Rick Carlisle used words like “engine” and “goose bumps” and he wasn’t talking about J.J. Barea’s 20 points or Dirk Nowitzki fine all-around game or Maxi Kleber’s blocks and energy.
All of that helped contribute to the Mavericks’ surprising 98-93 victory over the Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors Tuesday night.
But none of it was what the Mavericks viewed as the two essential keys for the win – or for any other victories they hope to come up with in the future.
Rookie Dennis Smith Jr. came out with the kind of force that Carlisle and Maverick fans should fall in love with – and demand to see on a regular basis.
His fellow starter in the backcourt, Wesley Matthews? All he did was limit Toronto’s high-scoring DeMar DeRozan to eight points and 3-of-16 shooting. What kind of challenge is that?
Consider that DeRozan earlier in the day have been named Eastern Conference player of the week and that he had averaged 31 points over the Raptors’ last five games – all victories.
Against the Mavericks? He never got rolling, and Matthews was the player spending most of the time guarding Toronto’s all-star.
“Wes has an iron will to make it as hard as possible on these great players and it took a lot out of him,” Carlisle said. “He expends so much energy defensively that his shooting was out of rhythm. But he understood the importance of keeping DeRozan at some kind of reasonable number. You don’t beat this team without a guy like Matthews to make it hard on DeRozan.”
And as for Smith? The rookie had missed six games with a hip/groin injury and the Mavericks went 1-5. In the seven games before he went out, they were 4-3. They are 2-2 since he returned to the lineup.
Detect a correlation?
And the job he did at the start of Tuesday’s game set a tone that the Mavericks had no choice but to follow.
“Smith was in a constant attacking mode,” Carlisle said. “He pushed himself to a level tonight that gave our team goose bumps to watch. And it’s hard. It’s so much work and requires so much energy and will. But tonight convinced me that this kid is going to be a great player.
“Those two guys were the engines to the win.”
Smith and Matthews won’t get any respect from fans if all they look at is their statistical line. They combined to shoot 5-of-23 from the field.
But there is far more to this game than putting the ball in the basket.
Matthews in particular has had a hard time getting respect from Maverick fans, judging from the email boxes and online chats that allow fans a chance to vent.
But his shooting numbers (38 percent from 3-point range) are virtually the same as they were in Portland his last few seasons, and he was a fan favorite there. Here? Not so much. Whether it’s the team’s record or his contract or whatever, he understands it.
“It’s their constitutional right to feel however they want to feel about me,” Matthews said. “It’s my constitutional right to really not give a damn. I don’t really care about the negativity. I know I’ve gotten some. But I give my all to this team, to this organization – on the court, off the court, whether my shot is falling or not.”
And Matthews also knows that Smith is a major cornerstone for the future of this franchise. A game like Tuesday showed why. Smith helped control the game with his fearless attacks to the rim.
“He got the wheels going and that’s what he has to do,” Matthews said. “When you have a talent like that, you have to utilize it. There’s no sense in having a Ferrari and driving slow.”
Said Smith: “It’s about being fearless, go in and take the hits. That’s what I’m supposed to do – attack, whether they are there or not. I talked to coach about getting back to doing what I do. And when I’m attacking early it sets everybody else for easy shots. It gets everybody into a rhythm. And I think it makes them play harder.”
Smith also said he had a “perfect” statistical line.
“We won the game,” he said. “I did what he (Carlisle) wants me to do. I got back to it tonight.”