On February 11, just before the All-Star break, the Mavericks suffered about as painful and frustrating a regular-season loss as can befall a team. The visiting Hawks swiped a road win after two costly O.J. Mayo turnovers in the final 30 seconds, an air-balled Elton Brand layup, and some painfully listless transition defense from the Mavs. Bernard James started, and Mike James barely played. Dallas was 22-29, looking old, slow, discombobulated, and basically done for the season. The locker room was morose afterward, and even the most optimistic Mav would have admitted that the playoffs were a crazy long shot.
I mentally wrote off the Mavs that night, as the All-Star break approached and a bunch of Dallas players and staff prepped to board a private plane for a vacation in Mexico. Then I showed up for practice the next day with the media horde, and we found ourselves waiting a very long time — much longer than usual, and much longer than planned that day — for Rick Carlisle and the team to emerge from practice. The team's media staff apologized and explained Carlisle was putting the Mavs through an extensive and cranky film session, focusing mostly on how Dallas failed to get back on defense against the speedy Hawks. The film session lasted more than an hour, and the Mavs came out the next night and blitzed a hapless Kings team before heading off for the All-Star break.
And that, really, has been the Mavs this year: They just work, and work, and work. They've understood the long odds against them over the last six weeks, but this is a veteran group that views basketball as a job over which they can gain the smallest bit more mastery every single day. The results across three or four different cities might not go their way every night, but the Mavs will grind away at their own basketball process.
They're 10-4 in their last 14 games, now sitting just one game behind the Lakers in the loss column heading into a three-game stretch that will determine whether the bearded Mavs can work their way into an improbable playoff berth. Dallas hosts Indiana and Chicago, two tough Eastern Conference defenses, before heading to Los Angeles next Tuesday for a crucial game against the Lakers — a chance to even the season series and put the tiebreaker back in play. "We are trying to be the greatest comeback story since Lazarus," Carlisle joked during a phone interview this week with Grantland.
Carlisle has been unusually ornery this season, and he admits this strange campaign has taken a toll on him. He threatened to suspend players for lack of effort in late December, has publicly called Darren Collison a career backup, been very slow to trust Brandan Wright, and struggled to find any workable front-line combination. The Mavs are one of just two teams without a single five-man lineup that has logged even 200 minutes all season, per NBA.com; Toronto is the other such team, and the Raptors have experienced both types of trauma that typically lead to such lineup inconsistency — major injuries and a major trade. Dallas has experienced only the injury half of the equation, though missing a centerpiece like Dirk Nowitzki for 29 games almost counts double on the injury front.
"Man," Carlisle sighs, "I'd really like to have a quarter for every time I walked into a staff meeting and said, 'So, who are we going to start tonight?'"
This is not how Carlisle, or any coach, likes to function. Carlisle prefers order, especially when it comes to his playing rotation. "In 2011, I could write our rotation down on a note card almost to the minute," Carlisle says. "I could just go out there and call out names on cue. But this year, we go day-to-day around here. Shoot, we were starting Bernard James at one point."
James is out of the rotation now. The other James — Mike, living at a nearby hotel — has displaced Collison as the starting point guard, even though he's shooting just 37 percent and barely gets to the rim. (Shooting 40 percent from deep almost makes that ugly 37 percent mark irrelevant, since 3s are more valuable than 2s, and nearly half of James's shot attempts have been triples.) Chris Kaman comes and goes, and even Brand suffered a DNP–coach's decision last week. (Brand apparently did nothing wrong; the benching is part of the team's plan to keep him fresh, a plan that also includes easing up on his practice time.) Dominique Jones started three games, got waived, and is now playing for the Nets' D-League affiliate. The lineup Carlisle started in Tuesday's stirring overtime win against the Clippers had appeared in just three prior games for a total of about 30 minutes, per NBA.com.
Carlisle even tried to increase team discipline and professionalism by implementing a midseason dress code for flights after games. He told players to wear slacks and shirts instead of team gear or sweats, a team source confirms. Carlisle has since relaxed the dress code after players grumbled about it.
In other words: It has been a trying year, but the Mavs are somehow in the thick of it. "It has been very, very challenging," Carlisle says.
The basic big-picture explanation for the Mavs' resurgence is pretty simple, and the simplicity is discouraging in a way: They are scoring like gangbusters again, mostly by taking better jump shots — and more jumpers in general — and hitting a frighteningly high percentage of them. The discouraging part comes when you start thinking about the sustainability of a 45.9 percent mark on corner 3s, and about how the Mavs, even during this uptick in play, haven't figured out things on the other side of the ball.
The Mavs during this 14-game stretch have scored 109.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would trail only Miami and Oklahoma City for the season. They've crept into the no. 10 spot in the overall points per possession rankings, and they've been a solid top-10 scoring team when Nowitzki is on the floor, per NBA.com. During this 14-game stretch, they've attempted about two more 3s per game than their overall average, and they're shooting a blistering 41.2 percent from deep — including that nutty 45.9 percent figure on short corner 3s. Almost the entire jump in raw 3-point attempts have come via those easier corner tries; the Mavs attempted only about 4.5 corner 3s per game before this 10-4 stretch, but they've upped that number to a robust 6.1 per game during it, according to NBA.com.
Their midrange attempts have held steady, and they're shooting those more accurately, too.
The glass-half-full folks would note this is precisely what we'd expect from a team getting a healthy and frisky Nowitzki back into a groove. The Mavs have been posting up a bit more during this stretch, per Synergy Sports, and scoring more efficiently from the post — a Nowitzki trademark. That one-legged fall-away, the most viscerally appealing shot in the league, is finding the basket again. And an active Nowitzki — a threatening Nowitzki — just opens things up for everyone else. Point guards can get into the lane more easily running pick-and-rolls with Nowitzki, since the big guy guarding Dirk will often be afraid to leave him, even for a second, to contain penetration. Collison and James aren't skilled penetrators, and Collison's tendency to pull up from 20 feet even with open space in front of him has been maddening. But he's shown a bit of off-the-bounce aggression lately, and it doesn't take much penetration to suck in a defense and open up those corner 3s.
Mayo and Nowitzki have developed a nice two-man chemistry, especially out of Dallas's flow pick-and-rolls, and Mayo has made a leap as a playmaker. Nowitzki has long been a skilled inside-out passer, both out of post-ups and when he slips screens on pick-and-rolls, and the Mavs have gradually entrusted Wright to do more of this sort of passing. Wright has even been facilitating from the elbows now and then, and he's become quite good at cutting hard to the rim after briefly pausing to set a high screen, catching on the move, and dishing to a player on the perimeter.
And Nowitzki's skill as a passer helps him work as a middleman for Collison, spurring some give-and-go cutting action when Collison can't or won't dribble into the lane on his own:
It's fair to ask if Carlisle should have gone to the Wright-Nowitzki pairing sooner. The Mavs have outscored opponents by a stunning 15.5 points per 100 possessions in their 249 minutes played together, and no other big-man combination — Nowitzki–Shawn Marion, Nowitzki-Kaman, Nowitzki-Brand — has experienced any long-term two-way success. Carlisle and his staff would counter that the happy Wright-Nowitzki numbers stem in large part from how cautiously the team has used that combination. The coaches worry those two can't survive defensively and on the glass for extended minutes, especially since Wright is still so skinny. "That tandem is going to be more effective against the less physical and less rugged teams," Carlisle says. "But now we're playing them against everybody. Brandan is going to have to use his quickness and create leverage [in the post] by bending his knees and blocking guys out. They just have to be resourceful and find a way to get it done out there."
The bad news: Only the Wizards attempt fewer shots from the restricted area, and the Mavs' attempts from there have actually dropped during this 14-game stretch, per NBA.com. (They've been making those attempts more often, though.) The Mavs have also stopped getting to the line after ranking as a middle-of-the-pack team for most of the season; over these impressive 14 games, the Mavs have earned free throws at a rate that would rank 28th for the season, ahead of only the charity-phobic Sixers and Magic, both on pace to set a league record for fewest free throws per field goal attempt.
In other words: If the jumpers stop falling, the Mavs could be in trouble. This is especially true of crunch time, since the other sub-story here is that the Mavs have morphed back into crunch-time juggernauts after spending much of the season as one of the league's worst "clutch" teams. They're 7-2 with a monster positive scoring margin since the end of February in games in which the scoring margin has been within five points at any time in the last five minutes, after floundering in such games for the bulk of the season. That trend culminated on Tuesday against the Clippers, when Mayo sank a tough buzzer-beating layup to send the game into overtime, when Nowitzki took over.
None of this is bad on the surface. The Mavs won the 2011 title shooting 3s, barely getting into the restricted area, and outplaying the league in crunch time. But their long run of crunch-time success ended after that championship as the roster surrounding Nowitzki got worse, and luck will always play some role in clutch performance. No team can count on 40-plus percent shooting from deep over the long run. A few more touches for Dirk would help, but it's clear this group of Dallas guards is just going to miss two or three passing windows to Nowitzki every game — windows NBA defenses close up in a split second.
The 2011 Mavs had a top-shelf defense to fall back on when the shots dried up — or during those precarious stretches when Nowitzki rested. These Mavs don't have anything close to that sort of defense, and that hasn't changed of late. Dallas during this 14-game stretch has allowed 105.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank 24th overall for the season. Even combinations that seem like they should work defensively — a Nowitzki-Brand-Marion front line, for instance — have hemorrhaged points, and it's very difficult to build an above-average NBA defense if Collison and Mayo play heavy minutes at the guard spots without an elite rim protector playing 35 minutes behind them.
The Mavs have certainly tried, by rotating in every thinkable combination, giving heavy minutes to Jae Crowder — even though Crowder's inconsistent shooting cramps Dallas's spacing — and working in the occasional zone defense. Carlisle has also changed the team's standard pick-and-roll coverages on the fly, adding Dallas to the list of teams that try to send all side pick-and-rolls to the baseline instead of having their big men hedge hard and/or chase those ball handlers out toward midcourt.
Nothing has really worked yet on defense, but the sample sizes on many of these lineup combinations are small, and Carlisle and Monte Mathis, the team's defensive coordinator, will keep tinkering. "I don't like the whole mad-scientist routine," Carlisle says. "But sometimes finding the recipe for success is going to be more challenging."
The odds are still a bit against Dallas, given their one-game deficit, Utah's having already cinched the tiebreaker over the Mavs, Utah's home-heavy remaining schedule, and two remaining games against Denver after these next three toughies. And the Mavs, without a major defensive improvement, have little chance of making any real noise against San Antonio or Oklahoma City — even if they do usually play those teams close. But the Mavs won't stop working until it's really over.