In the final seconds of overtime during a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers last week, Christian Wood came up with a game-saving block on LeBron James to extend the contest to a second overtime, where the Mavericks pulled out a win. Wood finished that game with five blocks to go along with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.
The scoring is nothing new. It's the primary reason why the Mavericks traded for him. But the improved defense, well, that's turning some heads.
"I definitely wanted to prove [people wrong], and had something to prove," Wood told CBS Sports. "I think I had a couple games where I was just over two or three blocks a game and I was definitely feeling good about that, just proving people wrong. That was big for me."
Wood, in his seventh NBA season, is now playing for his seventh NBA team -- and the Mavs are the first winning team he's been with as a pro. He credits his defensive improvements to that success and to the team's culture.
"Everybody holds each other accountable, but it's also that everybody just communicates," said Wood, 27. "When I got here, everybody embraced me."
Wood isn't going to be winning any Defensive Player of the Year awards, but his commitment to being engaged on that end of the floor, communicating and as he said "not caring to get dunked on," has built trust between him, his teammates and the coaching staff.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup full time on Dec. 17, Wood has averaged 2.4 blocks a game, which ranks fifth in the league during that span. He ranks 10th in the league in defended field goal percentage, limiting opponents to just 44.5 percent (min. 15 defended shots per game) since becoming a starter, a notable improvement from last season with the Rockets.
|Year||DFGA/G||Defended Field Goal percentage||Opponent average Field Goal percentage|
22-23 (since Dec. 17)
Essentially what Wood has done in the last month is hold opponents to 4.1 percentage points lower than what they shoot on average. It's not outstanding, but it's enough to make a difference for Dallas, something the team has desperately needed with its top three defensive players injured.
"I think guys get on him, just being straight up, man-to-man, and he's taken the challenge," Tim Hardaway Jr. said of Wood's improved defense. "We're challenging him to do a lot of things defensively, we know he can score the ball, excellent talent on the offensive end, but what's going to separate him from most is how he impacts the game on the defensive end."
The defense isn't the only area where Wood has improved since getting elevated to the starting lineup, his offensive production has increased, too.
The pairing between Wood and Doncic has been seamless. Wood referred to his partnership with Doncic on the court to that of ice cream and fudge, a classic dessert that always delivers. So far, that's been a pretty apt comparison, as Wood converts an average of 2.0 of Doncic's passes into buckets per game, more than anyone else on the team. When the two share the floor together Dallas has an offensive rating of 118.4 and a plus-5.2 net rating, the latter of which is the fourth-highest mark of any two-man combination on the team. For comparison, last season with Doncic paired with Kristaps Porzingis, who played a similar role as Wood is right now, that duo had a net rating of zero and the Mavs posted just a 103.7 offensive rating.
Wood's become the ideal pick-and-roll partner for Doncic because of his versatility as a finisher at the rim and his ability to be a threat to pop out and sink a jumper. So it's not surprising that the former undrafted product ranks first in the league in points per possession as a roll man (min. 100 possessions), generating 1.5 points per possession. He takes full advantage of the double teams Doncic gets when they run a pick-and-roll, and it often results in baskets like this for the big man:
Leave Wood open on the perimeter and he'll make you pay from there, too:
The success Wood is experiencing as a roll man is due in large part because Doncic is making his life easier by dropping dimes despite significant defensive pressure. But Wood still has to finish off the shots, and he's doing it at a high clip. Although Wood and Doncic have only started 12 games together so far, their chemistry reflects that of teammates who have been playing together for years.
"He doesn't get mad at me when sometimes I yell at him, and that's what I appreciate," Doncic said of Wood recently after a practice. "Sometimes it's hard to be with me on the court, probably. I just want to win. But he appreciates that, he never gets mad. He listens to me, and I listen to him. It's working great."
But becoming a regular starter for Dallas wasn't a given when Wood was traded to the Mavericks last summer. He started the season coming off the bench and repeatedly said that he was willing to accept whatever role was needed to help his team win -- though he admits that he was a bit stunned when he learned of his bench role.
"It caught me by surprise because, you know, I wasn't really told by anybody," Wood said. "I found out through Media Day. It was actually a reporter who told me, so it caught me off guard a little bit. But even then, you know, I told them I'll embrace any role."
Wood has excelled in whatever role Dallas needs. And while his place in the starting lineup is out of necessity as the Mavs deal with injuries, he's made it difficult for Jason Kidd to justify moving him back to the bench when those players return.
As the second-leading scorer on the team, it would be surprising to see Wood having to give up a starting spot, especially since he's proven over this recent stretch that he's willing to improve on defense. It's true that Wood was still getting starter-like minutes while coming off the bench, but the chemistry he's built with the starters over the past month wouldn't be the same had he been checking in midway through the first quarter. If for no other reason, the potent one-two punch Wood has formed with Doncic should be proof alone that he should be a mainstay in the starting lineup.
Though if that were to happen, Wood said he's perfectly fine no longer being with the first unit.
"Like I said at the beginning of the season, I'll embrace any role and try to do the best to excel in that role," Wood said. "I'm just here to win, and that's all I care about. I don't care about starting or coming off the bench, I just want to win games."