Commentary

Mavs perform well enough to contend

Halfway point sees West's second seed overcome slow starts, dependence on Nowitzki

Updated: January 29, 2010, 12:01 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

The Jekyll-and-Hyde halves the Dallas Mavericks brought to Boston on Monday night told this club's story through the season's first 41 games.

At times, as witnessed in yet another sluggish start against the Celtics, the Mavericks are as confounding to their second-year coach as they are to their fans. They can appear offensively stagnant and defensively disinterested.

Other times, such as the rousing second half at Boston, Dallas can become a defensive thorn, an up-tempo, high-scoring offense, and give the impression of a deep and well-rounded Western Conference contender.

"The starts are a concern for sure," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "I thought the thing that carried the day was our defense in the second half [at Boston]. We put an attitude and intensity in the game in the second half, and it continued to build. We've got to build on that going forward."

At 27-14, the Mavs reached the season's midpoint by running away from the Celtics 24 hours after absorbing a 22-point torching at Toronto.

Carlisle admits the team hasn't always played as strong as its record indicates. Still, the Mavs have played well enough to occupy, if just barely, the West's second seed. They have beaten the defending champion Lakers in Los Angeles but also lost there by 35. They've defeated Cleveland, Boston and San Antonio (twice) yet lost at home to Washington and Golden State.

They're 11-4 in games decided by five points or fewer, yet three of their past four losses have come by 18 points or more. They have the most road wins in the West yet twice as many home losses as the other West division leaders.

During a challenging 15-game stretch that ended at Boston, the Mavs moved from 12 games over .500 to 13 games over .500. Yet -- forgetting about the West-leading Lakers -- they still lead a pack of 10 teams separated by 5½ games.

"L.A.'s great, but we believe it's a very wide-open situation," Carlisle said. "And we're like 13 other teams looking up at them saying, 'Hey, we've got to continue to get better and get in a strong position to have a shot at them in the playoffs.'"

Dead ahead is a chance to gain some separation in the standings. Dallas plays at Washington (14-26) on Wednesday, at Philadelphia (13-27) on Friday and at New York (17-24) on Sunday.

So who are these Mavs? And which team will show up to start the season's second half?

"We're four games into the new starting lineup, so we're working through some things there," Carlisle said, referring to Josh Howard's return. "It's a great group of guys, and we're at a point now where we want to be able to carry this forward, and that's the challenge."

Here's a first-half rundown of the Jekyll-and-Hyde Mavericks:

MVP: Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk

Nowitzki, who is averaging 25.5 points and 8 rebounds, is playing at an MVP level. He did it again Monday at Boston with a game-high 37 points to propel the Mavs to victory.

Fans around the country who have long viewed Nowitzki as a great shooter but also as a soft European who wanted no part of the paint, seem to have reconsidered judging by All-Star voting. At last count, Nowitzki is second behind Carmelo Anthony. If that holds (starting lineups will be announced Thursday night on TNT), Nowitzki would finally push past Spurs forward Tim Duncan and become a starter for the first time in his career. That's especially sweet with the Feb. 14 game being played at Cowboys Stadium.

"We're going to need for him to have monster games on occasion like he did against Boston," Carlisle said. "But, again, our ultimate success is going to be largely based on our ability to strike a balance between a superstar player and a strong supporting cast. That's another part of our challenge is to get to that balance."

Top newcomer: Shawn Marion

Dirk

To think that if Hedo Turkoglu had not spurned Portland at the last minute to join Toronto, the Raptors would not have freed Marion. The trade for the veteran swingman has paid off handsomely for the Mavs. He's a solid contributor offensively (11.6 ppg, 49.9 field goal percentage), but he's delivered a defensive mindset at small forward that the team just hasn't had. He can checkpoint guards through power forwards. When Marion is teamed with Howard, the Mavs possess two 6-foot-7 quick, long-armed defenders to man the perimeter.

"Marion had some real struggles early, and we had some struggles trying to fit him into what we were doing, but he has been just great in terms of his professional approach and his determination to find a way to be a big-time contributor," Carlisle said. "He brings a lot to all aspects of the game. He's a deceptively good offensive player, and he's our best defender."

Biggest surprise: J.J. Barea

Dirk

The diminutive point guard earned his stripes last season as a reserve with a few heady performances as a spot starter. But no one would have figured that Carlisle could get away with starting Barea on a consistent basis without paying a price defensively.

Yet Barea started 16 games, some while Howard was out and others while Carlisle eased Howard back into the rotation off the bench. Barea has averaged 8.9 points and 3.5 assists in 22.9 minutes a game and, at times, has provided the spark that gets the team going. At less than 6 feet tall, he hasn't been a total defensive liability.

Biggest head-scratcher: Jason Terry

Dirk

Terry is having his worst shooting season since being traded to Dallas before the 2004-05 season. Shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from 3-point range, Terry is well below his typical marksmanship. As the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year last season, Terry shot 46.3 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from beyond the arc.

If he remains at his current levels, Terry will finish with his worst overall shooting percentage since 2002-03 with Atlanta (42.8) and lowest 3-point percentage since his rookie season with the Hawks in 1999-2000 (29.3). Three times in his previous five seasons in Dallas, Terry shot better than 41 percent from downtown. He's still the Mavs' second-leading scorer, averaging 16.3 points, but he's more than three points off last season's 19.6 average.

Reason for optimism

Despite Howard's missing a chunk of the early season and a rash of minor injuries to Marion, Erick Dampier, Drew Gooden and Tim Thomas (and even Nowitzki for one game), the Mavs proved resilient. They've lost consecutive games just twice and have yet to drop three in a row. Howard played in 21 of the first 41 games and has started just seven since coming back from offseason ankle and wrist surgery. His scoring (12.7) and minutes (28.0) are down significantly. Carlisle believes Howard (37.8 percent field goal accuracy) will continue to improve.

"Even though the shots aren't falling at the moment, I like the way he's moving at the moment," Carlisle said of Howard. "He's passing the ball well, and he's making good basketball plays. You've got to stick with it, and things will continue to work their way out."

Carlisle also believes it's a matter of time before Terry finds his stroke more consistently. Dallas ranks 16th in the league in scoring (100.2) so more offense will certainly help the cause. The Mavs also like their retooled bench with Gooden supplying a more physical presence and stronger scoring threat.

"I obviously believe that we can get better, but I don't believe we can sit around and say, 'I like where we are, and we haven't played as well as we know we can, it's just going to come,'" Carlisle said. "It doesn't work that way. We've got to make it happen. The second half [against Boston] isn't that meaningful unless we can build on it, so that's our challenge."

Reason for pessimism

Who knows where the Mavs would be at the halfway point if not for Nowitzki's sensational first half? They certainly wouldn't be holding down the No. 2 seed. And that's the problem. The Mavs are too reliant on Nowitzki to carry the scoring load, an issue he harped on a few weeks ago. The Mavs are 9-3 when Nowitzki scores at least 30 points and 2-5 when he scores fewer than 20. He's led the team in scoring in 30 of 41 games.

The Mavs figured to know more about their potential after the just-concluded 15-game stretch that included the most rigorous portion of the schedule. The Mavs went 8-7, including blowout losses to the Jazz and Lakers at home and Toronto on the road.

"It's unbelievably competitive from a playing and coaching standpoint," Carlisle said. "Hey, that's how you want it. You want it to be tough, you want it to be challenging. If it wasn't, the rewards for winning wouldn't be as great."

As Carlisle has stressed, the Mavs must play focused team defense to give the offense the ability to get out in transition, score easy baskets and put up points at a rate needed to contend in the West. They haven't showed they can maintain such a defensive stance for long stretches.

"Well, I have to be optimistic and believe that we can," Carlisle said. "In the first 20 games this year, we were in the top two or three in defensive points per possession, so my belief is that, yes, it is in us and that we can sustain it. But it's something we've got to put our mind to, and it's something we've got to commit to."

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.