Stellar Backcourt Makes Mavericks Dangerous
Easily one of the most surprising teams in the NBA to start the season, the Dallas Mavericks have jumped out of the gate to a 4-1 record despite missing one of the best players in basketball in Dirk Nowitzki. With Nowitzki expected to be out for the majority of November, it was clear that the rest of the Mavs were going to have to pick up the slack with the former Most Valuable Player on the shelf.
Stepping in from different squads last season, the two major catalysts to the Mavericks’ surprising start have been shooting guard O.J. Mayo and point guard Darren Collison. The young Mavs backcourt has erupted out of the gate, making life easier for each of their teammates in the process.
Picking up the scoring slack with Nowitzki ailing, Mayo has led the Mavericks by dropping 21.6 points per contest on 50 percent shooting from the field and 63.6 percent from three-point range in five starts for Dallas.
“That’s pretty much our job is to be the catalyst,” Mayo said. “Control the tempo, control the ball, make plays for others as well as ourselves and stay aggressive. We got a lot of size back there, so we try to put a lot of pressure on our opponent offensively and then defensively, play night in and night out.”
Particularly with Collison, who was benched late last season and subsequently traded from the Indiana Pacers to Dallas this past offseason, a resurgence of the magnitude was a welcome sight for the Mavs. After averaging career-lows in points (10.3), assists (4.8) and field goal percentage (44 percent) in 2012, Collison has averaged over 16 points, more than seven assists and shot 56.1 percent from the floor over the first five games of this season.
Before joining the Mavs, Collison got an early start on gaining chemistry with his new team by asking the scouting department in Dallas for film on each of his new teammates. That studious attitude appears to be paying dividends early on as the Mavericks have been firing on all cylinders despite adding nine new players coming into the year.
Spearheaded by Mayo and Collison at the guard spots, Dallas trails only the Miami HEAT in scoring this season, averaging 108.4 points per game despite missing Nowitzki.
“I feel good,” Collison told HOOPSWORLD. “I feel good about our start. I think our offense is flowing very well, guys are paying attention to detail. Not just on the offensive end but on the defensive end. When guys are putting focus on the defensive end, we’re able to get easy points on the opposite end. We got tons of guys that score the ball; it’s only a matter of time before we can start getting this thing full circle. But we’re a work in progress, we still have a lot to work on, but I’m definitely proud of our start.”
Mavericks reserve guard Dahntay Jones, who played with Collison this past season in Indiana, believes Carlisle’s “flow” offense is bringing out the best in the Mavs’ point guard.
“We have different parts here in Dallas and, even though Indiana is a very good team, great organization, I don’t think it was very conducive to his strengths,” Jones told HOOPSWORLD. “The way they play was a little slower then how we play now and playing this up-tempo game helps Darren out a lot.”
After playing with more post-driven big men like Roy Hibbert and David West with the Pacers, Collison has been able to run more often with the versatile group so far this season in Dallas.
“It’s the flow offense and it’s the ability of the bigs to run with him,” Jones said. “When you don’t have bigs that clog up the paint or can’t run the way our bigs can run, it helps him a lot.”
As a tandem, the reason both Mayo and Collison are so crucial to the Mavericks’ plans this year is because of the philosophy Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle is implementing this season. With older veterans like Jason Kidd and Jason Terry no longer with the Mavs, the emphasis in Dallas is on full-court pressure from the opening tip to the final whistle.
Featuring two 25-year-old starters that are both at least a decade younger than their predecessors in Dallas, the onus is on wearing down opponents by playing aggressive basketball on both ends of the floor.
“We understand how important it is to come out and be good every night,” Mayo said. “Start the game well every night and guard our positions then, in the third quarter, come out with a strong stance. We’re still learning and we’re still young so we’re going to make some mistakes but, without a doubt, we’re going to go out there and play incredibly hard, lot of effort, lot of energy and just try to give ourselves a chance to win.”
A key factor in the almost instant on-court cohesion between Mayo and Collison is that the pair already had an excellent rapport both on and off the basketball court. The duo has frequently played pickup games in previous offseasons together and had developed a good relationship off the floor before joining forces in Dallas this past summer.
“Yeah, I like playing with O.J.,” Collison said. “I’ve been playing with OJ for the last two to three summers. He’s a guy that I respect off the court, and vice versa. O.J.’s a guy that continues to work on and off the court, and anytime you see that, it just brings your game up to a whole other level too. He’s excited to play with me, and I’m excited to play with him and it’s only going to be good things hopefully for the near future.”
Even though the Mavs’ new floor general has been playing well, Coach Carlisle is still pushing buttons to try to get the best out of the fourth -year guard. Getting away from keeping his foot on the gas pedal throughout a given contest has been a critique of Collison in the past but is something that both he and Carlisle continue to work on.
“The biggest thing that he needs to do, for us, to expand himself is to keep his motor running all the time,” Carlisle said. “I pulled him in the second half [of Wednesday's game against the Toronto Raptors] because he slowed down. That was the only reason. He slowed down, he stopped pushing the ball, he stopped putting defensive pressure out there and so much of any team feeds off of the energy of the point guard. Categorically he’s not a real talkative, verbal, loud-type of guy but he has strong leadership characteristics. If his body language isn’t right, I’ve got to pull him out of the game and let him know. I got him back in there and he was great after that but that’s where it is. He’s got the skill, good knowledge of the game, he’s into winning, he has a better feel for the guys around him than a lot of ‘so called’ experts think, but it’s work to keep the tempo going. That’s we’re trying to do.
“We’re trying to put that full-court pressure on teams on both sides of the ball and it’s very challenging.”
As far as Collison is concerned, he’s all for the tough love as long as he continues to develop into a better pro. So far it seems to be working as evidenced by his stats, the Mavs’ early record and the fact that he has already produced nearly as many double-doubles (two) as he produced all of last season (three).
“Definitely, he challenges me in every way, every night,” Collison said. “You can’t just have any lapses. He’s going to make sure you’re doing your job at the highest level, and he’s getting it out of me.”
“I’m just trying to look forward for us to get off to a good start every game,” Collison continued. “Try to be the motor of my team and really, as the point guard, I want to win as many games as I can here and I think this organization deserves it.”
After years of the Mavericks organization putting the majority of the burden to win on Nowitzki’s back, the former NBA Finals MVP looks like he has a lot of help in 2012-13. Along with the Mavs’ new backcourt coming out swinging, newcomer Chris Kaman has excelled and players like Brandan Wright, rookie Jae Crowder and sixth man Vince Carter have stepped up with crucial players missing.
For Mayo and Collison, the desire to put the last few seasons of their career in the rear-view has resulted in both themselves and Dallas exceeding even the most lofty expectations out of the gate.
If Nowitzki can come back fully healthy and these two can keep up their solid and efficient play, the Mavericks may be more of a challenger than anyone expected coming into the season.