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NBA Notebook: Luka and the Mavs surging, Embiid's looming return & more

Welcome to another edition of the weekly NBA Notebook!

This week we’ll be taking a look at what makes the Dallas Mavericks so good, Jalen Brunson driving elite offense, and Joel Embiid nearing his return to the court.

Jump ahead here:

Let’s dive in!

It’s been a slow build, but the Dallas Mavericks have reached a full boil over the past two weeks, so much so that two of this week’s three trends are dedicated to them.

Since the additions of PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline, the Mavericks have the NBA’s second-best offense. Gafford’s roll gravity has been incredibly effective. The Mavs are scoring 72.4% of their shots at the rim which combined with their strong outside shooting has the team at a 58.6% effective field goal percentage.

There is a growing synergy between Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic as well, as Kyrie injects the team with more pace and Luka is getting more deliberate about pushing the ball in transition. That might lead you to think that Overs are a strong play for Dallas but think again. The Under is 9-14 since February 8 in Mavs games, because their defense has improved even more than their offense.

The Mavericks’ primary growth on defense has come around the rim. By pairing Gafford with Dereck Lively, Dallas now has a true rim protector at all times. They’re allowing the eighth-fewest shots at the basket per Cleaning the Glass, and they’re allowing the lowest efficiency by shots taken there, nearly a full point lower than the Minnesota Timberwolves, the league’s best defense captained by the clear frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

It’s all led to the Mavs having the Association's eighth-best defense since the deadline and a +4.2 spread differential.

And lastly, a tip of the cap to Jalen Brunson, who despite losing two games in heartbreaking fashion last week, has made another leap this season.

Brunson scored 61 points on better than 61% true shooting in New York’s overtime loss to San Antonio on Friday. He took 47 shots to do it, the most since Kobe Bryant’s farewell 60-point performance in 2016.

What is impressive about Brunson, however, is that despite being on a banged-up team with limited spacing or offensive talent, he is not just chucking, he is driving an elite offense almost by himself.

The Knicks boast a 122.9 offensive rating with Brunson on the court. That’s better than an offense with Luka, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Steph Curry on the court this season. Some have likened Brunson to Allen Iverson, as the player who soaks up the offensive burden for a team that wins by defense.

That portrayal is only partly right. The Iverson-led 76ers were never an elite offensive team and were often one of the NBA’s worst on that end despite AI’s heroics. Brunson has carried the Knicks to a borderline elite level.

NBA Spot Bets: Nurkic, Curry, Knicks Unders

The Cleveland Cavaliers visit the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, and I have my eye on Jusuf Nurkic’s rebounding prop.

When considering the fatal flaws of Eastern Conference playoff teams, the memory of the Cavaliers’ first round series against the Knicks last season is still front of mind. They lost that series in large part because they were dominated on the glass.

But the Cavs have made huge strides on the boards this season. Per Cleaning the Glass, they are eighth in defensive rebounding despite Evan Mobley missing a lot of time. So, I’m going to be looking at the Under on Nurkic’s rebounds, swerving on the narrative that Cleveland is still a poor rebounding team.

Jarrett Allen and Mobley, while capable scorers, are not bruisers nor the kinds of players to take their opponent off the dribble over and over. That means the Suns could very well lean into small ball with Durant at the five, further driving down Nurkic’s minutes and production.

Next up is a game crucial to the Western Conference play-in race, as the Golden State Warriors visit the Houston Rockets on Thursday.

As things stand, the Warriors are just two games up on the Rockets and a Houston win could put them under real pressure down the stretch of the season. I’m looking at the Under on Steph Curry’s points prop as he matches up with Dillon Brooks.

Curry has been in a shooting slump the last couple of weeks, and he’s down to just 23.3 points over his last 10 outings. Brooks has long been one of the best guards at defending Steph, wearing on him physically and fighting through the endless wave of screening actions Golden State uses to free him up.

Lastly on Friday, I’m looking at the game between the Knicks and the Chicago Bulls, which is one of the most lopsided rest situations you’ll see.

The Knicks play at Chicago on the second night of a back-to-back, which is also the third game in four nights for them. Meanwhile, the Bulls have a full three days off and no travel beforehand.

That’s a recipe for dead legs and bad shooting for the Knicks. The Bulls should also have Alex Caruso back and he is one of the NBA’s most dogged perimeter defenders. I’m going to be looking at various Under props including 3-pointers from Donte DiVincenzo and Miles McBride, Knicks team total, and total points overall for potential value.

NBA Futures Update: Dallas to win the West?

The Mavericks' strong play has seen Luka seize the second spot in the race for MVP.

Two weeks ago, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was second at +400, but he’s been pushed to a distant third at +1800. Luka in that time has risen from +700 to +450 behind Jokic at -700.

The final MVP straw poll will be out later this week, which should give some indication as to whether Luka has a real shot of upsetting Jokic at the 11th hour.

But I like a different set of odds better than a backdoor Doncic MVP win: Dallas Mavericks to win the Western Conference. At time of writing the Mavs are available at +1200 to win the West, behind the Nuggets (+145), Clippers (+340), Thunder (+600), Timberwolves (+1100), and Suns (+1100). The only teams on that list that I think should have better odds than the Mavericks are the Nuggets and the Wolves.

The Mavs have proven playoff performers, an elite offense, and a Top 10 defense. They’re clicking at the right time, are healthy, and are playing with joy. Teams like the Suns and Clippers are not in the same league as playoff teams right now, and all it takes is a sprained ankle by one of the Nuggets’ top players to give them a shot in the series.

This is the best that Dallas has been in the Luka era, which makes them a nightmare matchup for whomever they face.

Injury Update: Embiid set to return

The biggest injury news his week is that reigning MVP Joel Embiid is expected to make his long-awaited return, possibly as soon as Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Philadelphia 76ers have fallen to 40-35 and the eighth seed in Embiid’s absence, but with seven games to ramp up, Philadelphia could prove a nasty surprise to some Eastern Conference team at the top of the standings that expected to win its first round series in a walk.

The Sacramento Kings took dual blows this week, as it was revealed that Kevin Huerter’s shoulder injury would require season ending surgery and Malik Monk suffered a sprained MCL. Monk is expected to miss 4-6 weeks, functionally ending his season as well. It’s a tough blow for the Kings, who are sputtering to the finish line.

Monk remains the favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year at -150, but Naz Reid at +125 is narrowing the gap.

The Spurs announced that both Devin Vassell (foot) and Jeremy Sochan (ankle) will miss the remainder of the season.

Lastly, LaMelo Ball has been shut down for the season due to ongoing issues with his right ankle. Ball played just 22 games this season and only 36 last year. His availability is becoming a serious issue for the Charlotte Hornets.

He Said It

“It is now personal. We can be in this (fight) for five years, 10 years, whatever. We’re not going to let go.”

- Alex Rodriguez on Glen Taylor pulling out of the sale of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Odds mentioned in this article were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change.

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