First half summary: Triple-double machine Luka Doncic celebrated his 22nd birthday on Feb. 28 at the peak of Dallas’ long fight back into postseason contention, as the team finally returned to .500 the night before the youngster’s birthday with an impressive 115-98 win against the surging Brooklyn Nets. The victory served as a reminder of just how far Dallas had come after it dropped nine of 11 games from Jan. 15 to Feb. 1, in part, due to the league’s health and safety protocols stopping the team in its tracks.
Dallas rebounded from those setbacks, and a pair of postponements brought on by an unprecedented winter storm in February to win eight of its 12 games that month, as Doncic gradually rounds back into Kia MVP form. Doncic averaged 23.8 ppg in December, 28.3 ppg in January and 30.3 ppg in February, despite missing Kristaps Porzingis for the last three games of the month. The Mavs struggled out of the gates due to multiple players — including three starters in Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Richardson and Maxi Kleber — missing extended time in the league’s COVID-19 protocols, along with talented backup point guard Jalen Brunson. The combination of those players finally catching a rhythm after missing so much time, and Doncic’s continued development appear to be key in Dallas trending in the positive direction it’s headed. But it’s worth noting the Mavericks entered the month of March with a record of 11-10 against teams at or above .500 this season and 4-6 against teams below .500. You can’t make the postseason if you’re not defeating the teams you’re supposed to beat.
Biggest question going into the second half: What happens with Porzingis moving forward? A right knee surgery from an injury suffered in the NBA bubble during the playoffs kept Porzingis out of the first nine games of the season. Then, Dallas held Porzingis out three games due to lower back stiffness. In the midst of the latest injury setback, Porzingis also became the subject of trade rumors.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and coach Rick Carlisle have denied the team is interested in trading Porzingis, and the 25-year old recently said, “I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, and I shouldn’t be worried about it. It can only distract me at the end of the day.” He’s certainly correct, but it’s worth pondering how the trade rumors might affect Porzingis’ performance on the court as the season progresses. That’s not even taking into account the concerns about Porzingis’ recent run of bad luck with injuries. The Mavericks are 8-9 this season with Porzingis in the lineup and 7-7 without him on the floor.
Playoffs or lottery?: If Dallas keeps up its current momentum, this team is headed back to the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed in the West. Don’t sleep on the Mavericks, though. They’ll have a legitimate shot to advance past the opening round, and perhaps beyond as the team continues to build the chemistry it has missed through the early part of the season. Dallas entered March having won seven of its last 10 games, and Doncic is on an absolute tear. He averaged 31.1 ppg over his last 10 games going into March on 50.5% from the floor and 45.8% from deep to go with 7.2 rpg and 7.7 apg. During that stretch, Doncic also produced the three best regular-season scoring performances of his career with 46, 44 and 42 points.
Doncic just needs more help from the supporting cast, starting with Porzingis (provided he remains with the Mavericks for the duration), as well as Richardson and Finney-Smith. Backups Tim Hardaway Jr. and Brunson need to come through, too. One issue to keep an eye on during the second half is how well the Mavericks close out games. They struggled last season down the stretch in games, and we’ve seen some of that creep in throughout the first half of 2020-21.
— Michael C. Wright