One by one, Dallas Mavericks shooting guard O. J. Mayo was embraced by those with whom he had assembled strong ties over the previous four years.
First by Zach Randolph. Then Rudy Gay. Then Marc Gasol. Then Tony Allen.
Then Marreese Speights. Then Hamed Haddadi. Finally, before Friday’s opening tip between the Mavericks versus the Memphis Grizzlies in FedExForum, he found his way to the opposing team’s bench and exchanged pleasantries with his former coach, Lionel Hollins.
For Mayo, it was a moment about which he knew would come to fruition the moment the five-year veteran in July signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Mavericks. But as the former Grizzlies reserve tells it, it was a moment in which he admittedly has anticipated since the start of training camp.
“I’m a little excited,” Mayo said while addressing reporters before the game. “After being here four years and coming back, it’s a little different. It’s an exciting feeling to go against my guys.”
While Mayo’s first trip back to Memphis since joining the Mavericks allowed him to reunite with family and old acquaintances in a city he still calls home, the outcome of Friday’s contest was unfavorable for a Dallas team that has been hampered by a slew of injuries for most of the season.
The Mavericks (12-15) had five players to score in double figures against Memphis (18-6). Still, that wasn’t enough to upend a more experienced and healthy Grizzlies team that captured its four consecutive win with a 92-82 victory. An announced crowd of 17,677 — many of whom cheered Mayo during player introductions — witnessed Mayo struggle on the same court where he emerged as one of the NBA’s most-feared sixth men in recent years.
Having entered Friday’s game as the Mavericks’ leading scorer with 20.9 points, Mayo played the second-most minutes behind forward Shawn Marion, but managed just 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting. He was held in the check for a majority of the game, particularly in the first half against Allen, one of the NBA’s best defenders. Although Dallas trailed, 40-39, at intermission, Mayo registered one point through the opening 24 minutes, while misfiring on each of his four field goal attempts. However, he exhibited some energy during the Mavs’ furious fourth-quarter rally when he forced a steal, then sprinted back to the other end of the floor and drained a 3-point basket that trimmed the Grizzlies’ lead to 88-82 with 1:42 remaining.
In assessing Mayo’s performance, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said the nervousness of returning to FedExForum on the opposing squad coupled with his team’s late arrival to Memphis at approximately 2:30 am Friday following Thursday’s late game against Miami, may have been among the factors that gave way to his top scorer’s inability to find his rhythm against his former team.
“I thought O. J. did a good job of letting the game come to him,” Carlisle said after his team was dealt its second straight defeat. “He forced some shots. But your first game back at your old place is always tough. It’s a tough stretch. We have down bodies, but we’ll keep working at it.”
Despite the Mavericks’ early-season struggles, Dallas appears to be a suitable fit for the 25-year-old Mayo who, during his three-year stint with the Grizzlies, never cemented the full-time starter’s role for which he had lobbied in Hollins’ system. In his brief time with the Mavs, Mayo has become not just the catalyst of the team, but the player whom opposing teams assign their top defender.
“I’m not the GM,” said Allen, when asked why he believe the Grizzlies did not re-sign Mayo after last season. “But he’s definitely making a name for himself in Dallas.”
Such was the case in a Dec. 8 game at Houston. That’s when Mayo enjoyed arguably the grandest game of his career when he matched his career-best by erupting for 40 points on 15-of-26 field goals in 116-109 win. It was a feat that Mayo, the NBA’s 12th-leading scorer, hadn’t accomplished since his second year (and his most efficient campaign with the Grizzlies) in the league when he exploded for 40 points on 17-of-25 shooting against Denver. Mayo’s recent breakout game for the Mavs, to his credit, reinforced that his joining the franchise was befitting, considering the Mavericks were seeking veteran leadership at the shooting guard position after the departed Jason Terry signed a three-year contract with the Boston Celtics over the summer.
“I love O. J.,” Carlisle said before Friday’s game. “Since coming to us, he’s demonstrated a great work, a lot of physical toughness. I mean, he’s played through injuries. He had a really bad thing where the skin was ripped off the palm of his hand and he played through it. I’ve never seen anybody play through an exhibition game like that. He’s played through a turned ankle three or four weeks ago and he didn’t miss any games. We’ve seen growth, his long-range shooting, his reading situations. Right now, he’s our only 20-point scorer. He’s getting a lot of attention and learning to deal with the double teams and getting the other teams’ best defender.”
Among those whom seemed delighted to see Mayo Friday was Hollins, although his former coach declined to say whether he believes Mayo is in a better situation in Dallas.
“You can’t ask me a question and put me in a box and get me to say we didn’t need O. J.,” said Hollins, who demoted Mayo to a reserve role early in the 2010-11 season after he was late to a game-day shootaround. “O. J. was a good player. He was placed in a role that was hard for him to deal with at that time in his career. I thought he did a good job. He didn’t shoot consistently, but he served that role. O. J. is having an outstanding year. He’s shooting 52 percent from the field. He’s getting to the free throw line more. He’s probably had higher assists than he had ever. He’s gone on a different team and had a chance to start. Even now, he’s getting to the free throw line more because they don’t have any big men clogging up the lane.”
Now that Mayo has found his niche on the Mavs’ roster, the team is hoping to add some size to its lineup in the coming days. Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki, who has been out since having offseason knee surgery., began practicing recently with the team and reportedly could return for the Mavericks’ Dec. 27 game against Oklahoma City team sources said. Nowitzki, who averaged 21.6 points in 62 of 66 regular-season games last year, traveled with the Mavericks Friday to Memphis and participated in a light shootaround before the game.
“I’m ready to go to war with him,” Mayo said of Nowitzki. “I look forward to playing with him. He’s one of the best players to play the game.”
Unlike his final two seasons in Memphis, when he found it difficult adjusting to a reserve role and admittedly “acted immaturely” after losing his starting job to then-rookie Xavier Henry, Mayo conceded that joining the Mavericks has given him a new outlook on his career. How else to explain why on Friday he all smiles for most of his ten-minute pregame interview session with the media?
“I knew it would happen,” said Mayo, when asked if he sensed the Grizzlies’ Game 7 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last year was his final game with the team. “But of course, it was supposed to happen two or three times before that. I miss the people, the food, it’s a great city.”
Given his resurgence in this, his fifth season, it safe to assume that Dallas is a better situation.