Monta Ellis Makes Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks Dangerous Playoff Underdog

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Monta Ellis Makes Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks Dangerous Playoff Underdog
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

What are the Dallas Mavericks?

Offensively exhilarating and playoff-bound. Fun and understated.

More than Dirk Nowitzki.

For the first time since 2011, the Mavs are more than Nowitzki. The team has found him a legitimately dangerous sidekick in Monta Ellis, who has gone from an inefficient statistical cancer to a valued cog in Dallas' Western Conference playoff machine.

No one expects this team to win an NBA title this season. Many experts didn't even have the Mavericks making the playoffs last summer, when Ellis first signed and it became apparent more free-agent mishmashing was in the works. 

After whiffing on Dwight Howard, Dallas was barreling toward an infecund campaign similar to last year, when it failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. But the Mavs surprised everyone. Their offense is ridiculously powerful and checks in at third in efficiency. Ball movement is infectious, and the three-point shooting is absurdly consistent.

The Mavs as a team are impressive, falling markedly shy of championship contention, but headlined by two stars in Nowitzki and Ellis who guarantee they'll go down swinging.

 

Don't Forget About Dirk

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Much of Dallas' success is predictably Nowitzki-empowered.

How could it not be? Pushing 36, the sweet-shooting Nowitzki has remained healthy, scoring right around his career arc and providing offensive impetus that Dallas has spent 15-plus years relishing in.

Nowitzki has spent most of his 16th NBA season flirting with another historical benchmark. His 21.6 points per game come on 49.6 percent shooting overall, 40 percent shooting from deep and 89.8 percent shooting from the foul line, putting him within reach of his second career 50/40/90 season.

If he's able to slightly boost his overall shooting percentage and free-throw accuracy, he has a real opportunity of joining Steve Nash as the only players in league history to successfully complete a 50/40/90 season after turning 35. That's talent.

Timeless talent.

But it's also talent the Mavs have been privy to before. Nowitzki has always been great. On his own, he might even be enough for the Mavs to continue chasing a playoff berth. And yet, the team's ceiling, especially this late in Nowitzki's career, would end there.

That's where Ellis comes in.

 

Ellis' Excellence

Glenn James/Getty Images

In his first season with the Mavs, Ellis has taken great strides in distancing himself from the jaundiced reputation he forged during the later years of his stay with the Golden State Warriors and his brief stint with the Milwaukee Bucks

At present, Ellis is averaging 19 points on 45.2 percent shooting, his highest conversion rate since the 2007-08 season. He's also one of only five players averaging at least 19 points, five assists and 1.5 steals per game on 45 percent or better shooting, joining All-Stars Chris Paul, LeBron James, James Harden and Stephen Curry.

Over his last five games, Ellis has been even better, even more dangerous, posting numbers that exceed his already impressive production.

Magnificent Monta
MPG PTS FG% 3P% ASTS REBS Off. RTg.
2013-14 Overall 36.8 19.0 45.2 32.7 3.6 5.8 108.9
Last 5 Games 38.6 21.6 46.8 46.2 5.4 3.8 109.1

NBA.com.

Stressing the importance of Ellis' recent stretch isn't necessary. He's coming on—or rather, flooring it—just in time for Dallas' return to the playoffs.

Against the Phoenix Suns, Ellis was sensational, strong-arming the opposition's defense into submission as the Mavs clinched a postseason berth, one that's laced with a stark reminder of how far Dallas has come. 

Ellis, or an Ellis-type player, wasn't a luxury the Mavericks had last season. He's a luxury they haven't had for a while. Not since the 2008-09 crusade when Jason Terry did it has their No. 2 scoring option averaged over 19 points per game for the entire season. 

That year, the Mavs were able to stage some modest playoff magic, upsetting the No. 3-seeded San Antonio Spurs as the sixth seed, before losing in five games to the Carmelo Anthony-driven Denver Nuggets. This year could see more of the same. 

Barring a change in the standings, they're tracking toward a first-round matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, whom they're 2-1 against this season. Oklahoma City will be heavily favored no doubt, but the Mavs are equipped to deal the Thunder a first-round scare at the very least. Such is the ability of team with two cohesive stars. 

Yes, stars.

You won't catch Ellis garnering too many All-Star or end-of-season award votes, but he's played like a star this season. As ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon details, a hungry star:

Missing the playoffs was a bizarre, sickening feeling for Dirk Nowitzki last season, when his Dallas Mavericks had a dozen-year postseason streak snapped.

It’s a way-too-familiar feeling for Monta Ellis, whose teams made the playoffs only twice in his first eight seasons, and the second time should perhaps have an asterisk attached to it since it came with a sub-.500 Milwaukee Bucks squad that he couldn’t wait to escape last summer.

The Mavs’ top two guns weren’t going to let this team miss out again. They seized a sweet opportunity Saturday night, combining to score 60 points to carry the Mavs to a playoff berth-clinching, 101-98 win over the Phoenix Suns in the regular-season home finale.

Nowitzki and Ellis are just working. There's no other way to put it. The Mavs outscore opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions and post the equivalent of the league's best offensive rating when they're both on the floor, according to NBA.com (subscription required).

Ellis has also assisted on 114 of Nowitzki's made baskets—the most of any other Maverick—or 18.4 percent. That offensive chemistry stands to take them places come playoff time.

 

Postseason Promise

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

What Ellis has done is give the Mavericks depth of star power. 

For the first time since that 2010-11 championship team, there is someone alongside Nowitzki who can alleviate the offensive burden if he's off. And for the first time in a half-decade, that burden-assuaging sidekick is a fellow star.

"The reason we won is because we had one of the best players on the planet in Dirk," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said after the win over Phoenix, via MacMahon, "and because Monta Ellis, at the time we needed him most, stepped up and had his biggest game of the year."

All of this is new. For Ellis, for us, it's new.

Monta? Coming up big when it matters most? Shooting efficiently? Embracing life as a No. 2?

Is this real life?

Indeed, it is. For the Mavericks, it's surreal. Their defense—which ranks 22nd in efficiency—is a work in progress, but they have the star-steered offense necessary to go places. 

What is the Mavericks' playoff ceiling?

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Don't be fooled by their playoff placement. The Western Conference is obnoxiously deep. This Mavericks team has the opportunity to win 50 games. If they were in the Eastern Conference, they would have a firm hold on the No. 3 spot.

Whichever team—probably the Thunder—draws them in the first round is in for an early test, a battle of wills. Seventh-place teams aren't normally seen as threats, but the Mavericks aren't your average, run-of-the-mill also-ran.

Led by Nowitzki, who is supported by Ellis, they're a dangerous dark horse with the established star power of a team preparing to do more than complicity bow out of the playoffs.

Look at where the Mavs are, because of Nowitzki, because of Ellis: in position to do more postseason damage than any seventh-place team should.

"It’s lovely," Ellis said of making the playoffs per The Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko. "We set this goal at the beginning of training camp. Everybody doubted us."

Sometimes, this time, everybody was wrong.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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