Three wins in four games. That’s what the Dallas Mavericks were riding heading into Monday night’s game against the Spurs, a rivalry game they lost narrowly in Tony Parker’s return to the court for San Antonio. For a team that shouldn’t be competing, it’s impressive. While they’re still last in the Western Conference, with a 5-16 record, the Mavs are no longer in last place in the league. Though there are some who want to see the team lose in order to better their odds in the draft lottery, it’s apparent that the Mavs prefer to build on their recent successes.
“We are getting better,” head coach Rick Carlisle said after Dallas’ 97-81 trouncing of the Oklahoma City Thunder Saturday. “We are getting more consistency. We found a starting lineup that works in certain ways. Look, when you have a start like we have had, it’s all about moving a team forward and finding a way to get a few more stops, a few more scores.”
One of the reasons the Mavs are playing better is the consistency of Harrison Barnes. This season, he’s being asked to shoulder the load nightly once again. In the last four games, he’s averaging 20.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists. He’s also getting to the free throw line 5.8 times per game. If there’s one knock on his performance it’s that he isn’t shooting the 3-ball well, only 28.6 percent.
His best game in this stretch, and of the season, came against the Celtics. That night, in a scoring duel with Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Barnes poured in 31 points on 21 shots and went to the free throw line 10 times, making all of his attempts. Barnes had an opportunity to win the game in regulation but came up short. After falling in overtime, 110-102, Barnes was critical of the idea that the team could take something away from its effort.
“At the end of the day, it’s got to show up in wins and losses,” Barnes said after the game. “There’s no moral victories out here. [On Nov. 20], playing against a great team, had a good opportunity to win here in front of our home fans and let that slip away.”
His spirits were markedly different after the end of the following game. Two nights after the loss to Boston, Dallas was on the road in Memphis. Down two points, with 0.5 seconds remaining against the Grizzlies, Dennis Smith Jr. inbounded the ball to Barnes who turned, shot, and banked in a 3 to win the game, 95-94. There were no moral victories that night as Barnes redeemed himself.
It isn’t only Barnes who’s contributing to the recent success. Almost everyone, besides Nerlens Noel and Jeff Withey, is having an impact. What’s more, stalwart veteran and franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki appears to be rounding into form. In the last four games, he’s averaging 13.3 points, eight rebounds, and 2.8 assists while shooting 52.4 percent and 47.1 percent on 3-pointers.
“The last four or five games, I think, I’ve come a long way from the beginning of the season,” Nowitzki said after the loss to the Celtics. “I feel a lot better movement wise, stamina wise. Just trying to be out there and help the guys win some games.”
He certainly helped the team Saturday night. In the Mavs’ lopsided win over the Thunder, the Big German had his best game of the season, scoring 19 points on 7-10 shooting.
The Mavericks aren’t going to quit this the season. That much is certain. The last few games are a testament to that. Even though their record isn’t good, their performances recently are something that they can build upon going forward.
“It can be really tough when you start out with a bunch of losses, and some close losses,” Carlisle said. “But those things have got to be things that strengthen your character and your resolve and they can’t be things that chip away at it.”
Around the locker room, even during their struggles, it’s apparent that the character of the team and the players isn’t wavering. They believe that they are capable of competing with the league’s best night in and night out.
“Nobody likes to lose,” Smith Jr. said. “We got a team full of winners regardless of whatever our record says. We’ve got a team full of winners.”
You can follow Doyle Rader on Twitter at @TheKobeBeef