not a big enough sample size to draw any huge conclusions. But even through that small sample, their numbers together have been outrageously good. (See the table below.)

Lineup Record Minutes Played Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Devin Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith 26-25 365 108.7 101.8 6.9
Harris, Finney-Smith, Dirk Nowitzki 20-15 201 110.3 93.6 16.7
Harris, Finney-Smith, Nowitzki, Nerlens Noel 5-1 26 138.3 74.9 63.4

Those who did the quick math all be saying the same thing: These lineups aren’t used very often. For example, Harris and Finney-Smith have shared the floor for an average of just seven minutes per game; Nowitzki is on with them for less than six minutes. Six minutes might not be a big chunk of an NBA game, but you’d better believe it’s a long enough stretch to swing a game. If you outscore an opponent by 17 points per 100 possessions and play 15 offensive possessions together, you’re gaining two or three points on your opponent, on average, during that time. (That trio is by far the Mavs’ best among groups which have played at least 200 minutes together.)

Noel’s inclusion has turbo-charged that unit even more, however. In the four minutes per game that group of four has averaged together, the Mavericks are outscoring opponents by more than 63 points per 100 possessions, which is a monstrous number. In per-game terms, Dallas has outscored opponents by 5.2 points in less than five minutes per game when that four-man unit is on the floor.

Again, it’s a small sample size, so one big run can swing those numbers either way, but that group has been so overwhelmingly dominant — sporting a 65.9 effective field goal percentage while opponents can only muster an eFG percentage of 36.9, and turn it over one out of every six trips down the floor — that the tremendous divide between that group and the opponent has been hard to ignore.

With Noel alone on the floor, the Mavericks have been terrific; Dallas outscores opponents 113.7 to 105.0 per 100 possessions with him in the game. In terms of net rating, the Mavericks (8.7 points per 100 better than opponents) are better than the Spurs (+8.6), and every other team in the NBA not named Golden State, with Nerlens Noel in the game.

Noel And-One

Nerlens Noel catches the oop from the Devin Harris and puts it in, plus the foul.

Why are they good?

Aside from the skill advantage Noel and Nowitzki provide the second unit simply because they’re quality NBA starters masquerading as backups for 10+ minutes a game, the Mavs’ second unit is on paper a very potent group. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the pieces have fit so smoothly. Most importantly it’s an extremely high-IQ group, with every player capable of making the right play in most any circumstance, reminiscent of the Harris-Crowder-Carter-Dirk-Wright second-unit lineup during the 2013-14 season that was among the best in basketball by net rating, at +26.6.

Harris remains an excellent fourth guard because he can defend both 1s and 2s, and can even switch off to defend some 3s at times. Defensively, he has a knack for drawing charges and forcing live-ball turnovers, which disrupts the opponent at the point of attack. Offensively, meanwhile, he can knock down the 3-ball, run offense as a secondary ball-handler, attack the basket both on and off the ball (including with the back-door cut with J.J. Barea that still catches teams by surprise once or twice a night), and run the floor in transition.

Finney-Smith Putback Dunk

Yogi Ferrell drives to the rim and misses the lay-up but Dorian Finney-Smith is there for the putback dunk.

Finney-Smith is long enough to guard 4s and quick enough to guard 2s, and most 3s in the NBA are either not as tall or not as long as he is. He’s a rookie with the defensive chops of a veteran. Offensively, he understands his role as a catch-and-shoot spot-up guy on the perimeter, but he also has a nice one-dribble pull-up shot to attack close-outs, and he can cut to the rim off the ball either for a shot or an offensive rebound.

Nowitzki and Noel, meanwhile, are two of the most fearsome pick-and-roll players in the NBA, with Nowitzki able to stretch the defense to the limits as a pick-and-pop jump-shooter and Noel able to do the same thing, only vertically and as a roll man. Whether they’re playing with Barea or Yogi Ferrell, both players make the point guard’s job so much easier because their off-ball movement opens up driving lanes or open mid-range jump shots. All the point guard needs to do is read the defense and then make the smart basketball play. Dallas runs complex offense, but for as nuanced as it is, it’s also extremely simple.

These guys don’t play all of their minutes together, but the fact that they each are net-positive players almost every night regardless of how their teammates look at the end of the game tells you at least this: The Mavs aren’t surrendering points when their starters check out, and that’s valuable when talking about backup players.

It’s going to be exciting to see where this second unit goes the rest of the season, and also what the Mavs do about it next season. If Noel remains with the Mavericks, he figures to be a starter, which could cut into his minutes with the reserves. Then again, the Mavericks have been so good with him coming off the bench — and he’s still played plenty of minutes overall, even in that role — that you wonder if it’s something they’ll stick with.

At any rate, the Mavs have found something pretty special with this group, albeit after a pretty small sample. Those four players will have plenty of chances in the final 13 games to prove the unit has staying power.

Former Gators coach Donovan rooting for Dorian Finney-Smith: ‘He’s a great kid’

Many NBA players keep in touch with their college coaches even when they make it to the Association. For Dorian Finney-Smith, however, chatting with the man who coached him at the D-I level would mean fraternizing with a conference rival.

Finney-Smith was a four-year player at the University of Florida, where he played two seasons under Billy Donovan, and spent an additional year with him while he sat out due to transfer rules. Donovan now coaches the Oklahoma City Thunder, who the Mavs beat 104-89 on Sunday night at American Airlines Center.

The rookie still has fond memories of his time with Donovan, who became OKC’s head coach before last season.

“He would be at the gym all night,” Finney-Smith said. “He cared about his players. While he was there, we had a real strong relationship that’s still strong to this day, and he’s somebody I look up to as a mentor and a leader.”

Finney-Smith averaged 10.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game during the two seasons he played with Donovan. During his sophomore season in Florida in 2013-14, the Gators went 36-3 and advanced to the Final Four.

Donovan had nothing but positive things to say about his former player, who’s now become a key contributor to a Mavs team looking to make a turnaround in the Western Conference after a slow start to the season. The Thunder coach said he spoke with Finney-Smith before last summer’s NBA Draft, telling him if he does at the NBA level what he did in college, he’d fit in right away.

“I just told him, ‘You just need to defend, and be who you are,'” Donovan reflected. “Because of his length, his size, and athleticism, any coach is gonna see the value he brings, because he’s a winner. That’s what he is: a winner.”

Finney-Smith has earned high praise from his coaches and teammates this season for his energy and ability on the defensive end. His first real crack at NBA minutes came in an early-November game against Milwaukee, and the Mavs rookie gave Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo all he could handle on that end of the floor. Dallas won 84-75, and Finney-Smith immediately became a full-time starter until Dirk Nowitzki returned from injury in December.

While his energy earned him a job, Finney-Smith admitted he wasn’t always as aggressive and dynamic on the defensive end until Donovan brought it out of him.

“I was always the kid who walked in yawning, just moving in slow-motion,” he said of his early days at Florida. “I really didn’t know what playing hard was until I started playing with him. I give a lot of credit to him today. That’s the reason why I’m here.”

He brings more to the table than just defense, of course. Donovan considers Finney-Smith a “terrific” rebounder, and as his 3-point shooting has become more consistent throughout his first NBA season, Finney-Smith has added a pull-up jumper and dribble-drive to attack close-outs. On top of that, he always seems to make the right play; he’s got a very solid basketball IQ for a player his age.

Those qualities made a strong impression on the Mavs coaching staff during the camp leading up to Summer League, and before the team flew to Las Vegas, Dallas signed the undrafted rookie to a contract. Donovan views this as a perfect situation for his former player.

“He knows how to compete, he knows how to play, he knows how to make people around him better,” Donovan said. “And he’s always gonna be unselfish and do what’s best for the team. So I’m happy he’s here with Rick, and (Mavs assistant coach) Larry Shyatt was with me at Florida, so I’m happy he’s in a good situation, because he’s a great kid.”

Dorian Finney-Smith set to continue his climb up the Mavs’ rookie ranks

Dorian Finney-Smith, the Mavs’ undrafted, unheralded, and at one time nationally anonymous rookie, has been arguably the team’s biggest surprise this season.

The only other player who could make a stake to that claim is Harrison Barnes, who’s on pace to become the first Mavs forward not named Dirk Nowitzki to average 20 points in a season since Jamal Mashburn did so 20 years ago. Finney-Smith’s scoring numbers aren’t nearly as gaudy as Barnes’ — though his 17 points did lead the team in Sunday’s win against the Kings — but the rookie is climbing further and further up the Mavs’ historical rookie ladder with each game he plays.

The 23-year-old will almost certainly start tonight in Denver, and that’d be his 20th game started for the team this season. That would move him past Devin Harris and into a tie with Mavs great Mark Aguirre for 17th all-time in Mavericks starts by a rookie. Start No. 21 would move him into a tie with Loren Meyer and Mike Iuzzolino, and then, waiting for him in 14th place, would be Dirk Nowitzki, who started 24 games as a rookie in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign.

Considering only five players in franchise history have started at least 50 games as a rookie, Finney-Smith is on pace to join some unique company, a group which includes Jay Vincent, Elston Turner, the late Sean Rooks, Mashburn, and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, who started 79 games in 1994-95 en route to winning co-Rookie of the Year honors.

Of course, the undrafted first-year Mav’s starter status might be in jeopardy once Nowitzki returns to action, which he hinted to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon could happen as soon as Christmas. But either way, Finney-Smith has put himself squarely on the NBA radar with his recent play of late. In his last six appearances, he’s averaged 10.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.7 assists on 55.8 percent shooting from the field and 50.0 percent from deep all the while adjusting to the difficult of maintaining consistency at the NBA level.

“I’m just trying to be the same person every game,” he said Sunday. “That’s the toughest thing, because it’s a long season. But I just try not to get too high, try not to get too low, try to find a routine and stick to it.”

Finney-Smith has reached double-figures in five of his 26 career games. That might seem modest, but recent Mavs rookies who went on to develop into prominent players have comparable outputs: Jae Crowder and Devin Harris both did it six times, while Josh Howard did it 10 times. Nowitzki, for reference, did it just six times as well. And Finney-Smith’s 26 made 3-pointers are the most any rookie Maverick has made in his first 26 games, topping Erick Strickland’s 25 in the 1996-97 season.

The production has certainly been there. Here’s where he ranks among all rookies in key statistical categories this month.

Stat Amount Rank
Minutes 287 3rd
Points 88 4th
3-Pointers 17 2nd
Rebounds 39 T-6th
Steals + Blocks 19 T-6th

And here are his monthly per-game splits. He’s showing tremendous improvement across the board over November.

Month Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3PT%
November 4.3 2.1 0.9 34.4 25.0
December 8.8 3.9 1.5 50.0 45.9

If Finney-Smith can continue his upward curve, he’s going to hang on to a key rotation spot no matter when Nowitzki returns, even if it isn’t in the starting lineup. By the end of the season, both in terms of quality and in pure production, the undrafted 23-year-old could make a case for an All-Rookie Team spot — and prove to be one of the best rookies to come through Dallas in some time.

Finney-Smith and Matthews form dynamic 1-2 defensive punch

Postgame: Wesley Matthews

Mavs G Wesley Matthews comments on Monday's 112-92 win over the Nuggets on Seats for Soldiers Night!

The Mavs’ burgeoning 1-2 punch on the defensive end isn’t exactly an odd couple, but Wesley Matthews and Dorian Finney-Smith aren’t cut from the same cloth, either.

Matthews is one of the most intense competitors in the NBA. He’ll jaw a bit, too, if the situation calls for it. Every trip down the floor in the Mavs’ Saturday night game at Houston, Matthews would stretch his arms as wide as they would go, mouthpiece showing, eyes staring dead ahead at James Harden, almost as if to say “Come at me.”

Finney-Smith, meanwhile, can at times almost be invisible on the floor, until he comes out of nowhere to make a play. He barely speaks a word, at least publicly. And as much as he relishes the opportunity to defend stars, he hasn’t so openly challenged anyone quite in the same vein as the way Matthews did Harden.

“That’s my demeanor, that’s my personality,” Finney-Smith told Mavs.com after the Mavs’ 112-92 win against the Nuggets on Monday. “He’s more rah-rah, and I’m just kind of mellow. But I play hard. Everybody’s motivation is different.”

No matter what motivates Finney-Smith, the Mavs want to make sure the rookie continues to do whatever it is that he’s been doing to prepare for games. The Florida product has set career-high marks in scoring three times in his last six games, but the untold story of what’s made him such an unexpectedly productive player for the Mavericks this season is his remarkable understanding on the defensive end.

Finney-Smith and Matthews do share plenty in common. Both players went undrafted after playing all four seasons at big D-I programs, both take it personally when they get beat, and both have a fundamental appreciation for what it takes to be a good defender, a term which is thrown around a lot, but is tough to define. The 23-year-old rookie said he’s made it a point to be a sponge around his veteran teammate, looking to absorb any wisdom he can.

“Wes is a great guy for any young player to spend time with, because his mind is a computer when it comes to defense,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. “And offense, too. He’s a very smart player on offense. But defensively, he’s one of the very best.”

d-wes

Both players can dip into similar pools of motivation — they were undrafted, underappreciated, and they take pride on an end of the floor that many of their competitors discount or outright ignore. There is nothing flashy or sexy about playing good defense, whether you’re blocking shots or recording steals. And while Finney-Smith has blocked five shots in his last four games, neither he nor Matthews ever puts up gaudy “defensive stat” lines. They rarely pick pockets or send shots into the fifth row. They just bear down and make everything difficult for their opponent.

That quality has been especially impressive to see from Finney-Smith, who came out of college with a good reputation, but he spent much of his time at Florida defending college power forwards, who, no disrespect, don’t have the same ability as NBA-level wings. But the Mavs’ rookie has defended both 4s and 3s in the big leagues, most notable of which was a shockingly good performance last month against Bucks sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo in what were essentially Finney-Smith’s first meaningful NBA minutes.

“When you go from 4 to 3, it’s always harder,” Carlisle said. “You’re guarding guys with more-honed skill sets. They’re faster, they’re smaller, they attack more. Generally, they just have a different aptitude, just a different kind of aptitude for the game than guys that are inside banging. It’s much more challenging.”

As much as Finney-Smith wants to learn from Matthews, the mentor has already gained a strong appreciation for his student’s game.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Matthews said. “He’s coming over blocking shots above the rim, obviously his ability to guard perimeter players at multiple positions already this early. As he continues to learn his little tricks and get stronger and all that kind of stuff, he’ll be tough.”

A late-November slide in team defense carried into December for the Mavericks, culminating in a disappointing 120-89 home loss to Sacramento last week. During that time, Dallas has fallen to 23rd in the league in defensive rating, or points allowed per 100 possessions. Finney-Smith’s on-off splits have remained positive during that time, however. Just look at his on-court defensive numbers with each of the Mavs’ other four typical starters this season.

Lineup Minutes DefRtg NetRtg Opp. eFG%
Finney-Smith, Matthews 369 100.4 2.2 49.1
Finney-Smith, Barnes 361 96.1 3.8 48.9
Finney-Smith, Williams 180 96.9 0.1 46.5
Finney-Smith, Bogut 146 87.8 6.3 41.7

The numbers with center Andrew Bogut are particularly stunning. They’ve only shared 146 minutes on the floor together, but considering the way the Mavericks stagger their rotation, that adds up to about 10 games’ worth of minutes. To allow such a low volume of points over that much time is very impressive. (For the season, by the way, the Mavs’ averages in the above categories are 106.0, -6.6, and 53.6 percent.)

Generally, when one single player is on the floor in so many different good combinations, that says something about the player. And when looking at the Mavs’ best three-man groups involving Finney-Smith, that becomes even more evident. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing with: The Mavs have been a defensive force when he’s on the floor.

Lineup Minutes DefRtg NetRtg Opp. eFG%
Finney-Smith, Barnes, Matthews 312 94.5 6.5 47.4
Finney-Smith, Matthews, Williams 162 95.1 4.3 45.2
Finney-Smith, Barnes, Williams 151 93.8 6.4 45.2
Finney-Smith, Bogut, Matthews 136 86.5 11.2 41.2

That last combination has been incredible for the Mavericks in 136 minutes this season. And it makes sense that it would be the case, too. Bogut is a top-tier rim protector, Matthews is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, and Finney-Smith can fill in anywhere else. If you need him to defend power forwards like Taj Gibson, he can. If you need him to defend Antetokounmpo or Harden, he can do that, too.

Having three such players in one lineup is a recipe for an elite defensive unit, which is what the Mavs have been in the relatively limited time those three have shared the floor. Throw Harrison Barnes and Williams into the mix, for what it’s worth, and that five-man group has an 87.8 defensive rating and 20.9 net rating in only 38 minutes together over six games.

But what exactly can a player like Finney-Smith learn from Matthews, especially when they’re not always defending the same types of players? For one thing, he’s taught Finney-Smith about the importance of showing your hands to avoid cheap fouls. But Carlisle said finer details have gone a long way toward helping.

“There are probably 10 different defensive situations that great defenders are dealing with constantly,” Carlisle said. “Mid pick-and-roll with a guy coming at you 100 miles an hour, guys coming out of the corner off multiple staggered screens, when you have to go over the top of him and when you can gap those slightly. There are a lot of subtle things.”

d-finney

As Finney-Smith’s aptitude has grown, so too has his coach’s confidence in him. He’s already started more games as an undrafted rookie than any Maverick as far back as Basketball-Reference’s database goes, and that’s while playing for a coach who historically rarely start rookies. That’s concrete evidence that Carlisle believes in him, and that matters more to the player than his own ability, to be sure.

“I know how to be in the right spots,” Finney-Smith told Mavs.com. “But (coach) will challenge me and put me on the best player on their team. For him, or the team, to have that much confidence in me, it just makes me want to go out there and play that hard.”

So you want to be on the opponent’s best player, eh? That might mean having to check Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and so on. Still up for the challenge?

“How can you not be excited to guard one of the best scorers, and one of the best players in the league?” the 23-year-old told Mavs.com. “I take it personal when I’m guarding them. I try to act like I don’t got help out there.”

If Finney-Smith is a sponge, consider him drenched with knowledge from those around him. The Mavs coaching staff constantly shows him film of the best defenders in systems resembling the one the team plays, which often means the rookie studies film of his own teammate, Matthews. With the combination of his talent and that many people not only on his side, but also planted firmly in his corner, the table is set for Finney-Smith to succeed at this level. Matthews, for one, will see to it that his rookie continues to improve, even if they aren’t identical.

“I see a lot of resemblance,” he said. “Just that hunger, just playing, not really thinking about the ins and outs of the league — not knowing the ins and outs of the league — but just knowing that it’s a basketball game, and leaving everything out there every single night. He’s growing, and he’s been a big bright spot for us this season.”

Finney-Smith has been a bright spot, to be sure, and in combination with Matthews, he might represent the Mavs’ best chance at going on a run to get them back into the playoff picture in the West.

Mavs defense plays historically well in 86-75 win vs. Milwaukee

They’ve said it basically ever since the end of last season: If the Mavs are going to win games, they’re going to do it with defense.

And Sunday night we finally saw what they meant.

Dallas limited Milwaukee to just 75 points in an overtime game, the fewest the team has allowed in a game that goes to extra time in franchise history. The Bucks scored just one point in overtime, also a Mavericks franchise record.

“We just got stops,” said Harrison Barnes, who scored a career-high 34 points as well. “Everyone across the board — Justin, Wes, J.J., Dorian and Bogut. We just had everyone coming in and helping us get stops. I think that really is what allowed us to just grind away.”

Simply put, the Mavericks turned last night’s contest into a halfcourt affair. The Bucks have the athletes to push the tempo and play back-and-forth basketball, but Dallas did not allow them to. Of Milwaukee’s 100 possessions, just 10 of them came in transition, per Mavs analytics. And on the Bucks’ 90 halfcourt possessions, they scored just 63 points, or 0.70 points per possession. For the game, Dallas’ 71.2 defensive rating was a single-game best since a November 2014 win against Philadelphia.

“We had a plan, we stuck to it, and then we got down early,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “But we stayed the course, we stuck to it, and we wanted to make these guys have to beat us in the halfcourt. These games get very physical and a little ugly, because it’s hard to get shots. But in our situation right now, this is what we’ve got to do to give ourselves a win.”

There’s a precedent in place for the Mavs to find success in these grind-it-out kinds of games. Dallas was 22-8 last season in games played at a pace of 95.0 possessions per 48 minutes or slower, per NBA Stats, and last night’s tilt was played at a crawling 92.63 poss/48, the second-slowest game of the Mavs’ season.

The Mavericks believe their halfcourt defense is stout enough to withstand almost any opponent, and their defensive numbers in those situations have been on the upswing as of late. Dallas now has the 13th-best defense in terms of efficiency in the halfcourt, according to Synergy Sports, at 0.895 points per possession allowed. Meanwhile, the Mavs rank 28th in transition defense. It’s vital that this team dictates the tempo.

One source of the team’s success last night was rookie Dorian Finney-Smith, who played more than 31 minutes in what was essentially his NBA debut. Before Sunday, the 23-year-old had zero points and one rebound to his name, but by the end of the contest he forced Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo into an off-balance fallaway to win the game in regulation.

Maybe the Greek Freak was going to take a step-back all along. Or maybe Finney-Smith forced him into a shot he didn’t want to take, simply by staying patient. “Just keep the ball in front of me, don’t foul, and contest the shot,” the Mavs rookie said after the game, walking through his thought process on that final play. “I did a great job, he missed the shot, and it forced overtime.”

All together the Mavericks allowed just 53.2 points per 100 possessions when Finney-Smith played on Sunday, per NBA Stats. And this came in his first meaningful minutes as a pro. Not bad for a first impression.

Another was center Andrew Bogut, who put together his most effective performance as a Maverick, scoring just two points but grabbing 16 rebounds and drawing two charges. Through Sunday’s games, no one in the NBA had drawn more charges than the first-year Maverick.

“I think that discourages them, takes them out from what they want to do,” Bogut said. “And if we can clog the lane up and just make things tough defensively, it’s kind of like a pinball effect, where every time they come in the lane they get hit by someone, contested at the rim, or someone’s taking a charge. It gets annoying to play against a team like that after a while.”

Charges also result in a turnover, and Dallas forced plenty of those on Sunday. Milwaukee gave it away 27 times, tied for the most by a Mavs opponent since March 2004. The club is 16-4 when forcing at least 20 turnovers since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, per Basketball-Reference.

If the Mavericks continue defending the way they did against the Bucks, they’ll quickly become a very annoying opponent. And that’s exactly what they want to be.

Welcome to the NBA: From 15th man to fourth-quarter stopper, Dorian Finney-Smith had a heck of a week

Postgame: Dorian Finney-Smith

Mavs F Dorian Finney-Smith dishes on his clutch defense in Sunday night's win over the Bucks.

Just 72 hours ago, it didn’t seem like Dorian Finney-Smith would even soon see the floor, let alone play 32 minutes in a Mavs win. But, as the rookie learned, a lot can change in not much time in the world of professional basketball.

Just how much has changed? Between Thursday afternoon and Sunday night, the Mavs would lose not only a game to Portland, but also superstar forward Dirk Nowitzki for at least a week, due to a sore Achilles. In his stead, Justin Anderson was elevated to a starter. Fast forward to the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against Milwaukee, and it was Finney-Smith guarding the Bucks’ rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo with under 10 seconds left in a tie game.

Finney-Smith went from undrafted rookie, the 15th man, and relative unknown to the Mavs fan base to the rare winner of a game ball, gifted to him by head coach Rick Carlisle after an 86-75 triumph.

“It’s moving kind of fast right now,” Finney-Smith told Mavs.com on Thursday in what would prove to be quite the understatement, 72 hours before things would move even faster. “I’m just trying to learn. I’ve got a bunch of veteran guys on the team, and I’m a rookie, so I’m just trying to be Jello and just absorb all the information that comes from these guys.”

Finney-Smith entered Sunday’s game with just four minutes of NBA experience under his belt in four appearances, having never taken a single shot. When he entered the game with 11:23 remaining in the second quarter and the Mavs down 11, he had one rebound to his name.

But in his 31:44 of playing time, the Mavericks allowed just 53.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. The Bucks shot just 26.1 percent, including 3 of 21 from beyond the arc, and turned the ball over 19 times. Finney-Smith had a game-high plus-minus of +19 and contested a game-high 12 shots.

“Other guys are doing it, too,” Carlisle said of the rookie’s defensive play, “but it’s not a coincidence that the game changed on some level when he was out there. He was big.”

The game changed so much, in fact, that once Finney-Smith returned to the game with 36 seconds remaining in regulation, he wouldn’t leave it again. In addition to defending Antetokounmpo on the last possession, he recorded two steals in overtime. Including the extra period, the rookie played 20:21 after halftime.

“It felt good to know that (Carlisle) trusts me enough to play me down the stretch, to get stops,” he said after the game. “That’s what I like to do. I like to play defense. And he put me in when it mattered, and it just feels like he’s got a little trust in me after tonight.”

Turning back the clock even before Thursday afternoon, Finney-Smith was likely the final Maverick to earn a spot on the 15-man roster. Despite receiving a chunk of guaranteed money on the contract he signed this summer, there was a stiff competition between Finney-Smith and a few other players. When the 23-year-old found out he clinched that final spot, he said he marked the achievement by waking up the next day at 7 a.m. and getting to work.

“I knew the workload was really going to pick up, knowing that I made the team, so I couldn’t really celebrate too much,” he told Mavs.com. “Even though I made the team, now I want to get on the court. It doesn’t just stop here. I want to maximize my time.”

Of course, just a few days later, he’d receive the opportunity to play, and he’d earn the right to keep it, at least for one night.

Now the question becomes what he can do for the Mavs in the scope of this season. Obviously once Nowitzki returns, there will naturally be less minutes up for grabs. But Finney-Smith has demonstrated he can defend both on the wing and on the interior, he can rebound well, and his jumper notably improved over the summer and into training camp, as he removed a hitch and smoothed things out. He’s got a great frame, too, catching the eye of his teammate Andrew Bogut.

“He doesn’t know how good he can be in this league,” Bogut said after the win against the Bucks. “For a young fella, he’s still finding himself and his identity and how he fits in. But he’s got the body of an NBA player. If you build an NBA player, you’d probably give him that body. He’s long, he’s athletic, he’s lean, he can get up and down the floor.”

Finney-Smith might be a dream physical specimen, but so are his teammates Justin Anderson and Harrison Barnes, who scored a career-high 34 points on Sunday night. In addition to Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews, the perimeter minutes are going to be awfully hard to come by for the rookie. Carlisle is not a coach who historically gives rookies much of a leash, as evidenced by his quick pull of Nicolas Brussino in Sunday’s game. (He was replaced by Finney-Smith.)

That likely is not music to Finney-Smith’s ears, but it only reinforces the attitude he’s played the game with for his entire life.

“I never took a shortcut,” he told Mavs.com. “I’ve always worked my way through everything. And to be in this opportunity, to be on an NBA roster and learn from the the best and play with the best, I’m just blessed to be here.”

Game 6: Mavs vs. Bucks

Highlights: Mavs vs. Bucks

Harrison Barnes led all scorers with 34 points as the Mavs outscored the Bucks 12-1 in OT to win, 86-75!