Dallas is now just half a game out of first place in the Southwest Division and two games out of second place in the entire conference. Meanwhile, at 7-33, Minnesota has the second-worst record in the NBA. Put simply, this is a game the Mavericks should and must win, regardless of the fact that it’s a road game, or that the Mavs are coming off their biggest win of the season, or that it’s a game against a weaker team sandwiched in between top-tier teams like Memphis and Chicago. No excuses.

The good news for Dallas is that even though the game in Memphis was a nail-biter, Dirk Nowitzki and Rajon Rondo both played 32 minutes or fewer. The other three starters all played at least 35 minutes, but Dirk and Rondo should have that extra gear tonight given the day off yesterday.

Although the Wolves haven’t been to the playoffs in nearly a decade, the Mavs have still lost three of their last six away from home in the series. That was when Kevin Love manned the middle for Minnesota. Times have changed, however, now that Love is with LeBron James in Cleveland. Several exciting younger players have taken his place, but at this point Dallas is so much better on paper that the Mavericks should win this game. How can they do it?

Mavs Offense Wolves Defense
Points/100 poss. 110.7 (1) 109.9 (30)
eFG% 52.5 (4) 54.3 (30)
TOV% 12.4 (2) 16.2 (7)
Off/Def Reb% 24.5 (T-20) 72.1 (T-28)
FT/FGA .265 (21) .260 (9)

The Wolves struggle on the defensive end, surrendering more points per 100 possessions than any other club. Minnesota allows clubs to shoot a league-worst 64.5 percent from less than five feet, per NBA.com, more than two full percentage points behind 29th-place Cleveland. The Timberwolves are also bottom-10 in defense from every other zone on the court when divided into five-foot sections (5-9 ft., 10-14 ft., etc) all the way up to 25-29 feet. Their opponents’ average eFG of 54.3 percent is two full points worse than the 29th-place Lakers.

We saw the Mavs take care of business against Minnesota earlier this season, scoring 131 points in regulation and a franchise-record 76 points in the paint. Minnesota’s Kevin Martin, who shot 12-of-17 from the field in that game, is questionable for tonight’s game and has missed some time due to right wrist surgery. So, too, is center Nikola Pekovic. The Wolves’ second-best player the first time these two teams met, Shabazz Muhammad, will also likely miss tonight’s game with a strained abdominal.

This doesn’t mean Dallas will ring up 131 points, but it does mean that because the Wolves are missing three of their top players, the Mavs are primed for an offensive outburst of some magnitude. It’s not easy to score 103 points on Memphis, so if the Mavericks play with that level of precision and execution, this could get fun.

The big matchup to watch is Monta Ellis against rookie sensation Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Wiggins is 6′ 8″ with a 7′ wingspan and possesses tantalizing athleticism, too, with a vertical leap of as high as 44 inches. He’s an unbelievable physical prospect who already plays solid defense. His offensive game has rounded into form, too, but we’ll get to that later. Anyway, Wiggins is such a long player that it’s going to be difficult for Ellis to get going downhill unless Dirk and Tyson Chandler set solid ball-screens to free him up. It’s a mouth-watering battle, to be sure. Ellis is known for his scoring prowess while Wiggins is one of the best young players in the world.

Mavs Defense Wolves Offense
Points/100 poss. 103.4 (16) 99.2 (25)
eFG% 50.3 (T-18) 46.8 (28)
TOV% 16.7 (4) 15.3 (T-19)
Off/Def Reb% 72.2 (27) 27.4 (7)
FT/FGA .276 (13) .292 (12)

The Wolves struggle to consistently connect from the field, sitting 28th in eFG in the league. However, Minnesota is a very good offensive rebounding team — center Gorgui Dieng averages 3.4 offensive boards per game and the Wolves lead the league with 15.6 second chance points per game. Dallas must clean the glass against this club to limit easy looks on extra possessions. The Mavs have slowly been improving on the defensive glass since the Rondo trade.

Slowing down Wiggins is another huge key to victory. The rookie scored just 12 points Monday in Charlotte, but before that he’d scored at least 20 points in 10 of his last 13 games, including a career-high 31 points on 11-of-17 shooting Saturday in Denver. No matter how a good a player is or will become, every rookie is prone to ups and downs during his first season. The Mavs defense must do what it can to slow him down. I’m curious to see if Ellis will defend him or if Rick Carlisle will turn to Rondo or even Chandler Parsons, two longer players who could probably better contest shots. Regardless, don’t be surprised to see Al-Farouq Aminu check Wiggins tonight, as the best way to combat length and athleticism is with length and athleticism.

No team in the NBA attempts fewer three-pointers per game than the Wolves, at 15.3 a night. They convert just 34.3 percent of their treys, too, so the Dallas defense must work to keep that number going. Only Sacramento connects on fewer attempts per game. Since the Rondo trade, Dallas is fourth in the NBA in opponent three-point percentage. Clearly that’s been a point of emphasis for Carlisle and the players all season long, and it’s great to see the effort paying dividends. Only six teams have allowed fewer made threes per game than Dallas during that time frame, as well.

Whether you look at this thing dead-on, from the side, from above, or from below, the Mavs have every advantage there is to have — on paper, at least. Crazier things have happened in this league to be sure than an upset road loss. Dallas can’t simply walk into the gym and leave with a win, but so long as the Mavericks play their game and play with intensity, all signs point to an all-important win for the good guys.

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