Through a myriad of trades and free agent signings, the Mavericks and Knicks have become an unlikely, yet very closely linked, pair in recent years. It all started in 2019 with the blockbuster trade that sent the disgruntled Kristaps Porzingis, along with Tim “Timmy” Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, and Trey Burke to Dallas. Then the Mavericks followed that up by signing former Knicks Theo Pinson, Reggie Bullock, Frank Ntilikina, and Kemba Walker in recent years. And it was all topped off with the Knicks prying away now former-Maverick, Jalen Brunson from them last summer.
But it isn’t just the players that are currently linking these two teams. While the roster construction and style of these two teams differ, both have had a relatively similar path and trajectory so far this season. Both teams began the 2022-23 campaign with disappointing starts filled with frustrating losses to teams that they should have been beating. Both teams have lost some very close and winnable games. Both teams have been playing better of late. Both come into tonight’s game sitting with a record of 18-16. One big difference, though, is that Dallas is riding a three-game winning streak, while New York has lost three straight.
The Knicks, coming off of a disappointing collapse on Christmas Day, will attempt to get back to their winning ways and tie the season series at one in Dallas tonight at 8:30 pm ET. Brunson (playing back in Dallas for the first time since signing with the Knicks) and company will have a difficult task ahead of them as they contend with one of the league’s best players, Luka Doncic.
Spencer Dinwiddie (6’5”, 215 lb.), who is very quietly having a resurgent season, has been starting ever since Brunson bolted for New York. The veteran point guard is averaging 16.2 points and 5.2 assists on 45.5% from the field and 41.7% from deep in what is his best season since averaging 20.6 points during the 2019-20 campaign. Dinwiddie obviously isn’t the star in Dallas, but he can be, and frequently is, one of the major x-factors for a Mavericks team that often just needs one guy besides Doncic to step up.
Matching up against the former Net will be the aforementioned Jalen Brunson. Brunson, outside of a couple games here and there, has been everything that the Knicks hoped for and more. Exceeding expectations as a scorer and playmaker, the former Maverick has been a godsend and a major reason for the Knicks’ surprising record. A lot of eyes will be on him tonight, and he’ll most likely need to outperform his averages of 20.2 PPG and 6.6 APG in his return to Dallas if the Knicks want to come away with a victory.
Luka Doncic (6’7”, 230lb.), averaging a video game-like 32.8 PPG, 8.7 APG and 8.3 RPG on 49.9% from the field, will line up as Dinwiddie’s backcourt mate. The 23-year-old MVP candidate is one of the most difficult players to defend and game plan for as he can beat you in so many ways. Blitz him with hard traps and double teams and he’ll patiently pick apart your defense with no-look passes and behind-the-back dimes. Play drop coverage and he’ll rain down multiple 3’s. Defend him with bigger bodies and he’ll blow right by them. Put a smaller defender on him and he’ll just use his strength. Thibodeau and the Knicks will have their hands full tonight and at a certain point, you kind of just have to pray and hope he has an off night because he’s just that good.
Quentin Grimes will start once again as Brunson’s backcourt mate but the matchups should be interesting in this one. Presumably, Doncic will guard Grimes in an attempt to preserve his energy, and the Knicks will swap between Grimes and Barrett (for his strength) on Doncic. Meanwhile, the Mavericks will most likely utilize Bullock’s energy and length in an attempt to disrupt Brunson. Regardless of how the cross-matchups go, the Knicks will need all the defense and shooting they can get in this one so it will imperative for the sophomore guard to bounce back after a disappointing performance against the Sixers.
Starting at the small forward position is former Knick Reggie Bullock (6’6”, 205lb.), who is in the midst of a disappointing season averaging just 5.3 PPG. The ex-Tar Heel has failed to meet expectations and has been struggling mightily from three (just 32.6%), something that doesn’t bode well for someone who gets labeled as a 3&D player. Knowing the Knicks’ luck (or lack thereof), I wouldn’t be surprised to see him find his groove and have a big game, unfortunately.
Looking to get back to his dominant ways will be RJ Barrett. Before his Christmas day dud, Barrett was playing the best basketball of his career averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 boards, and 3.5 dimes while shooting 51% from the field and 47.7% from three over an eight-game span. The fourth-year wing has bounced back strong after an incredibly slow and inconsistent start so he gets a pass for Sunday’s lackluster performance, especially since he had just exploded for 44 points in an inexplicable loss the game prior.
The Mavericks, who have often been playing small ball around Doncic in an attempt to space the floor for him, will start Tim Hardaway Jr. (6’5”, 205lb.) once again. THJ, much like Bullock, is struggling to put the ball in the hoop and is currently having the worst scoring season since his third year in the league. Hardaway Jr. is shooting 35.5% from 3, which is right around his career average of 35.7% but is shooting a career-low 43% from 2, leading to his abysmal 37.9% field goal percentage. For a better understanding of the full Hardaway Jr. experience, take a look at his last three games. Three games ago, he went 6-for-13 for 21 points, then followed that up with a seven-point performance where he shot 2-for-13, and then bounced back with 26 points on 10-19 shooting. Hardaway Jr. has always been unpredictable, making him (along with Bullock) another prime suspect in what could be a huge performance against a Knicks defense that loves giving up big games to shooters. And we can’t forget that it was just a few weeks ago that he carved up the Knicks for 28 points (one off of his season-high).
Julius Randle will look to continue building on his resurgent year in an attempt to make the All-Star game for the second time in his career. Even as a vocal critic of Randle’s defense and shot selection, I cannot understate just how important and good Randle was during the Knicks’ eight-game winning streak. And it’s not like he’s slowed down during the team’s current three-game losing streak either. He’s averaging 31.3 points, 11 rebounds, 3.7 assists (with just 1.3 turnovers per game), one steal, and one block on an incredible 57.1% from the field and 40.9% from downtown in those three games. Look for Randle, who could have a big game against a smaller and less physical Mavericks team, to play a big part again tonight.
Getting the start at center will be Christian Wood (6’10”, 214 lb.). The 6’10” stretch big man has played in 31 of the team’s 34 games but has only started in six of them. After being vocally frustrated with his minutes and role, an injury to Dorian Finney-Smith has propelled Wood to a starting role, one in which he’s been incredibly successful. During his recent five-game stretch as a starter, Wood is averaging 18.2 points, nine rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and 2.4 blocks on 50% from the field. There have sometimes been questions surrounding Wood’s ability to function within a winning team and how impactful he can be on the defensive end, so that should continue to be the thing to watch in this one and going forward, but there is no questioning the positive impact Wood has had during the Mavericks’ recent surge.
Manning the middle for the Knicks once again will be Mitchell Robinson. Robinson is having another Robinson-like season averaging 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks on 72.4% from the field. But more than ever, his impact has been bigger than his stats suggest. The fifth-year center has been crucial in the Knicks’ recent improvements on the defensive end and on the offensive end, his improvements as a screener have greatly assisted guys like Brunson and Barrett. Against a small ball team like the Mavericks, it’s always interesting to see just how Thibodeau uses Robinson. Regardless of how that unfolds, the Knicks will need Robinson to be incredibly aggressive and active when he’s on the floor.
Despite the similar paths of these two teams and the connections with players who have played on these two franchises, these two teams have completely different styles, strategies, and identities. Dallas relies on a top-5 player in the league to run a lot of its offense and plays small ball with an emphasis on shooting while the Knicks rely on three guys that average 20 points or more and play big with both Randle and Mitchell often sharing the floor. In cases such as this, it’s always intriguing to see if either coach gives in to the other’s style and who tries to impose their way more.
If the Knicks are to go into Dallas where the Mavericks have a home record of 13-5 and stop their losing streak at three, they’ll need to make this game ugly and physical. The Mavericks currently rank third in the league at three-pointers made per game (15) while the Knicks rank 17th with just 11.6 per game, so engaging in a shoot-out will prove to be difficult. Instead, New York, who ranks third in the league in with 47.2 rebounds per game, will need to use their size and strength advantage to attack the paint and the glass as the Mavericks are currently last in the league with just 38.8 rebounds per game. Look for Brunson to be aggressive early in his return to Dallas as the early aggression seemed to help both him and the Knicks in the first half against Philadelphia. And expect both Randle and Robinson to have big games as well. The Knicks should also look to have whoever Doncic is guarding be aggressive in an attempt to try to wear him down on the defensive end.
The Knicks will have their hands full against Luka and his small ball shooter crew in Dallas, but expect the Knicks to win a closely contested game with the “Mid 3” all playing well. 120-116 Knicks.
Side note: Knicks fans have recently become increasingly frustrated with the officiating, especially after watching DeRozan, Embiid, and Harden all find their way to the free-throw line time after time in recent games. Things won’t be much easier to watch against Doncic tonight. If you hate free throw fests, you may want to look away.