PHOENIX — Consider Wesley Matthews a bit confused.
“What I don’t get is why so many people think we’re gonna be bad,” Matthews said after the Dallas Mavericks‘ morning shootaround Wednesday.
Well, the fact that the Mavs’ two highest-paid players are coming off of major surgeries is one factor, although Matthews accomplished his goal of playing in the season opener and Chandler Parsons could make his season debut as soon as Sunday.
The supposed downgrade at center also surely influenced preseason projections for the Mavs, who let Tyson Chandler leave and recruited DeAndre Jordan, only to have to scramble and deal for Zaza Pachulia after Jordan reneged on his commitment.
Heck, even the Mavs’ winless preseason might have impacted the perception of a team that won 50 games last season but revamped its roster during the offseason.
We could go on.
The conventional wisdom is that the Mavs will probably be on the outside looking in at the playoff picture in the loaded Western Conference, something that has happened only once in the past 15 seasons. The external expectations for the Mavs are as low as they’ve been since folks wondered whether that goofy German kid was a bust and before that big-mouthed billionaire bought the team.
“One website picked us to finish last in the West,” Dirk Nowitzki said after the Mavs cruised to a 111-96 win over the Phoenix Suns, a team many expect to be in the pack fighting for one of the last couple of playoff spots in the West. “That should be motivation for us. But sometimes when you have so many new guys, flying under the radar is not the worst thing.”
One win might not change many opinions, but the road rout over the Suns was nevertheless pretty impressive.
“Just like you expected, right?” Mavs owner Mark Cuban cracked.
Not really, but the opening-night success did give a glimpse of the formula the Mavs need to be part of the West’s playoff pack. Dallas must win with its depth, balance and brains.
The Mavs had as many players score in double figures as turnovers committed (eight). Not bad, especially considering that two of the players expected to be among their top scorers this season weren’t among those eight, with Matthews finishing with nine points and Parsons sporting a circulation-restricting suit on the bench.
“We’re all veterans who’ve been around this game for a while, been on winning teams,” said Raymond Felton, a fill-in starter at guard who led the Mavs with 18 points and dished out six assists. “We know how to play. We know how to win. That showed tonight.”
The Mavs will need point guard Deron Williams to consistently play at a high level — if not return to All-Star form, as Cuban says he expects to happen — to be a factor in the West. He had a good-news, bad-news Dallas debut: An efficient 12-point, seven-assist night cut short by a left knee contusion that isn’t considered serious.
Dallas will need its center rotation to be solid, if not spectacular. So far, so good. Pachulia made a bigger impact than Chandler in the opener, putting up a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double and a game-best plus-26 in 25 minutes. Dwight Powell performed well as the primary backup big man, scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds in 17 minutes.
And the Mavs, whom Nowitzki considers the best-shooting team he’s played on during his 18-year career, must continue making opposing defenses pay with crisp, smart ball movement. The one edge Dallas will have almost every night is coach Rick Carlisle, whose offensive system is proven excellence when executed correctly and unselfishly.
“We’re tough to guard,” said Nowitzki, who had seven of his 11 points during an 11-1 run to open the second half. “If we have eight guys in double figures, that’s a fun way to play. Everybody sharing it, everybody being aggressive and shooting it. We don’t really have one guy that we just throw the ball to over and over and say, ‘Go to work.’ That’s not our way to play. That’s not how we want to play.”
The opener provided a perfect example for how the Mavs want to play. The question is, can they perform up to that standard on a consistent basis?
The popular opinion: No, they can’t.
The opinion among the Mavs: Why the heck not, particularly as they get healthier?
“We all believe in this locker room,” Pachulia said.
Most will have to see it more than once to believe, but the first step of the Mavs’ season couldn’t have been much better.