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Zaza Pachulia returns, reminds Mavs how much they missed him

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Mavericks continue Nets woes (0:48)

The Mavericks get the 91-79 win over the Nets in Deron Williams' first game against his former team. (0:48)

DALLAS -- Zaza Pachulia could make a convincing argument that he has been the Dallas Mavericks' MVP this season.

Pachulia never would state such a case because he’s not the kind of guy to seek individual accolades, even though he was flattered that his Georgian countrymen sparked a social media campaign that almost got the 13-year veteran voted into the All-Star Game.

But the past four games have illustrated a pretty clear picture of just what Pachulia means to the Mavs. They went 1-2 without him while he rested his sore right Achilles tendon during their road trip, barely squeaking out a win over the lowly Los Angeles Lakers. But in Pachulia’s return Friday night, the Mavs cruised to a 91-79 win over the Brooklyn Nets with the big man making a major impact.

Pachulia put up 16 points and 12 rebounds, recording his 21st double-double of the season, matching his career high. However, his intelligence and intangibles are at least as important to the Mavs as his production.

“I always say he’s a veteran that every team would love to have,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “He’s smart. He’s skilled. He’s a very, very good passer from the high post. He doesn’t care about himself or his numbers. He just wants to win. Everybody loves a guy like that on their team, and he’s been great for us.”

Backup centers Salah Mejri and JaVale McGee provide much more fodder for the highlight shows, but the Mavs missed Pachulia’s veteran savvy while he wore a suit and sat behind the bench next to owner Mark Cuban.

“If you love this game, you always want to be out there, not in the sideline dressed in the street clothes,” Pachulia said. “Especially when you know you can help the team. You just want to be involved, want to be part of the team. I love this game so much and enjoy being with the guys so much on the court.”

Pachulia isn’t nearly as effective rolling to the basket as his high-rising backups, but coach Rick Carlisle has to pull many pages from the playbook when his starting center isn’t available. Pachulia’s smart screening and passing -- he had three assists Friday night -- open up creative avenues that aren’t possible with the vast majority of post players.

“He’s such a clever passer, screener and ball-mover,” Carlisle said. “He’s just very unique. He’s got the mentality of a perimeter player in many ways. And in many ways, he has the mentality of a point guard because he has the ability to see things as they develop and even before they develop at times. He can put the passes on time and on target. He’s a unique guy.”

Pachulia, whose lack of leaping ability has translated into locker room comedy routines, never has been the traditional rim protector. But the Mavs are a much better defensive team with him on the floor because of his brain. He pilots the defense with his communication and rarely gets caught out of position.

Pachulia is also physical enough to match up with the league’s best post-up scorers without help. That was his assignment Friday night. Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez, who had a pair of 38-point performances in recent visits to the American Airlines Center, still put up nice numbers. However, he had to battle for his 28 points on 10-of-21 shooting, and the Nets’ other scoring threats didn’t have the benefit of catching the Mavs rotating to double team. That was a factor in the off nights by Joe Johnson and Thaddeus Young, who combined for 24 points on 7-of-21 shooting.

“We definitely just missed his toughness and the mindset he brings and his energy,” Chandler Parsons said of Pachulia after putting up a double-double of his own with 19 points and 10 rebounds against the Nets.

Pachulia ranks among the league’s best value acquisitions of the summer. Dallas was desperate for a center, having been left at the free-agency altar by DeAndre Jordan, when the cap-clearing Milwaukee Bucks offered Pachulia for literally nothing (a protected top-55 second-round pick).

In return, the Mavs got a “walking double-double,” as Parsons refers to Pachulia, and an inspirational leader.

Pachulia already has delivered more than the Dallas decision-makers honestly expected when they made the deal to get him. Carlisle has asked much more of the big man than he anticipated; Pachulia is playing more minutes (29.2 per game) than he has in a decade.

That workload took a toll, causing the soreness in the Achilles tendon he had surgically repaired a few years ago. The Mavs erred on the side of caution by resting Pachulia the whole road trip and believe his pain can be managed the rest of the season.

“A little pain is no problem,” Pachulia said.

No Pachulia, on the other hand, would be a major problem for the Mavs.