Going into the All-Star break last year the Dallas Mavericks had lost five of their last seven games to sit at 32-30, and Josh Howard had just played his final game wearing a Dallas uniform.
What a difference a year makes.
After their 112-106 victory over the Phoenix Suns, the Mavs became one of only four teams to reach 40 wins before the break, with a record of 40-16, and have won 13 of their last 14. Roddy Beaubois played his second game, and Peja Stojakovic is rounding into form. Trade or not, comfortable at the second seed in the West, there's a lot to feel good about heading into the All-Star Break.
‘DIRK IS BACK': For the first time since his wrist injury, it was not Dirk Nowitzki on the court. It was The UberMan.
Having been needed for only 23 minutes as Dallas cruised to a win over Sacramento the night before, Dirk entered Thursday's contest as fresh as one could be on the second night of a back-to-back.
Embracing the rest, he came out hot and finished the game only after the Phoenix fire department responded to multiple calls to extinguish the flames arcing out from his shot. He would finish the night with 35 points on 13-of-18 shooting, including 3-of-3 behind the three-point line.
"I felt good,'' he said of his wrist and his knee and his everything. "I had a good rhythm early and made a couple of shots early, which usually helps. Over the last couple of weeks I haven't really shot the ball well. I hit my first couple of shots and had a good rhythm out there and kept on attacking."
Not surprisingly, when Dirk checked back in late in the fourth quarter, a two-point lead quickly found its way to seven, as the Mavs surged to a 9-2 run and essentially put the game away.
If you want to nitpick, you can question his single rebound while the Mavs were dominated on the glass for much of the game, though the gap would close in the fourth quarter, when Dallas out-rebounded the Suns 12-to-8 overall, and three-to-one in offensive boards.
"I had that one big rebound, so I feel good about myself," Nowitzki joked self-effacingly.
Yet, this was a brilliant performance from the lone representative the Mavs will send to the All-Star game, and one that should leave a sweet taste on your tongue to savor over the break.
"Dirk is back,'' coach Rick Carlisle summarized simply.
RODDY B, GAME 2: That didn't take long.
In only his second game back from injury, Roddy B got the start at shooting guard in place of DeShawn Stevenson. And, much like the previous night, we were reminded both of why expectations had thrived and of the fact that this is a player who missed the first 54 games of the season.
When he is fresh, the speed is on full display, just as the jaw-dropping athleticism leaps to the eye. Yet, particularly in the construct of the second game in two nights, fatigue was quick to intrude.
It's clear Roddy B will need some time to return to game-shape … which should be expected, and understood. In this game alone, note the five fouls and two easy shots in the paint missed … signs of tired legs.
At the same time, we'll excuse that bit of drool still hanging from your chin.
In two games, Roddy B has played about 40 minutes, scored 22 points, handed out eight assists and five turnovers, and collected four steals.
He has hit 10-of-23 shots, and 2-of-8 behind the arc.
For a guy fresh off of missing 54 games, these numbers tallied at both ends of a back-to-back should satisfy all reasonable expectations.
SICK BAY: JJ Barea missed the game as he fought off a fever, proving that while opposing teams may be incapable of slowing him down, he does suffer the weaknesses of being human off the court.
In his stead, the Mavs went with the dreaded "experiment.'' They let Roddy B play some point guard.
The planet did not implode.
DESHAWN'S A PRO: With the offense growing stagnant and Phoenix making a push in the third quarter, and leading 74-71 with 4:15 to play, it was DeShawn Stevenson who embraced the challenge of giving the Mavs life.
He scored five straight points, and righted the ship in what were turbulent waters at the time.
By the time the period ended, others had joined the push and the Mavs found themselves up 85-80.
Another great sign, being ready and refusing to pout the same night he was replaced in the starting lineup by Roddy B, this was the epitome of being a good teammate from Stevenson. Rather than sink further into his slump, he found footing and did what his team asked of, and need from, him.
We see a lot of this when we look closely. The Wizards knucklehead is the guy orchestrating Vertical Leap Contests at practice … he's the guy wearing an injured Jason Terry's wristband on his ankle as a tribute as he did a year ago … he struts around on those bowed legs and concerns himself with keeping others in the right frame of mind …
CENTURY: Dallas is now 29-2 when the score 100 points … it must please them to see home crowds receive a coupon for a free taco (or to simply ponder the thought while on the road, as they were in Phoenix).
THE CENTERS: Tyson Chandler may have started a little slow with four points and four rebounds at the half, but he would finish with another double-double, number 15 of the season. Dallas is 12-3 in those games.
He would finish with 12 points, including crucial late baskets, and 12 rebounds. (And a nice visit with our Mike Fisher on his contractual future in Dallas.)
The other half of the center duo, Brendan Haywood, had a second consecutive strong performance, though it did come in limited minutes.
Dallas turned to a version of "SmallBall" with Dirk playing good minutes at center that proved to be quite effective, thus limiting Haywood to 11 minutes. But, when he was on the court he again appeared to be locked in and energetic on his way to seven points, five rebounds and a block.
As a duo, the Mavs true centers combined for 19 points and 17 rebounds. They had some trouble with the muscle of Lopez, who frequently ripped the ball out of Mavs' arms. But 19/17? We'll take that.
‘TRIX' TRICKS: Shawn Marion continued his role as an "unsung hero" (Mark Cuban's words) though those watching had to sing when he flew in to block what appeared to be an uncontested reverse-layup for Vince Carter at a critical late-game moment.
We're likely not alone in finding a slight wince when Marion sets to launch a corner 3, as he did in this game (once) – the ball seems to come from his belt buckle with no chance of finding any other metal -- but love when The Matrix is active with cuts into the paint. When the ball is delivered, another Mavs' offensive weapon is unleashed.
Marion finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
PEJA'S PLACE: Quietly, Peja Stojakovic is finding his way. The numbers may not be as overwhelming as his 22-point game against the Rockets, but the fluidity is returning. In 20 minutes, Peja totaled 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting, 2-of-6 from three-point land, two rebounds and two assists.
Over the last three games, he is averaging 14.7 points on 53.3 percent shooting, 47 percent from three, and finding the open spaces plentiful. These stats are carried by the Rockets game, but they remain a pleasant sight.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last season at the break, the Mavs were giving up 99.6 points per game. This year, thanks in large part to the presence of Tyson Chandler, that number is down to 95.6.
Allowing four points less per game is an attractive truth.
*To keep the comparison to 56 games played: Last season the Mavs were 35-21 at this point. They've shown a five-game improvement this year, to 40-16.
QUOTEBOARD: "Let's dust these dudes and head south." - Jason Terry
Check us out for McKinneyDentist.com Quoteboard after every game!
OFFICE SPACE?: A separation of the men from the boys in the West is enclosed in the following Channing Frye quote, evaluating Phoenix' status as a .500 team.
"I think it's fine,'' he said. "That's like the minimum that we wanted. It's like we have the minimum amount of flare, for all the ‘Office Space' fans.''
That is a) a low bar and b) the first time we've ever heard a black athlete reference the movie "Office Space.'' And for no good reason, to boot.
NASH ON BOTH CLUBS: ""We hung around," Nash said. "We just weren't sharp enough. We didn't make enough plays at either end. We had some shots we missed. Defensively, we missed a few assignments here and there. I know I did. It cost us. They (the Mavs) are too good."
MAVSELLANEOUS: For just a moment, this had that Afflalo Affeel to it when Channing Frye banked in a 3 to make it a game again with 17 seconds left. … The number that keeps on climbing: Dallas has scored 100-plus in 12 of its last 13 games and the Mavs are 29-2 when they achieve the century mark. … Phoenix was a clown show when coach Alvin Gentry's team attempted to respond to SmallBall. The featured player? Marcin Gortat, the backup center who was asked to not only guard Dirk on the perimeter, but to also serve as the offensive go-though guy on the wing while positioned against DeShawn. Not Gentry's finest hour here … The Mavericks return to action next Wednesday night when they host the Utah Jazz … The Mavs are now 8-4 on the second night of back-to-backs. Hey, we thought they were too old to do that? … The Mavs have now won eight of the last 10 games with Phoenix … Dallas owns the league's fourth best record (40-16) while having its third most difficult strength of schedule. Oh, those other 40-win teams? That's Spurs, Celtics and Heat – and when Dirk is healthy, Dallas is 5-0 against those three teams.
HERE'S YOUR HIGHLIGHT PACKAGE:
THE FINAL WORD: "It would mean we have one more than 39," Carlisle said before the game of the meaning of getting a 40th win before the Break.
He's half-joking. It means so much more than that.