DALLAS — All the latest statistical computations reveal the same thickening plot for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference: Dogfight!
Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Minnesota and Memphis are all separated by 4.5 games. Each team can point to one significant key that could put them over the top. For the hottest team in the group, the 23-16 Mavericks point to good-natured and well-intentioned, but not always, ahem, eye-opening center Samuel Dalembert. They don’t ask him for him to be a force, but rather, a consistent presence on defense and on the boards.
“You know, we don’t ask a tremendous amount from our 5-men,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “We ask them to bring what they can bring to our team at their best possible level. For [Dalembert], we need him active, we need him rebounding, we need him screening, rolling; he’s been making free throws. We ask those guys to play to exhaustion and then we’ll get them out.”
Exhaustion is an interesting choice of words.
The 6-foot-11 Dalembert has had something of an issue getting out of bed, already twice punished for oversleeping and showing up late. He’s paid for it by being benched and even losing his starting job for a spell. Dalembert is a starter again, in the lineup the last three games and eight of the last 11 because there are too many mismatches that hurt the hustling (but defensively liable) 6-foot-7 DeJuan Blair. The lanky, 6-foot-10 Brandan Wright is an offensive commodity off the bench, but he’s not a strong defender or rebounder.
“We start [Dalembert] because it’s the best thing for our team,” Carlisle said. “The last three or four games I like what he’s done. His focus has been good. It’s evident what he brings to the team. It’s good.”
Dalembert says he’s dealing with a sleep disorder, but it’s not as if this kind of thing hasn’t frustrated coaches and front office-types at his previous three stops over the last three seasons. Mavs owner Mark Cuban recently said he doesn’t know if Dalembert has a sleep disorder or not, but he’s seen enough know to he needs the big man playing with both eyes wide open.
“I told him he’s All-Star caliber when he’s laying it out there,” Cuban said.
After both oversleeping episodes, Dalembert, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract last summer, expressed guilt and remorse. On Nov. 25, his oversleeping made him late for a morning shootaround and led to a first-quarter benching in Dallas’ eventual 110-96 loss to Denver. Afterward, he somberly offered up this classic, no-pun-intended analysis: “It was a wake-up call for us.”
Dallas sorely needs an engaged Dalembert to compete against the West’s bigger frontcourts. The Mavs are a poor rebounding team (27th in rebound percentage) and are porous defensively (19th in defensive rating, 22nd in opponent field-goal percentage) and sport with a soft perimeter defense that must have back-up from an active rim protector.
The Mavs’ defensive rating is 101.3 with Dalembert on the floor. He owns the second-best individual rating among rotation players behind reserve forward Jae Crowder. With Dalembert on the bench, the Mavs’ defensive rating soars to 106.3, the second-largest jump on the team, again behind Crowder. Dalembert is never again going to be a 30-minute-a-night player. So the 20 he gets — or should get — have to be good.
Wednesday brings a massive road test when Dallas puts its three-game win streak up against the Los Angeles Clippers (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). L.A. has won three in a row since All-Star point guard Chris Paul suffered a right shoulder separation on Jan. 3 in Dallas. The Clippers rallied to win the game behind this combined stat line from power forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan: 50 points (18-for-32 shooting, including nine dunks), 33 rebounds (11 offensive), six assists and four blocked shots. Dalembert started the game, played 21 minutes and had nine points, five rebounds and one block.
On Friday, Dallas plays at Phoenix (9 ET, League Pass). The Suns trounced the Mavs on Dec. 21. Dalembert didn’t start, played seven minutes and Dallas got outrebounded, 45-36.
During Dallas’ three-game win streak, Dalembert has logged a total of 60 minutes, his second-highest minutes total over a three-game span since late November. He’s averaged 5.0 ppg on 58.3 percent shooting, 7.7 rpg with four blocked shots.
It’s all nothing terribly eye-popping. But with Dalembert, it’s all about presence.
“I go by the recent trends and the recent trends are that he’s been ready and he’s been into it and that’s what we need from him,” Carlisle said. “It’s pretty clear. We’ve laid it out to him: We want it simple and do what you do.”