1. Why can't the Mavs protect a big lead?
Gutierrez: It’s a mix of the natural ebbs and flows that an NBA game presents and the fact that Dallas is well below average in terms of defense and rebounding. In terms of analytics, they’re in the bottom 10 in the entire league in defensive rating and in the bottom three in rebounding percentage. What allows them to produce big leads is the fact they’re a top-six team in terms of offensive rating. That allows them to hit teams early and build a lead. They can’t get stops or rebound the ball, thus allowing teams to creep back into games with easy looks at the basket or second-chance opportunities. Unless they radically improve in terms of both defense and rebounding, games are going to continue to trend this way. It’s just a matter if they can find a way to protect them at the end or not.
Taylor: That's easy: They're a poor defensive team. Actually, they're an awful defensive team. It has more to do with their personnel because Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis are poor defensive players and Dirk Nowitzki can try as hard as he can, but he can't defend guys in space. On the nights Samuel Dalembert doesn't come to play, which happens frequently, then the defense is even worse than usual. We knew they were going to be a bad defensive team before the season and nothing has happened to change that narrative. The only way the Mavs can improve their defense is to play as hard as they can and use effort and competitiveness to mask their deficiencies.
MacMahon: The cliché is that everybody makes a run in the NBA. Well, that’s especially true against poor defensive teams. The Mavs have to play hard and smart to be average defensively. They had a disturbing tendency to get lazy when they get a big lead. Suddenly, there’s a bunch of penetration, back-door layups and wide-open 3-pointers for the opponent. It doesn’t help that the Mavs are prone to cold stretches because they’re still primarily a jump-shooting team, particularly when Ellis settles for jacking up shots instead of attacking the basket.
2. Whose minutes should be reduced now that Devin Harris is ready?
Gutierrez: I think it’s going to depend on the situation. If they need defense, like they did against Cleveland, Calderon is the one that has a drop off in minutes. In the big picture, I think their ultimate plan is to find a way to reduce Ellis’ minutes. He struggles just as much as Calderon does in terms of defense, but they need to preserve him over the course of the season due to how valuable he is on offense. He’s currently 12th in the league in minutes played. If they can find ways to knock Ellis’ minutes down by two or a three per game, that will have a huge impact on his ability to be fresh at the end of the season.
Taylor: I'd cut Calderon's minutes by a few as well as Ellis' in hopes their minutes will be even more productive and that they will be a little fresher toward the end of the season. Harris needs to be worked in slowly. He can help, but the Mavs need to make sure they don't rush him back and lose him again because he aggravates the injury.
MacMahon: Harris’ presence can ease the workload of Ellis and give Rick Carlisle a closing alternative to Calderon. But it could end up costing Jae Crowder the most minutes. It’s notable that Crowder, who the Mavs have occasionally used to defend point guards, played only six minutes Monday against the Cavaliers. Carlisle seems determined to give the Harris/Shane Larkin off-the-bench backcourt a good look at the least. That could limit Crowder’s role in the rotation.
3. Was Shane Larkin's 18-point, five-assist outing in Phoenix a flash in the pan or a sign of progress?
Gutierrez: It is a sign of progress. I mentioned in a previous 3 Points that he was the most disappointing player on the team. He just didn’t have the aggression that was being advertised when he was drafted. Now, he looks like he belongs on the floor and knows what he wants to do when he’s out there. He certainly had a great opponent to break out against in the road game against Phoenix as they’re not known for their defense. Though it hasn't been as flashy, Larkin’s done well in the games after the matchup with the Suns, so it certainly appears that he’s turning a corner in his development. His speed and athleticism could help on the defensive end of the floor. Larkin has already paired up with Harris since Harris made his debut, so it’s possible those two could be a spark off the bench, though they would be incredibly undersized.
Taylor: Everybody in the NBA is capable of having a terrific night. Earlier this season, Crowder had a great three-game stretch where he scored 18, 17 and 10 points. The he hit double figures just once in the next 21 games. Larkin has a nice skill set, but his minutes right now will be inconsistent. His future is bright, but whatever he gives the Mavs these days is a bonus.
MacMahon: It’d be silly to expect Larkin to put up those numbers on a regular basis as a rookie, but he has a great opportunity to carve out a significant role as a Barea-esque turbo boost off the bench. I look at J.J. Barea's numbers from his third season -- when he averaged 7.8 points and 3.4 assists in his first year as a full-time rotation player -- as the optimistic standard for Larkin the rest of the year. It’s worth noting that Larkin has the best plus-minus (plus-2.7 per game) of any guard on the roster.