Mavericks Back In The Saddle
On one of his patented one-leg leaners, Dirk Nowitzki went down awkwardly on his right knee on Dec. 27 in Oklahoma City and turned a dominant Dallas Mavericks team from a contender into a mess in the blink of an eye. The Mavericks would rally without their injured superstar against the Thunder, holding them to just 12 points in a dominant fourth quarter to make it 17 wins in the span of 18 games and a shiny 24-5 record, but the far-reaching implications were just beginning.
Two straight losses followed Nowitzki’s exit, followed by a season-ending injury to second banana Caron Butler — who would need surgery on a torn patella tendon in his right knee. An injury-riddled Mavericks team would go on to lose seven games as Nowitzki sat out for a career-long nine contests. Nowitzki finally returned Jan. 15 — albeit noticeably not at 100 percent — and the team went 1-3 in a stretch where it appeared both Nowitzki and the Mavericks as a whole were trudging through quicksand on the court.
"The problem was I was out for three weeks and when I came back I couldn’t right away have the impact that I usually have," Nowitzki said after the Mavericks remained undefeated against the Bobcats with a 101-92 victory in Charlotte Saturday night. "My leg wasn’t right, I wasn’t moving right so I didn’t have the impact on the game that I usually have."
In the nine contests before Nowitzki returned, Dallas struggled on both ends of the court without it’s superstar, averaging just 91.5 points points per game while allowing 97.4 points per — a nine point turnaround from the team’s 3.1 point differential for the season. The Mavericks allowed three straight teams to score 100 points or more for the first time all year in the midst of a season-high six game losing streak as Nowitzki’s value proved to be more than just a matchup nightmare on the offensive end.
"When I went out, and I never thought this would happen, but our defense got worse," Nowitzki said. "I guess once we didn’t score as much offensively it automatically puts you in transition all the time and the defense didn’t have a pep in our step anymore."
Fast forward two weeks and both Dallas and Nowitzki are back to playing their best basketball of the season. Nowitzki is averaging over 25 points per game on 62 percent shooting over the last five contests, spearheading a Mavericks’ offense that has scored at least 100 points in seven straight games — the longest such stretch this season — in the midst of an eight game winning streak. At 35-15, Dallas is 20 games over .500 for the first time all season and have vaulted past the Los Angeles Lakers to regain the second slot in the standings of a brutal Western Conference.
"I feel like our swagger is back that we had in November and December," Nowitzki said. "We’re moving the ball and we’re going back to playing defense again."
This is a direct result of a renewed continuity and chemistry for a Dallas team that had multiple players in and out of the starting lineup for the better part of a month. While Nowitzki’s return signaled the start of the Mavericks rediscovering their early season form, it took time for the team to get back on the same page.
"It takes time to gel, it takes time to get over those injuries," said Tyson Chandler, who also missed some time during the Mavs’ rough patch. "We’re starting to trust one another again, we’re starting to get on a roll and those opportunities that were there at the beginning of the season are starting to present themselves again."
Jason Terry, who’s been in a Mavericks’ uniform longer than anyone sans Nowitzki, believes the injuries and subsequent losing stretch has actually made Dallas a stronger team.
"Chemistry is a big part of our success," Terry said. "Going into training camp we had great chemistry, but through a long season something is going to mess up your chemistry. Whether it’s injuries, whether your not shooting well or maybe your in a little slump defensively. For us it was injuries.
"I think we’ve grown from that," Terry continued. "We’ve learned a lot about ourselves through those tough times."
Time will only tell if the Mavericks are on the same championship-level that they were earlier this season, but perhaps Mavericks’ forward Shawn Marion characterized the trials and tribulations of an 82-game regular season best:
"It’s a long ass season," Marion said. "There’s going to be some ups and downs… you’ve just got to bear with them."
As with every contender in the NBA (aside from maybe the San Antonio Spurs), the Mavericks have seen their share of ups and down as the All-Star break creeps closer. But with a relatively soft schedule ahead (four of next five games against Cleveland, Sacramento and Houston) and Nowitzki back to MVP-form, it’s likely Dallas has more "ups" in store for the foreseeable future. Possibly even for the rest of the regular season and beyond.