DALLAS — How does a last-place team suddenly look so good?
“We’ve just been playing how we’re supposed to play,” Wesley Matthews said after the Dallas Mavericks’ 97-81 win Saturday night over the Oklahoma City Thunder. “If we play that way, we’ve got enough talent and enough skill to win games more often than not.”
The Mavs barely won at all during the first month of the season. Dallas dug itself a 2-14 hole that very well might be too deep to climb out of, in terms of fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. But they sure are putting their shovels to work.
The rout of the star-studded Thunder, whose 8-11 record makes them the NBA’s most disappointing team so far this season, marked the Mavs’ third win over the past four games. Even the lone loss in that stretch was somewhat impressive, as Dallas built a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter before the Boston Celtics staged a rally to extend their winning streak to 16 games.
For better or worse, the Mavs have experience in this sort of situation. They stumbled out of the gate to a 4-17 start last season and managed to give themselves a slim chance of sneaking into the playoffs until being eliminated in April.
“That’s what gave us the hope that if we continue to fight, we can turn this thing around,” said Harrison Barnes, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds Saturday, a couple of nights after hitting a buzzer-beater to sink the Memphis Grizzlies. “But if we gave in and threw in the towel, this can get really ugly. It’s just a commendable job of everyone in this locker room of just continuing to fight.”
Mavs fans and Dallas sports-talk radio hosts can debate about whether these battles are in the best interests of the franchise’s long-term future. Would it be the worst thing if the Mavs bottomed out this season and earned a top-five lottery ticket to pick a potential star to pair with point guard Dennis Smith Jr.? Would it really benefit Dallas to be competitive for most of the season after being so awful for the first month? Aren’t the playoffs still a pipe dream?
Those discussions won’t be had in the Dallas locker room.
“We’ve put ourselves in such a hole that we don’t really have the luxury to think of big picture,” said Matthews, who had 12 points in the win over the Thunder and was a major factor in Paul George‘s poor night (2 points, 1-of-12 shooting). “Our big picture is the next day.”
Added Smith, who celebrated his 20th birthday by scoring 15 points in a win over Russell Westbrook: “Nobody likes to lose. We’ve got a team full of winners. Regardless of what our record says, we’ve got a team full of winners.”
The biggest winner of all the Mavs, of course, is Dirk Nowitzki. He’ll never again return to 2011 NBA Finals MVP form, but the 20-year veteran has played a significant role in the Mavs’ sudden turnaround.
Nowitzki is a team-best plus-59 over the past four games, averaging 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds in that span, shooting 52.4 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from 3-point range. He was plus-26 in only 22 minutes against the Thunder, scoring a season-high 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
“My legs feel stronger. My stamina is better,” the 39-year-old Nowitzki said. “It just took me a while to get going into the season. Eleven games in 18 days didn’t help against a lot of great, great opponents, but I feel better now and I’m going to keep working.”
The Mavs’ other native of Wurzburg, Germany also has played an important role in the recent improvement. Rookie power forward Maxi Kleber hasn’t put up big numbers as a starter (3.6 points, 3.2 rebounds per game), but the Mavs are 3-2 since including him in the starting frontcourt with Nowitzki and Barnes.
Barnes has benefited from shifting back to small forward in the starting lineup, significantly reducing the banging burden on the Mavs’ go-to guy.
“I definitely appreciate him being in that lineup,” said Barnes, who is averaging 20.2 points and 8.0 rebounds over the past five games.
The Mavs still have much work to do to make themselves relevant. At 5-15, they still have the West’s worst record. But they also have their first winning streak of the season and more wins in the past four games than they had in their first 16.
“It is a little bit of momentum,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, “and it is precious.”