Final: Mavs 101, Magic 76
Luka Doncic has grabbed all the headlines, both written and sung, throughout much of this recent streak. But Dallas did it tonight with a well-balanced approach, scoring 100+ for the 24th time in 25 games this season, despite no player scoring more than 19 points. Harrison Barnes led the way, followed closely by rookie Jalen Brunson, who racked up a career-high 17 points. Brunson once again started for Dennis Smith Jr., and was terrific. He scored 14 against Houston, but he just seemed consistently aggressive in this game, scoring early and often to establish a new career-high for the second straight game. Dwight Powell chipped in with 16 off the bench, and the only other Maverick to even reach double-figures was Wesley Matthews with 10. (Doncic failed to reach double-digits, but he did tally 11 rebounds and nine assists, and likely would’ve become the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double if the game were more competitive in the second half. He still has 30 more days to beat Markelle Fultz, who’s the youngest ever with a trip-dub at 19 years, 317 days.)
While the offense struggled, relatively speaking, the defense was spectacular. Dallas held Orlando to just 36.0 percent shooting from the field, 28.6 percent from beyond the arc, and the Magic attempted just five free throws. (The Mavericks were whistled for just 11 fouls, tied for the fewest in a game by any team this season.) Only three times this season has a team held its opponent below 80 points; Dallas has achieved the feat two of those three times, with the other coming last month against Utah. In fact, the two lowest-scoring games in the NBA this season are by Utah (68) and Orlando tonight (76). So that’s pretty cool.
Maxi Kleber’s talent doesn’t necessarily go unnoticed, but it’s difficult to explain just how important he is to this whole thing. Here’s an attempt, though. The Milwaukee Bucks allow just 39.3 points in the paint per 100 possessions this season, the best mark in the league by a wide margin. No other team is even below 42.0. The Mavericks rank seventh in that area, allowing just 44.4. With Kleber on the floor, however, Dallas allows only 39.7 paint points per 100 possessions. Tonight, Orlando scored eight points in the paint in 14 minutes with Kleber on the floor, per NBA Stats, and on the season opponents are shooting just 49.3 percent at the rim against the second-year pro, which ties for the third-best in the league among players who defend at least three of those shots per game.
He completely shuts down the inside game most nights, and while he doesn’t do it single-handedly, he’s often the main reason why opponents simply cannot engineer layups against the Mavs’ second unit, even when it often sacrifices size in the frontcourt and on the wing. That’s no easy feat. Kleber has been great, and the Mavericks are simply better when he plays. The Mavericks allow just 98.5 points per 100 possessions when Kleber is on the floor, per NBA Stats, the best mark of any rotation player by more than two points. (I know that was a lot of stats, but just trust me: He’s very good at defense.)
Dallas is kinda rolling right now. Since the team’s Nov. 2 home loss to the Knicks (the last time the Mavs lost at American Airlines Center), the club ranks 12th in the league in offense, third in defense, fifth in net rating, and second in win percentage, the most important stat of them all. In that time, Dallas has beaten playoff teams even when missing players like Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr., or Wesley Matthews. The Mavericks are playing some of the best basketball in the entire NBA right now, and yet it still feels like there are very obvious and tangible ways in which this team can still improve. That’s true for 29 other clubs around the league, of course, but the point of this all is Dallas is far from a finished product — Dirk hasn’t even played yet! — and the wins are beginning to stack up quickly. It’s sometimes hard to remember that last season was actually only last season, but the team’s 14th win of the 2017-18 came on Jan. 9. This has been a mighty quick turnaround. Plenty of work remains to be done, but man, this has been a fun month of basketball.
The Mavs (14-11) are at home again on Wednesday, looking for revenge against the Atlanta Hawks. Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m.