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As soon as they saw each other at the American Airlines Center, Donovan Mitchell made a simple request of Theo Pinson before the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks met in the first round of the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs.
“Theo, shut up, please,” Mitchell told Pinson.
Mitchell is quite familiar with his friend Pinson’s proclivity for running his mouth, having known him since they crossed paths on the AAU circuit. Mitchell had also been subjected to a barrage of trash talk from Pinson and the Mavs’ bench during the Jazz’s two March trips to Dallas.
“Don’t say nothing today,” Mitchell playfully added.
Not a chance. Pinson hardly ever keeps quiet during a Mavericks game.
Pinson is ineligible for the playoffs because he’s on a two-way contract but makes his presence felt as the ringleader of the rowdy Mavs’ bench. He’s on his feet almost all 48 minutes, constantly hyping up his teammates, hollering out coaching points and spewing trash talk in an effort to get in the opponent’s head.
Players who aren’t in the rotation, along with injured guard Tim Hardaway Jr., have joined Pinson, and pride themselves on having the NBA’s most boisterous bench for a Dallas team that is down 0-2 in the conference semifinals to the top-seeded Suns entering Friday’s Game 3 (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Their jobs are to be “energy-givers,” as Hardway puts it, a blend of assistant coach and antagonist. They’ll call out defensive coverages and reminders from that morning’s film sessions to teammates. And they’ll mercilessly mock opponents’ mistakes, such as when they made a production out of ducking and dodging when Jazz center Rudy Gobert air-balled a free throw.
“Probably more s— talking than coaching,” Pinson says. “We just try to do everything we can to help our teammates. We just want to give ourselves an advantage. We’re causing a problem for the other team, just mentally.
“I don’t see other teams doing what we do.”
Maybe not, but the NBA office sees them. So much so that the league singled out the Dallas bench in its “Points of Education” video sent to teams before the playoffs.
The video includes a clip of the Mavs committing “a violation of the bench decorum guidelines,” showing Pinson, Hardaway and several other bench players jumping and stomping onto the court in celebration after Reggie Bullock blocked a shot in a March 1 road win against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We’re probably on the floor a little bit too much here and there, but we’ve tamed it back from the regular season,” Pinson says. “We police ourselves over there a lot more than we did in the regular season.”
Pinson scored 48 points in 148 minutes scattered over 19 games for Dallas in the regular season, but the Mavs don’t think it’s a coincidence that they snapped out of a slow start soon after Pinson’s arrival on a hardship 10-day contract.
They consider him an integral part of their success, so much so that coach Jason Kidd was only half-kidding when he called Pinson the team’s MVP in early February.
“He gave us something we didn’t have, and now he has a group over there,” Kidd said before Dallas’ closeout Game 6 win over Utah.
“They’re all into the game from jump ball to the end. Win or lose, those guys are connected and the team is connected.”
Kidd, who was hired in the summer to replace Rick Carlisle, took over a team that had major chemistry concerns. That was reinforced during Luka Doncic‘s news conference in Slovenia after he signed his supermax contract extension. Doncic, fresh off leading Slovenia to a fourth-place finish in its first men’s basketball Olympic run, noted the “amazing chemistry” of his national team.
“I think that led us to winning games,” Doncic said then. “And I think that’s what we need in Dallas.”
“Our chemistry is way better now than it was at the start of the season,” Doncic said before the start of the second round. “We’re together, and I think it’s improved a lot. You can see it on the court and off the court.”
You can certainly see it on the bench.
The Mavs didn’t know it, but Pinson came along at the right time. He was playing for the Boston Celtics‘ G League team when a COVID-19 outbreak decimated the Mavs’ roster in mid-December. He signed two 10-day hardship deals, instantly infusing the team with positive energy, convincing the coaching staff and front office that they needed to keep Pinson around.
He traveled with the team full-time, which isn’t typical for a two-way player, even when he was sidelined with a broken finger.
“Theo is the best hype man, culture guy, whatever you want to call it in the NBA,” Mavericks sixth man Spencer Dinwiddie, who played with Pinson on the Brooklyn Nets and reunited with him after the trade deadline deal for Kristaps Porzingis, said in March.
“I’ve been in the NBA eight years. I’ve been on, what, five teams or something like that — Theo is the best [teammate].
“I’ll take him on a team any day. The mood is instantly lighter. It’s instantly better. You’re going through some tough times, he’s going to make you laugh. You’re going through some good times, he’s going to make you feel great.”
Hardaway has become Pinson’s hype partner, giving the shooting guard a greater sense of purpose as he recovers from left foot surgery. Hardaway says he is holding out hope he can return during this playoff run, but it’s unlikely, as he is still a few weeks away from beginning to cut.
“The guys allow me to do what I do on the bench right now and be verbal and be supportive. I just try to do the best that I can to stay positive and be relentless in that aspect,” Hardaway says.
“I’m having a great time. That goes with my teammates and Theo being a big part of that. Theo lights up the room, makes sure everybody stays positive, talks trash but in a funny, joking way. But at the same time, he’s serious and wants to win just as much as the five guys on the floor.”
There are times, as the league office’s video reminded with the tsk-tsk tone, that the Mavs have more than five guys on the floor.
“We’re involved all game,” Pinson says. “We’re involved, up, ready, helping our teammates. We’ve seen the importance of it.”