Final: Mavs 121, Cavaliers 116
Dirk Nowitzki’s climb to sixth place on the all-time scoring list hasn’t always gone as quickly or as smoothly as we might have expected heading into the season. Six points in one game, then nine. Seven, followed by four, followed by two. But, every now and again, his star burns bright as ever and he reminds us all of how he’s pushing for sixth place to begin with. Fifteen points in 25 minutes in Utah, and 15 again in just 19 minutes in Orlando. Tonight, when he exited the game in the third quarter with just four points, needing 14 more to surpass the single-most statistically dominant player in NBA history on the all-time scoring list, no one expected him to return with enough time left to move beyond Wilt. But, lo and behold, Nowitzki poured in 10 points in less than two minutes, coming to within striking distance of Chamberlain, the only player to average 50 points for an entire season. It was a scene reminiscent of the night he reached 30,000 points.
It’s been a long time since Nowitzki has moved past a player on the all-time list — since Dec. 23, 2015, to be exact, when he hit a baseline jumper to overtake Shaquille O’Neal for sixth place. We will have to wait a bit longer to see him push past Wilt, though it certainly won’t take four years, and in fact it likely won’t even be 48 hours. Nowitzki is four points behind Chamberlain, and he’ll likely wrap it up early in the Mavs’ game against New Orleans on Monday night. We’ll save the sappy stuff for when it happens. His 10-point blitz tonight has set the stage for a memorable evening.
It was a career night for Dorian Finney-Smith in more ways than one. The third-year pro scored 14 points, fueled by a career-best four 3-pointers, and added a new personal-best six assists. He was also a team-high +12 on the night in 35 minutes. Finney-Smith has always been a solid passer, but his game has taken a step forward this season when he’s put the ball on the floor. Opponents respect the threat of his jumper, so they typically close out anticipating him to hoist a 3. But when he recognizes a driving lane, he’s quick to attack it. Many of his assists come in this way, as he drives head-first at an imbalanced defense, and usually the only helper slides over from a big man waiting at the rim or from a shooter in the opposite corner. Either way, it results in a wide-open shot for a teammate. He’s also improved at scoring himself off the drive, and added another clip to the highlight reel tonight.
Finney-Smith has only recently emerged from an extended shooting slump during which he shot just 22.9 percent from beyond the arc from Jan. 31 through the end of February. In his last six games, though, he’s shooting better than 39 percent from deep. His performance tonight was particularly impressive considering Luka Doncic’s absence from the lineup due to a right knee contusion, leaving the Mavericks without their do-everything centerpiece. But Jalen Brunson and Devin Harris picked up the playmaking slack to help set the table for their teammates, and Finney-Smith contributed as well; his six assists were third-most on the team on a night when the Mavs handed out 32 as a team.
This was one of the team’s better shooting performances of the season. Dallas hit 45.7 percent of its 3-point attempts, its best mark from beyond the arc since December, and the fourth-highest in any game the team has played this season. The club also hit 13 of its 16 free throw attempts, and it’s a good thing, too — despite opening up a 21-point lead midway through the second quarter, the Mavs ended up needing every point to win the game. They’re now 12-3 this season in games in which they have a true shooting percentage of at least 60 percent, which indicates that when the shots are falling, they’re very difficult to beat no matter the opponent. (True shooting percentage takes into account both the added value of made 3s and also free throw percentage.) This will hopefully level the metaphorical ship for the Mavs’ shooters moving forward, after working through a collective slump. Doncic’s absence hopefully won’t be extended, and if anything, a game off might do him some good just to get a little bit of a break after a few weeks of extremely intense work. Maybe that’ll help him regain his stroke from the outside, too.
Maxi Kleber enjoyed one of the most productive games of his career, recording 18 points and 12 rebounds — his fourth career double-double — off the bench. Per Basketball-Reference, he’s just the sixth Maverick in the last 20 years to go for 18 and 12 off the bench, joining an interesting group of players which includes David Lee, Vince Carter (twice), James Singleton, Keith Van Horn, and Antawn Jamison. Since the trades, the Mavericks have been in dire need of bench production, and though Kleber has played well as a starter, his presence off the pine gave the team a much-needed boost. The German also bagged three treys tonight, increasing his 3-point percentage over the last 19 games into the high 30s and close to 40. His versatility as a 4 and/or a 5 is a great asset, giving Dallas the ability to play big (next to Dwight Powell or Salah Mejri) or small (next to Finney-Smith, or even Justin Jackson or Doncic). He’s proven himself to be a valuable player on both ends of the floor in his two years in Dallas.
The Mavs (28-41) will play the Pelicans at home on Monday. Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m.