“He stands for what we need to be about right now – hanging in, being tough, having the guts to step into big shots,” coach Rick Carlisle said after Stevenson scored 18 points and played his typical tenacious defense during Tuesday night’s 84-81 win over the Trail Blazers.
Stevenson has played a key role for the Mavs since moving from the end of the bench to the starting lineup early this season, a change Carlisle made based on a group suggestion from Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. His role expanded significantly when small forward Caron Butler suffered a season-ending knee injury Saturday night.
After not playing a second at small forward all season, Stevenson has started the last two games at the position, playing his heaviest minutes of the season. He’s responded by averaging 19.5 points for a suddenly scoring-starved team in a pair of wins.
“Can’t nobody fill Caron’s shoes,” said Stevenson, who came to Dallas as a throw-in with Butler and Brendan Haywood in last year’s blockbuster All-Star break trade with Washington. “I don’t want to look at it like I’ve got to take on Caron’s scoring or anything like that. I’ve just got to be myself.”
The 29-year-old Stevenson is comfortable in his own skin, which is covered in so many tattoos that he’s stopped counting. He understands that he cracked the rotation because the Mavs wanted a rugged, defensive-minded role player. He embraces that role.
Stevenson’s confidence in his jumper has soared this season -- rightfully so, considering his .463 3-point percentage ranks fourth in the NBA. He shows that swagger with his customary celebration, putting up the last three fingers on his right hand and looking through the ring he makes with his index finger and thumb.
But Stevenson is smart enough to understand his offensive limitations. He’s a floor spacer who knocks down open looks and can drive and dish when defenders close out too aggressively.
He’s not Butler, a guy the Mavs ran iso’s and post-ups for. The Mavs have to scrap a lot of their offensive sets when Stevenson plays small forward, but Stevenson has proven that he can be a steady contributor on offense. And over the last week, he’s shown that he can step up that aspect of his game when necessary.
But Stevenson knows buckets aren’t the most important thing he brings to the Mavs. This is a tough dude who sets a tone along with Tyson Chandler.
“For years we were known as a soft team,” Terry said. “But you look at this kid and instantly, without even seeing him touch a basketball or get on the court, he’s tough. You ain’t messing with him.”