Is O.J. Mayo the X-Factor in Dallas?
After making the playoffs in 12 consecutive seasons, including an astounding 11-straight seasons with 50-plus wins, the Dallas Mavericks have struggled mightily to start the 2012-13 NBA season. Limping along to the third-worst record in the Western Conference at just 13-22 on the year, Dallas has struggled to forge an identity with so many moving parts joining the fold this past offseason.
During a hot start to the season that showcased many of the new faces in Dallas, it appeared as though the Mavericks would be able to at least survive with perennial All-Star Dirk Nowitzki on the shelf. That thinking simply didn’t come to fruition as Dallas stumbled to just eight wins over the course of their next 22 games before Nowitzki’s return from left knee surgery on Dec. 23.
With Nowitzki gradually integrating himself back into the rotation as he tries to regain strength in his knee and get himself back into game shape, the Mavs haven’t fared much better. In fact, things have actually gone downhill with Nowitzki trying to play himself back into form.
Since Dirk’s return, Dallas has won just one of eight contests and have lost three in a row overall.
Featuring a porous defense and possibly the worst all-around rebounding frontcourt in the NBA, the Mavericks have plenty of issues to try to shore up two months into the regular season. Possibly the most troubling of the Mavs’ issues has been doing something that’s come pretty easily with Nowitzki leading the way – closing out games.
As their 0-7 record in overtime contests this season reinforces, the Mavericks – even with Nowitzki back in the fold – have had trouble coming through in the clutch.
With so many new players, especially those who are on the earlier side of their careers, the Mavs haven’t displayed the veteran leadership that was so prevalent during the glory days in Dallas. Gone are the likes of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, two players who seemingly always made an impact with the game on the line. Especially in Terry’s case, who was Robin to Dirk’s Batman for so many seasons, there hasn’t been anyone with ice cold veins to take, and make, those late game shots next to Nowitzki.
A crucial part in turning their recent late-game misfortunes around is going to be how quickly newcomer O.J. Mayo – who has played superb basketball at times this season – and Nowitzki are able to gain cohesion. A proven NBA scorer who’s averaging over 18 points per game on the season on 45 percent shooting from the field, this shouldn’t be a giant leap for Mayo to undertake. It’s up to Mayo to take up that mantle as late-game closer next to Nowitzki and that’s something that Dallas continues to try to incorporate.
“He’s been great while I was out,” Nowitzki said. “I thought early in the year he had some great games and pulled some out for us. I think we can invent some down the stretch when he had it going, so we’ve been spreading it around some. Certainly once I get my legs back, I’ll get my fair share of balls and try to make something happen. I think we have some options down the stretch. We’ve got to get some stops though, it’s too easy for them, so we’ve got to get better defensively.
“Games are going to make us better,” Nowitzki continued, “end of game situations especially.”
With teams around the league beginning to recognize his strengths and key on Mayo’s weaknesses, the fifth-year player has struggled to find a rhythm in the midst of he and Nowitzki trying to get on the same page. After a strong start, Mayo has struggled over the course of the last 10 contests – averaging less than 13 points per game while shooting just 37 percent from the field.
For Mayo, who is seeing firsthand for the first time in his career the way top scorers are game-planned for on a nightly basis defensively, it’s all about handling that adversity and continuing to learn how to beat it.
“It was a little different,” Mayo told HOOPSWORLD. “Having some double teams, and having situations where they try to trap to get the ball out of your hands and whatnot; it was kind of a first time thing. I struggled at first but I got better and obviously I’m looking forward to it.”
In listening to Mayo, it’s clear that he has supreme confidence that he and Nowitzki have the tools to get this team back in the playoff hunt in 2013.
“We’re really close,” Mayo said of these Mavericks. “We’re right there. Just a mistake, or error, too much, a shot away from winning the ball game or a free throw. A lot of different ways we’re finding to lose but I think we can turn that around. We just have to stay focused and continue getting better.”
Nine games below .500 and nearly seven games out of the final playoff spot in the West as of Wednesday is certainly not where the previously prestigious Mavs envisioned themselves to begin 2013. Even though it looks bleak now, this team has proven players – namely Nowitzki and Mayo – that have an opportunity to right the ship and turn this thing around.
Especially in Mayo’s case, Dallas has played well when the 25-year-old has displayed explosive but consistent and steady play from the field. Now’s the time to prove just how much Mayo can mean to this team next to Nowitzki and to possibly earn that big contract he’s coveting this summer.