Mavs PG Smith returns, keys win with 17 points

DALLAS — Coach Rick Carlisle raved about Dennis Smith Jr.‘s response to being immediately reinserted into the Mavericks‘ starting lineup after the second-year point guard’s return from a midseason sabbatical Tuesday night.

Coming off a two-week absence while trade rumors swirled, Smith played a prominent role in a 106-98 win over the LA Clippers that snapped the Mavs’ four-game losing streak, scoring 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out four assists.

“I thought it was great, just really tremendous,” said Carlisle, who emphasized the need for Smith to push the tempo after the Mavs had played at the slowest pace in the league over the past two weeks. “Everything we needed — speed, attacking, shot-making, a couple of amazing assists.

“I’m really happy for him. It’s been tough for him being away from his teammates, and he played really one of his best games since he’s been here.”

The Mavs’ Luka Doncic, who was ejected for kicking the game ball into the stands during Saturday’s loss to Indiana, was also fined $10,000 by the league on Tuesday.

A Mavericks fan who has long sat courtside at home games has been banned by the team for the rest of the season for heckling the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley in December, sources told ESPN.

Smith had missed the previous six games, three officially due to back soreness and the team citing an illness as the reason for the last three. However, Carlisle acknowledged Friday on his weekly radio show that “business stuff” was behind the absence of Smith, the 2017 lottery pick who sources say has been shopped in the trade market this season and would welcome a move.

Smith, whose team-high 37 minutes on Tuesday were the second most he has logged in a game this season, declined to discuss the reasons for his extended absence.

“Like I said, we got a good win tonight,” Smith said when asked about the subject. “If anybody wants to talk about that, I’m ready.

“It was tough, but things happen. We got the win tonight, and that’s the important thing.”

Rookie star Luka Doncic, who has seized the status of franchise centerpiece, said the Mavs missed Smith and welcomed back “a great player.” But Doncic didn’t mince words when asked about the drama of Smith’s standoff with the Mavs.

“I don’t like it at all,” said Doncic, who attributed his obvious frustration during the win — including ripping his jersey like The Incredible Hulk at halftime — to his performance (17 points on 5-of-15 shooting, including 0-of-8 from 3-point range).

“It shouldn’t happen. I mean, it’s bad for the team, bad for the player, bad for everybody. So, I’m glad it’s over.”

Carlisle and Smith, who did not join the team on its recent two-game road trip, had a conversation over the weekend before agreeing on the plan for the point guard to come back for Tuesday’s game against the Clippers.

“All that stuff is private stuff,” Carlisle said when asked about his conversation with Smith. “I’ll basically tell you, defensively we’ve missed, offensively we’ve missed him, and tonight he’s back. So I’m happy, and I believe he’s happy too.”

Smith briefly addressed his teammates before the game, another conversation that the Mavs plan to keep private.

“I’ve seen obviously a lot in 20 years, but it was just an unfortunate situation, I guess,” said Dirk Nowitzki, the longtime face of the franchise. “But hey, I think both sides moved on, and it’s good to have him back.”

Sources have told ESPN that Smith has taken issue with some of Carlisle’s tough coaching tactics, as the 21-year-old feels that his coach doesn’t have enough confidence in him, giving him a short leash. Owner Mark Cuban dismissed concerns about Carlisle’s coaching style, saying conflicts between coaches and players are commonplace in the NBA.

“I like Rick’s style,” Cuban said after a shooting session on the American Airlines Center court a few hours before tipoff. “Look, all this stuff I’ve read about point guards and all that, it sure didn’t affect J.J. [Barea]. It sure didn’t affect Devin [Harris] coming back. Those guys left and came back. We traded them twice; they came back.

“There’s never been a coach who hasn’t had disagreements with players or issues with players. I’ve had three coaches since we’ve been here, and I’ve had players who have taken sabbaticals — that’s not the right word — or who haven’t played for whatever reason. … And it’s going to happen again. That’s just the nature of the beast. I’m not concerned. There’s no team that this doesn’t happen to.”

Cuban said he did not talk to Smith during the point guard’s time away from the team. Cuban downplayed the severity of the situation, saying, “Things happen.”

“Just come back and go to work,” Cuban said. “Look, if you just watch a game, it’s rare that there’s a game where a player’s not mad at someone on the coaching staff. It’s just part of the game.”

When it was suggested that it’s even more rare for a disgruntled player to take time away from the team midway through his second season, Cuban shrugged.

“Like I said, he’s going be back tonight,” Cuban said. “Coach will play him the way Coach is going to play him, and we’ll try to win the game.”

The Mavs’ starting lineup with Smith in it has performed poorly all season, posting an anemic offensive rating of 97.1 points per 100 possessions with a minus-7.3 net rating entering Tuesday night.

Sources have said that Smith isn’t pleased with his role playing primarily off the ball due to Doncic’s emergence as an All-Star-caliber playmaker. Carlisle acknowledged the production with that pair on the floor together has been poor — 100.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank last in the league in offensive efficiency — but he said the Mavs need to figure out how to make it fit better.

“I feel like we do pretty well on the court together,” Smith said. “Stats and everything will tell something else, but there’s so many things that go into all those analytics that people like to look into. That’s why I don’t bother with that. I feel like me and him, we respect one another on and off the court. It’s a mutual respect for each other’s game, as well, so I don’t feel like it’s ever been an issue. I feel like it’s looked way too much into.”

There will be opportunities for Smith to be the primary playmaker due to sixth man Barea’s season-ending injury, but Carlisle said that bringing Smith off the bench is not a consideration.

“I see him as a starter, and I think he and Luka need to play together,” Carlisle said. “As we move forward, these guys need to have more time on the court together. That’s a reality, so we’ll go from there.”

Carlisle staggered the rotation Tuesday to provide Smith with plenty of opportunities to be the primary playmaker. The starting lineup played about the first eight minutes and last few minutes of each half together, and Doncic and Smith had their minutes staggered the rest of the time.

“I think that’s beneficial for both of us,” Smith said. “I think tonight might have been the most minutes I played all season. The way that he staggered us, it had both of us playing together and coming at everybody as a one-two punch, and then we can go out and be solo and do our thing. I think it’s effective.”

Questions about Smith’s long-term fit as Doncic’s sidekick factored into the Mavs exploring Smith’s value in the trade market, sources said.

For one night, at least, the starting lineup pairing the two young lottery picks worked, as the Mavs outscored the Clippers by three points in 21 minutes with their starters on the floor.

The highlight of the night, a play that Carlisle called “beautiful basketball,” featured Doncic and Smith working together to get the Mavs a fast-break bucket. Doncic grabbed a defensive rebound and threw an outlet pass to Smith, who without a dribble tossed a long alley-oop to DeAndre Jordan for a spectacular dunk that gave the Mavs a six-point lead with 2:00 remaining in the contest.

“He’s a wonderful kid, and the things that he can do on the court, we can’t replace,” Carlisle said of Smith. “I’m ecstatic that he’s back, and I absolutely love the way he played tonight.”