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As Luka Dončić returns to form, Mavericks stepping up in new year

Questions about Luka Dončić’s fitness are abating as the Dallas Mavericks’ MVP candidate has put together his best games with the calendar flipping to 2021.
Credit: AP
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) and Willie Cauley-Stein (33) hugs forward Maxi Kleber (42) after Kleber hit a basket in during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

DALLAS — As the Dallas Mavericks wrapped up their eighth game of the season with a thrilling 124-117 overtime victory against the Denver Nuggets, the reports of Luka Dončić’s demise have seemingly been put on ice after a rally from a nine-point deficit at halftime. 

It has been a long two weeks of shaking off the rust for the Dallas superstar, and with each passing game, the lack of training camp becomes more and more of a faded memory.

The return to form for the Mavericks’ MVP candidate seemingly started with the New Year’s Day matchup against the Miami Heat. After having his lowest output of the young season against Charlotte, Dončić responded with his first double-double of 2021 on the first day of the year.

Dončić’s 27-point, 15-rebound performance helped Dallas defeat the defending Eastern Conference champions 93-83 to get 2021 off on the right foot. However, a left quadriceps contusion suffered in the second quarter of that win kept him out of the next matchup as the Mavericks dropped a road contest at Chicago. 

At 2-4 on the year, and with questions swirling about his vigor, Dončić returned to square up for state bragging rights against James Harden and the Houston Rockets. 

The Slovenian sensation played 38 minutes and had his first triple-double of the season and 26th of his career, putting up a 33 point, 11 assist, 16 rebound whooping on the H-Town representatives. 

Dončić led the Mavericks in each category for the night, the 39th such time that has happened in his three years in the league, with the 21-year old setting a new franchise record previously owned by the legendary Dirk Nowitzki.

The Mavs looked to continue the momentum in the Mile High City on Thursday with a chance to even their record while facing Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. 

Jokic is a walking triple-double himself and entered the game averaging 24.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 11.9 assists per contest. It was the Jokic vs. Dončić Show all night, with the Denver superstar throwing down 38 points in 41 minutes. 

The teams traded blows throughout a hotly contested second half before Maxi Kleber nearly won the game in regulation on a last second shot. Nevertheless, Dončić and company finally put Denver away in overtime to move to 4-4 on the year which currently puts them in a three-way tie atop the Southwest division in the West, a designation they share with New Orleans and San Antonio.

With the statement win over a perennial Western power already at full strength, the Mavericks showed the promise of the team that gave the Clippers all they could handle in last year’s playoffs. More importantly, Dončić has turned it up as the return of Kristaps Porzingis grows nearer and nearer.

As Dončić made insane shots, and Kleber made his near-game-winning three with regulation ending, the Maverick bench erupted with support. Even with the pandemic chaos and shortened time to get to know each other, the chemistry and unity that the Mavs stress is evident. 

With the bubble experiment behind us, the pandemic continues. It has affected every facet of our lives, and the Mavericks are no exception. While the team is hosting their games at the American Airlines Center once again, there are no fans on hand. 

The players also have strict protocols to follow and adhere to, and are not allowed to really spend any time outside of their basketball bubbles and their families. Even so, cracks develop in the system. Indeed, late on Friday, word got out that at least one Mavericks player had tested positive for the COVID-19 and two others were to remain in Denver to quarantine. Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Josh Richardson joined the NBA injury report list due to health and safety protocols.

Kleber came to the Mavericks undrafted out of Würzburg, Germany in 2017 and he was particularly aware during the brief preseason that the team has to stick together to get through what is sure to be a difficult season even during the best of times.

“You can already tell everyone is supporting everyone, especially the bench whenever somebody makes a shot… everyone gets hyped. Guys like J. Rich and James Johnson – great vets came here and are helping everyone talk to everybody,”  Said Kleber.

Those vets were the same ones leading the bench mob in Kleber’s big showing against Denver, with everyone throwing up the “Call Me” celebration as Kleber hit big shots down the stretch. 

This will continue to be a major focal point for the team going forward. As we are seeing with the total destruction of the Houston Rockets, organization culture matters. The Mavericks made a point of bringing in players that addressed their weaknesses. Richardson and Johnson brought reputations as tenacious defensive players, but they are also known as good locker room additions, something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.

Dallas lost J.J Barea this offseason – a locker room leader – but the Maverick remained stalwart in their desire to maintain chemistry and that showed with some valuable replacements.

“We are going to spend a lot of time this year as a team,” added Kleber.

“Team chemistry is a big thing because things that we can do are limited. They are making people talk on the court when it comes to defense. They are also trying to help out and tell younger guys that haven’t been in the league that long what to do. It is going to be key to have good chemistry because we are going to be spending a lot of time together as a team.”

Kleber played 36 minutes and shot 42% from the field, including 3-for-5 on three pointers and finished with 9 points, all in the second half. Kleber is now shooting an insane 48% from three point range this season. He does the little things, plays suffocating defense, and doesn’t turn the ball over. While he’s not going to be the second or even third scoring option, Kleber has been making big shots and is starting to really shed the underrated label.

The Mavs now look to close the second week of the season with their third straight win against a surging Orlando on Saturday. The 6-2 Magic will be on their second helping of Texas basketball after facing the Houston Rockets on Friday night. 

Orlando is a surprise in the Eastern Conference thus far, but they also just lost starting point guard Markelle Fultz to a torn ACL on Wednesday. The Magic will turn to swingman Terrence Ross (20.7 ppg, 46% 3P) and rookie Cole Anthony to feed big men Nikola Vucevic (21 ppg + 10.5 rpg, 44% 3P) and Aaron Gordon to continue their hot start. 

Now that Luka is putting together MVP-caliber performances, do you think the Mavericks can ascend in the Western Conference? Share your thoughts with Irvin on Twitter @Twittirv.