RICK CARLISLE POUNCED.
"The post-up just isn't a good play anymore," the Mavs' head coach said. "It just isn't a good play. It's not a good play for a 7-foot-3 guy. It's a low-value situation."
But Chris Webber, the color commentator during the game, had spent much of the broadcast imploring Porzingis to go to the low block more. Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley loudly echoed the point during the halftime show.
"Throughout my career, a lot of times maybe my energy was based on if I score or not, and that leads to everything else. Now, it's not that I've changed my mindset. I'm still a scorer, but if it's not going in and things aren't going my way offensively, I'm still there for the rest of the other stuff. That's a big change for me."Kristaps Porzingis
"Our numbers are very substantial that when [Porzingis] spaces beyond the 3-point line, we're a historically good offensive team," Carlisle continued. "And when any of our guys go in there, our effectiveness is diminished exponentially. It's counterintuitive, I understand that, but it's a fact.
"We've got to realize," Carlisle said, "that this game has changed."
So has Porzingis' role as he moved to a new franchise. He spent his formative NBA years playing in the Knicks' post-heavy triangle. ("That offense is extinct," Carlisle said. "Look, it went extinct when Phil Jackson retired.")
Then Porzingis posted up even more often after Jackson's exit from the New York front office, when he earned an All-Star appearance despite the Knicks' losing record.
"Let's get off this stuff that KP needs to go in the post," Carlisle said. "He doesn't. He doesn't."
These are the habits the Mavs are working hard to break, part of the reprogramming of Porzingis.
He has been pushed to adapt his game to fit into a system as a sidekick and enhance the skills of a generational talent in 6-foot-7 point guard Luka Doncic, helping produce an offense that ranks as the second-most efficient in NBA history with 114.9 points per 100 possessions, despite his individual struggles.
And he's doing it all with one key development -- Porzingis had to decide he wouldn't allow his pride to get in the way of winning.
PORZINGIS TOOK TWO steps toward the middle of the floor, pivoted just above the free throw line to seal his man and reached out his right hand while making eye contact with his point guard. He wanted the ball. He wanted to go to work. Doncic ignored him.
Porzingis waited a few awkward seconds before accepting that the ball wasn't coming. He walked toward the left wing with his head down and back to the play. Doncic dribbled into the teeth of the LA Clippers defense and turned the ball over.
It might have looked like a relatively meaningless possession in the Mavericks' preseason finale victory on Oct. 17, but antennas raised in the organization. The on-floor rapport between the two young franchise cornerstones was in question.
"We've got a group of guys that are still at the stages of their career where they're trying to establish themselves," Carlisle told ESPN in his office after the Mavs' Dec. 4 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. "No matter what I say or anybody on the coaching staff says, these guys are going to have to go through certain growth stages on their own.
"Look, it's not a big problem, but there's an awareness. And it's getting better and better."
Early in the season, there were other blips -- bad body language and words muttered under their breaths -- but the duo presented a united front publicly. The media-shy Doncic was especially supportive when Porzingis struggled.
"We all believe in him," Doncic said after Porzingis' four-point, 1-of-11 performance in their Nov. 11 loss to the Boston Celtics.
Porzingis expected a quick return to All-Star level -- a bigger, stronger version of the "Unicorn" -- and to form one of the league's elite duos with Doncic. His hopes intensified when he scored 23, 24 and 32 points in the first three games of the season. The 20 months of rust after rehabbing a torn left ACL? It was chipping off before the calendar hit November.
But it was fool's gold, and the struggles coaches warned Porzingis about would come. He often forced shots and cluttered the flow and spacing of the offense by calling for post-ups.
"It humbled me a little bit," Porzingis told ESPN in early December. "I thought how ready I was, and then you kind of hit a little bit of like, not walls, but hurdles.
"[I thought] 'Oh, I don't really have the rhythm for the game yet. Oh, it's a new system.'"
And the 20-year-old Porzingis considered his co-star? He had already emerged as an MVP candidate. The best chance opponents had to defend Doncic early this season was for Porzingis to be on the floor with him. Dallas averaged an astounding 123.9 points per 100 possessions when Porzingis wasn't on the floor over his first 10 games, per NBA Advanced Stats. The Mavs' offensive rating plummeted to 102.3 with Porzingis in the game.
That's the difference between being the most efficient offense in NBA history by several points and ranking dead last in the league this season.
Forced to prioritize between reestablishing himself as an All-Star or playing a secondary role for the overall benefit of a team with playoff ambitions, Porzingis chose the latter. The Mavs needed him to focus on how he could best fit with a phenom.
"I didn't expect -- nobody expected -- Luka to be hooping like this," Porzingis said. "Luka runs the show. He's been playing incredibly effective. I'm there to support him in any way I can -- stretching the floor or whatever so he can do his thing."
THE MAVERICKS LED by one point when Porzingis checked back into the Nov. 29 game with 7:58 left at Phoenix's Talking Stick Resort Arena. He was in jeopardy of going 0-for from the field for only the fourth time in his career. He had missed all seven of his field goal attempts in the game so far, his only points coming on a pair of free throws.
Porzingis made his presence felt on the ensuing possession. He stepped up to stop a Devin Booker drive, reaching his long left arm out to deflect the pass and come up with a steal when the Suns' star tried to dish to Dario Saric on the baseline. Porzingis' outlet pass to Doncic led to a foul in transition and a pair of free throws.
That started a 19-4 run for the Mavs that put the game away, and Porzingis was a dominant force despite touching the ball only twice on offense the rest of the game, missing his sixth 3-point attempt of the night with 5:53 remaining and swinging the ball a couple of possessions later to Seth Curry for an open corner 3 that pushed Dallas' lead to double digits.
Porzingis essentially shut down the Suns' offense with his relentless energy and rim protection. He swatted a Ricky Rubio floater from behind after the Suns' point guard pushed the ball up the floor and attacked before the Dallas defense was set. Porzingis fought his way around a seal by wide-bodied Suns center Aron Baynes to reject a reverse layup when Rubio beat Doncic on a baseline drive, flicking the shot away with his left hand, keeping the ball in bounds for Curry to recover.
It's this outing -- a two-point, 13-rebound, two-steal, three-block performance -- that Dallas owner Mark Cuban points to when discussing Porzingis' importance to the Mavs.
"I've never, ever seen a situation where a max-level player is asked to change his game, does it and still impacts games the way he does," said Cuban, who gave Porzingis a five-year, $158 million maximum contract before he played a minute for the Mavs.
Part of Dallas' challenge to Porzingis was providing the constant energy for the dirty work his job entails, regardless of how active he is on offense.
Porzingis ranks fifth in the league with 2.1 blocks per game, and opponents have converted only 49% of attempts near the rim against him, the second lowest among 31 players with at least 150 such contests, per Second Spectrum tracking. He's also averaging a career-best 9.4 rebounds.
"Throughout my career, a lot of times maybe my energy was based on if I score or not, and that leads to everything else," Porzingis said. "Now, it's not that I've changed my mindset. I'm still a scorer, but if it's not going in and things aren't going my way offensively, I'm still there for the rest of the other stuff.
"That's a big change for me."
There would be times, Carlisle told him, when he wouldn't get the ball often if the Mavs played their preferred, free-flowing style of offense. Porzingis provides value in those situations by spotting up beyond the 3-point arc on the weak side, pulling an opposing center or power forward away from the paint.
The game in Phoenix was one of those nights, as Doncic sliced through the Suns' defense for 42 points and 11 assists.
"KP is showing a real maturity about our whole situation," Carlisle said. "He's making it about the team, and it's something that has really influenced our whole team in a very positive way."
"When any of our guys go in there, our effectiveness is diminished exponentially. It's counterintuitive, I understand that, but it's a fact. We've got to realize that this game has changed."Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, on de-emphasizing the post-up
There were times early this season, Carlisle acknowledged, that Porzingis showed "overt frustration" when he struggled offensively and allowed it to zap his energy on the other end.
"As we've gone along and the team has done better, on some of those nights where the shots aren't falling or there are some frustrating things with not getting calls or whatever, he is staying into the game and really into it on the defensive end," Carlisle said.
After a pause, Carlisle added with strong emphasis: "And he is a monster on defense."
Porzingis' individual offensive production (17.3 points per game on 40.3% shooting) still isn't close to his personal expectations, as his scoring has dipped more than five points per game from his injury-shortened final season with the Knicks. He's not satisfied, but he sees growth potential, not reason to gripe. "Hey man, we're winning," Porzingis said. "I'm here to do whatever it takes."
Porzingis pushed for a divorce with the Knicks because he didn't believe in that franchise's potential to build a perennial winner. He recognizes that it would be hypocritical to complain about his role as the Mavs are enjoying success and emerging as a potential long-term contender.
"That's why I'm here," Porzingis said. "That's why I'm not somewhere else."
PORZINGIS WAS A half-step from the deer's ear on the midcourt logo when he launched his last 3-pointer during the Mavs' Dec. 16 trip to Milwaukee. The 29-foot attempt was so far out that Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed too surprised to strongly contest it, even though Porzingis had knocked down a 30-footer the previous possession. This one was another swish.
Porzingis had one of his best all-around performances as the injured Doncic watched -- and tweeted -- from his couch in Dallas, as the Mavs snapped the Milwaukee Bucks' 18-game winning streak. Porzingis scored 26 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out four assists and blocked two shots.
Porzingis was 9-of-19 from the field in that victory. His bucket distribution against the Bucks: four 3-pointers, all from 27 feet or farther; three pull-up jumpers off of dribble-handoff action; a driving dunk; and a monstrous putback slam over the reigning MVP. Porzingis' only shot attempt from a pure post-up was a missed midrange turnaround that was well contested by Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton.
As he vowed the night Doncic went down because of a sprained ankle, Porzingis stayed within the framework of the Mavs' system instead of trying to carry the offense.
"I'm just trying to get to the rim more and trying to shoot 3s," Porzingis told reporters after the win in Milwaukee. "It's still a bit weird for me to shoot eight or nine 3s a game. Like five is OK for me, that's what I was more used to. So now, I'm shooting a bit more from outside. I'm just trying to play the right way, how we want to play as a team, and it's working for us.
"I don't want to try to do my own thing out there because it's going to mess up our whole flow with offense, and we want to keep winning."
Porzingis put up big numbers in the four full games that Doncic missed, averaging 22.5 points and 13.8 rebounds -- a significant upgrade from his season statistics -- as Dallas went 2-2 without its superstar guard.
Porzingis had arguably his two most impressive outings as a Maverick during that stretch: the big game against the Bucks and a 22-point, 18-rebound, three-block effort in a road win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
But Dallas' offense remains a brand of basketball that feels foreign to Porzingis, particularly when he's paired with Doncic and rarely gets plays run for him. In New York, Porzingis was fed a steady diet of shots the Mavs' style of play minimizes.
"He effectively grew up playing one way in the NBA, and he's had to change it 180 degrees," Cuban said. "He's gone from the triangle [offense], multiple coaches, posting him up and midrange to no midrange, moving the ball and spread the court.
"You can see it. You can see the adjustment he's gone through."
Porzingis' shooting numbers aren't pretty at first glance or after a deeper analytical dig. Carlisle has mentioned on multiple occasions that he needs to help Porzingis get better shots.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, Porzingis has an overall quantified shot quality of 47.9% this season, meaning that's the expected effective field goal percentage for an average shooter based on the types and locations of his shots and how closely they are contested. (Porzingis' effective field goal percentage this season is 47.5).
Porzingis has been especially poor on post-ups, averaging only 0.57 points per possession, the worst among 62 players with more than 30 post-up possessions this season.
"That's my stuff, man," Porzingis said, shaking his head about his struggles in the post. "That's my stuff."
But that stuff isn't part of the Mavs' plan, though Carlisle says Porzingis needs to be able to punish smaller defenders on switches for his two-man game with Doncic to take off.
Carlisle prefers to focus on the positive, though, and there's plenty of it for the 21-12 Mavs.
It's a bit hyperbolic for Carlisle to call Porzingis a "historically great all-time 3-point shooter with unbelievable efficiency," as he did during his anti-post-up soliloquy a week ago. However, the Mavs believe Porzingis' long-range accuracy will trend from its current 34.3% toward the 39.5% he shot during his final season with the Knicks, and they benefit from how he stretches defenses even when his jumpers don't fall.
And Carlisle raves about the "great synergy" he sees developing between his franchise cornerstones. He specifically points to the Mavs' Dec. 12 win over the Detroit Pistons as proof. Doncic put on a show for the Mexico City crowd with 42 points and 11 assists, including five dimes to Porzingis. The highlights were a couple of alley-oops, when Doncic drove and Porzingis randomly cut from the corner, spectacular plays that required them to be on the same page.
That game wrapped up an 11-2 run for the Mavs, during which Dallas generated an eye-popping 124.7 points per 100 possessions with Doncic and Porzingis playing together. That eliminated any doubt about Porzingis being able to enhance Doncic's excellence instead of interrupting it.
"Obviously, I'm always looking to score and I want to be aggressive, but I want to do what's best for the team," Porzingis said, minutes after Carlisle went viral for his post-up rant following the win over the Spurs. "And if that's the way we're effective and we're good on offense, I'm with it. If we're winning, I'm with it.
"Imagine we're No. 1 [-ranked offense] with me shooting, what, 40%? Something like that from the field. So once I become more efficient with my own shots and my own stuff, then those numbers will go up even more as a team. So as long as we're winning, we'll stick to it and I'll do what's right."
A reporter in the scrum started asking a question about Doncic's return when Porzingis politely interrupted, realizing his last sentence might be misconstrued. He didn't want to leave any room for misinterpretation.
"That sounded a little bit off, what I said at the end," Porzingis said. "But you know what I mean. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to win. That's what I want to say.
"I'm with whatever coach wants us to do."