DALLAS — Coach Rick Carlisle referred to the process of JaVale McGee becoming a regular part of the Dallas Mavericks rotation as a “slow burn.”
That was before Friday night’s 97-88 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. If McGee’s performance was a sign of things to come, that process will start to sizzle real soon.
This was the kind of outing the Mavs hoped for when they signed McGee to a partially guaranteed, two-year minimum contract this summer. He packed a lot of impact into his season-high 18 minutes, scoring 10 points, grabbing 5 rebounds, blocking 3 shots and frustrating Memphis low-post monster Zach Randolph with his long-armed, big-bodied defense.
“He made a huge impact on the game, really at both ends of the court,” Carlisle said after the Mavs outscored the Grizzlies by 20 during McGee’s time on the floor. “He’s got really unusual length for a guy like that and he’s got great athleticism, too. Look, he’s worked hard. It’s taken a while. We’ve got to be a little bit careful about how long we play him in terms of stretches of minutes. We can’t go more than six or seven minutes [at a time] with him, but he was one of the big differences in the game.”
Zaza Pachulia, who posted his 15th double-double of the season with 10 points and 18 rebounds, has been a godsend for the Mavs as a starting center after DeAndre Jordan jilted Dallas in free agency. McGee has the potential to be a perfect complement to Pachulia.
When he’s well, McGee excels at the facets of the game that aren’t the ground-bound Pachulia’s strengths: finishing above the rim and blocking shots. The springy 7-footer can completely change the dynamic of the Dallas offense by being the kind of vertical threat Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright were in the past and the Mavs envisioned Jordan would be in the future.
Four of McGee’s five baskets Friday were dunks, including a few alley-oops. Pachulia, by comparison, has five dunks all season.
It’s not just about filling up a highlight reel. That lob threat changes the way defenses play the pick-and-roll, creating space for the Mavs’ playmakers and shooters to roll. It’s no coincidence Chandler Parsons had a season-high seven assists — including two feeds to McGee for rim-rattling finishes — when McGee played his most minutes with the Mavs.
“I love Zaza, first of all,” said Parsons, who stuffed the box score with 16 points and seven rebounds in addition to his assists. “He’s been unbelievable for us and played great tonight, too, but [McGee is] the type of 5-man I’m used to playing with, playing with Dwight [Howard], playing with Tyson, playing with Brandan Wright. It’s a game-changer for us. The way he sets screens and rolls and having that lob threat is a whole other part of the game that we’ve been missing.
“I threw him a horrible alley-oop tonight and he still caught it and almost finished it. He’s a freak. It makes everything so much easier and loosens up the defense on pick-and-rolls. It really opens up the game to play with him.”
There were no guarantees McGee would even play a minute after complications from stress fractures in his leg limited him to a total of 28 games the previous two seasons. The Mavs provided themselves insurance by structuring the deal on a pay-as-they-go basis.
There was, however, a lot of hope after a medical breakthrough in McGee’s case following his March buyout from the Philadelphia 76ers. Doctors discovered he had anemia, McGee told ESPN.com, and the lack of iron in his blood was preventing the stress fractures in his leg from healing.
“I had to change my diet a little bit,” McGee said. “I’m not really a big red-meat-eater, but they told me I had to eat at least a steak a week.”
The downside of the diet change is McGee added unwanted bulk, adding to his conditioning challenge after sitting for most of the last two years.
He wasn’t cleared to fully practice until after training camp and didn’t make his season debut until Nov. 22, so McGee is still in the process of shedding weight and getting in shape, a factor in Carlisle opting not to play him in five of the Mavs’ previous eight games. McGee weighs 270 pounds now and wants to get down to 255 or 260. He figures he’s operating athletically at about 90 percent capacity now, but he hasn’t had any issues with his surgically repaired leg.
“It feels pretty good at this point right now,” McGee said. “I’ve got to keep getting conditioned and rehabbing and stay positive.”
His performance against Memphis isn’t the finish line for McGee. But it might be a launching point.
“Listen, JaVale by no means has arrived,” Carlisle said. “This is one really important game.”
McGee can be one really important piece to the Mavs’ puzzle.