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The Mavericks Are Huge, Healthy, And On A Roll

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The Phoenix Suns spent the first half of Thursday night's game in Dallas in control. They led for the entire first 24 minutes save for one single possession late in the first quarter, often built up double-digit leads, and dictated the terms of the game, with Devin Booker and Kevin Durant getting to their spots and making the sorts of tough shots that make them so scary, the sort where it doesn't seem to matter at all who's defending them or how locked in they are. Part of what makes Suns-Mavericks such a good rivalry is that Dallas has a guy like that too, and I fully expected another defense-optional shootout to bloom. Instead, the Mavericks ruthlessly seized control with a 16-0 run and held Phoenix to 50 second-half points en route to a comfy, critical victory. This is something they can do now.

Dallas is the hottest team in the Western Conference at this moment. Buffed-up after the trade deadline, finally healthy for the first time all season, the Mavs have won seven in a row, kicking the crap out of their opponents by an average of 17 points per game. Luka Doncic is playing probably the best basketball of his career, P.J. Washington is so happy to be there that he's on the verge of tears, and the Mavs have emerged as the scariest team in the extremely tangled-up middle segment of the Western Conference.

The win tied the Suns and Mavericks in the standings and gave Dallas the tiebreaker in the season series. That currently puts them into the playoffs, and safely out of what is shaping up to be the most competitive set of play-in games in the short history of the format. Just a game-and-a-half separates the fifth-place Pelicans from the eighth-place Kings, who in turn have three games on the surging Lakers and even more surging Warriors. Two of those six teams aren't making the playoffs, and one of the 5-8 quartet is going to have to defeat LeBron James or Steph Curry in the second play-in game. That's somehow the best-case scenario, as the Warriors are on a rampage and have one of the easiest schedules left in the league. It's going to be a total bloodbath, in short, and while Dallas arguably would have the best player in any potential play-in game, they definitely have the best player in the 5-8 anxiety dungeon.

Doncic was in total control on Thursday, going for an efficient 41-11-9 with three steals. He keyed the 16-0 run by nailing three threes right over Grayson Allen. He also kept the rock moving, and the capacity to do both showed why the Mavs offense is so scary at the moment. There's not a person in the league who can truly shut Doncic down, and the most success I've seen teams have against him this year has been when they get aggressive against him while also mixing up looks. This isn't any easier than it sounds, as it takes a ton of effort to keep nailing rotations after ceding 4-on-3s, and even more talent to toggle between zones, traps, and blitzes consistently enough to actually knock Doncic off his axis. I don't think anyone besides maybe the Wolves can keep that sort of thing up for a playoff series. The Mavs also take and make the second-most three in the league, which is going to happen when you have two ballhandlers as skilled as Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

Somehow, Doncic and Irving have played fewer games together than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard. Irving's been hurt, last year and this year, and though pairing two defensive-negative guards together is risky, the two of them have made it work by playing brilliantly off each other on the perimeter. They can both make every pass and hit catch-and-shoot threes when the other creates an advantage; again, it's hard to imagine a defensive approach that could work against two creators this dynamic. Every lineup combination with both guards scores with efficiency, and though they've developed a sophisticated two-man game faster than expected, the weight-bearing issue was always going to be how the Mavs could defend with both guys on the court.

The answer: get big. P.J. Washington has started at the four alongside Dereck Lively II and Josh Green since the Mavs traded for him, and the three of them give Dallas plus size at four positions (Luka, remember, is huge). Swapping Richaun Holmes for Daniel Gafford means the Mavs are finally free from having to play Dwight Powell, the least coordinated man in the NBA, and getting Maxi Kleber back means they can occasionally play some hilarious jumbo lineups. Last night, they briefly ran out their two star guards with Kleber, Gafford, and Washington. That lineup punished the tiny Suns without compromising their offense, since both Washington and Kleber can shoot threes.

There's a lot to like, in other words. While it matters less than creating a solid structure around him, Doncic is also playing the best defense of his career this year, sitting between ace defenders Dyson Daniels and Gary Payton II on the deflections per game list. He's so big and so good at rebounding that he just needs to not get cooked when defending on the ball to net out as a plus; when he's locked in, aggressive, and playing with a rim protector behind him at all times, you can start to see glimmers of the 2021-22 Mavs team that had the fifth-best defense in the league.

It's a matter of refining their processes and lineups down to their strongest and most essential forms. The Mavs no longer play Jaden Hardy or Powell, just big, nasty defenders, their two star guards, and Tim Hardaway Jr., who remains good for a couple of inexplicable 30-point games per season. It all makes sense, which should terrify every other team in the Western Conference. Nobody's going to want to deal with Luka in the playoffs, although no one ever did. But that task looks much steeper now that you can't just bully his team into submission anymore.

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