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COVID-19 concerns stop Dallas Mavericks in their tracks just as they were heating up

The Dallas Mavericks have a winning streak and the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, but COVID-19 has cast a cloud on their immediate future.
Credit: WFAA

The Dallas Mavericks had quite the weekend.

After a hard-fought overtime victory in Denver on Friday night that saw Luka Dončić back in MVP-caliber form after early season struggles, the team flew back to Dallas for a Saturday matchup against the Orlando Magic. The problem was, the flight home had some notable omissions. 

The team announced late Friday that Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Jalen Brunson would need to stay behind in Colorado and quarantine due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. 

Without two starters and their backup point guard, the Mavericks' roster depth would be put to the test for the foreseeable future. In the post-bubble year, and one in which players and staff are tested multiple times a day, the new normal is to be ready for a quarantine that can strike at any time and in any city.

The absences were noteworthy as Richardson and Finney-Smith are arguably the team’s best defenders, and Brunson had just stepped in for an ailing Dončić to light up the Bulls for 31 points at the beginning of the week.

Missing a quarter of their usual active roster, the Mavericks turned to their Michigan Wolverine backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. for offense and Hardaway Jr. looked unstoppable, finishing with 36 points (8-13 3FG), 5 rebounds and 2 assists in 40 minutes in a 112-98 victory over Orlando. 

The scoring surge was Hardaway Jr.’s highest as a Dallas Maverick and Burke himself finished with 29 points, including a near-perfect night from three-point range (7-8). Burke also contributed 4 assists and connected on the second-most three-pointers in an NBA game in his career. When Dallas needed their depth to come through, they delivered.

Rookie first-round pick Josh Green and the offseason-signed Wes Iwundu were entrusted to fill rotation minutes and focus on the defensive effort. Iwundu in particular received rave reviews for his performance from head coach Rick Carlisle.

“Iwundu did a tremendous job off the bench,” Carlisle said. “I don’t know if he scored a basket, but he’s plus-17 and he chased [Terrence] Ross around, who’s really a deadly weapon for them off the bench. He deserves a lot of credit for this win.”

Dončić continued to be Dončić, finishing the game with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. It marked the 25th career 20-point triple-double in his third year in the league, which allowed him to pass Elgin Baylor (24) for the 12th-most 20-point triple-doubles in NBA history.

Carlisle believes Dončić is back on track after getting his legs under him during the season’s first two weeks. 

“He was really dialed in,” Carlisle appraised. “He understood exactly what the situation was; he knew this was a game where we couldn’t have a lot of slippage or lose possessions. He set the tone. That’s the sign of a guy who’s a great leader on a team.”

With the win over Orlando, Dallas reached a winning record (5-4) for the first time in the 2020-2021 season, and they now sit alone atop the Southwest division in the Western Conference. The victory gave the Mavericks a three-game winning streak and their fourth win in five tries since the calendar turned to January.

The twists and turns of the weekend continued as more breaking news soon followed. With the coming weeks appearing unsteady for the Mavericks after losing most of their core to health and safety protocols, the cavalry appeared set to arrive.

Starting forward and Dončić running mate Kristaps Porziņģis looked ready to make his season debut for Dallas on Monday against New Orleans. Porziņģis was last seen averaging 23.7 points on 52% shooting from the three-point range last August in the playoffs against the Clippers.

After offseason knee surgery, Porziņģis had been practicing and building up strength for a mid-January return. 

Porziņģis’ timeline was perhaps accelerated by a few days with many of the Mavs missing in action, but even with the news, in the post-bubble NBA life, plans can change at a test’s notice. 

Just as Dallas was playing their best basketball with one of their best players set to return ahead of an anticipated matchup on Monday against Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans, COVID-19 put the team in stasis. 

As the Mavs prepared for a divisional showdown, another gut punch arrived as it was announced that recent unsung hero Maxi Kleber, who played heavy minutes in the wins over Denver and Orlando, would be placed in quarantine as well after testing positive for COVID-19.

Due to the absence of Kleber and several others, the Mavericks were designated as unable to field a required eight-man roster and Monday’s game against the Pelicans was postponed. Dallas is next scheduled to play Wednesday evening in North Carolina against the Charlotte Hornets, but that game could be in jeopardy as well.

After a safe, but secluded, bubble experience in Orlando for the playoffs last summer, many wondered why the league would not try and recreate that experience for this season. While the bubble protected players and staff, it also required extended periods of time in isolation, with the players unable to see their families. 

The reality is that most teams and players did not want to pursue that avenue again, and with the exposure to the risk comes the eventuality of positive cases throughout the league this year. 

The NBA schedule for the 2020-2021 league year was released with this in mind: it is currently only official through March. 

The Mavericks' situation will unfortunately be seen league-wide as the year progresses, but the hope remains that contact tracing and rigorous health and safety protocols enacted by the league will keep the cases and postponements to a minimum.

Do you think the Mavericks will be able to weather the coming weeks? Share your thoughts with Irvin on Twitter @Twittirv.