It was only appropriate that Sunday was the day when Dallas Mavericks center Salah Mejri had his best NBA game ever.
Salah is a 7-2 rookie from Tunisia, and Sunday was Tunisia Independence day. He had 13 points and season highs in rebounds (14), blocked shots (six) and minutes played (33) during the Mavericks wild 132-120 overtime victory against the tough-minded Portland Trail Blazers.
"I just thought Mejri has had some good stretches for us, maybe he can give us some rim protection, some rebounding, and he came in and made a big difference,’’ said coach Rick Carlisle, referring to why Mejri received so many minutes. "He’s kept himself ready and he’s a guy that we’ve been talking lately as a possibility.
"When guys stay ready and seize the moment, that’s a part of the essence of sport that everyone loves. Give him credit -- when you step up and you play that well, you’re going to be in the middle of some big situations.’’
With rapper Ice Cube among the sellout crowd at American Airlines Center, Mejri played so well Carlisle couldn’t imagine keeping him off the court against Portland. And when the 235-pounder was in the game, the Mavericks were a plus-30 – the highest plus/minus ratio among the 21 players who played Sunday.
"I think plus-30 for a game is something big,’’ Mejri said. "That’s the thing I bring to the game different.
"Protecting the rim, trying to help everybody in the paint.’’
Mejri is an active, shot-blocker extraordinaire who earlier this season blocked Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s shot in the same game. On Sunday, he blocked a shot near the rim by Damian Lillard.
"I think I got my confidence a long time ago,’’ Mejri said. "I think I got my confidence when I blocked Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in one night.
"I was ready before then.’’
And Mejri knows he’s ready now.
"I want to play,’’ Mejri said. "Maybe I’ll play bad, but I was ready to play.
"I’m not doing nothing special. I’m just doing my job, trying to protect everybody.’’
While Dirk Nowitzki was scoring 40 points on 16-of-26 shots, he took time out from the 20th 40-point game of his career to marvel at what Mejri play against the Blazers (36-35).
"He changed the game for us today,’’ said Nowitzki, who also had eight rebounds and two steals. "It felt like he was getting every ball there.
"(He had) great timing on some blocks that we needed, he’s a good rebounder, he was able to finish some in the paint, so he was definitely a game-changer for us tonight. He was using his length, using his athleticism to get to some great blocks.’’
Going into Sunday’s game, Mejri played a total of 8 minutes in the Mavericks’ previous eight games. That includes five games where he didn’t play at all.
In the past 12 games, Mejri played a total of 29 minutes. And he was on the court for 33 big minutes on Sunday.
The inconsistency in playing time could play tricks in a player’s mind. Especially a rookie that’s several thousand of miles away from home.
"You’re just sitting there on the end of the bench, nobody talks to you, nobody talks about you and suddenly coach say, ‘Hey Salah, let’s go,’ ‘’ Mejri said. "It’s tough mentally, it’s tough even for your body to stay ready for this game.
"But I’m trying to do it and I think I did a good job today.’’
Mejri admittedly made some blunders against Portland. Like missing a pair of free throws with the score tied at 113-113 and only 13.7 seconds left in regulation.
He also fouled Allen Crabbe while he was shooting a 3-pointer, and the subsequent three free throws got Portland within 126-120 with 41.8 seconds remaining in overtime.
"The 3-point foul, I don’t know if it was a foul, maybe it’s a foul,’’ Mejri said. "The free throws that I missed -- these mistakes will happen with any player with little experience.
"But I did good things, too, and I will try to stay with it in our game. Maybe next game I will not be playing, but I have to stay ready, because the day they will call my name and I will play bad, I would say, ‘Yeah, he was not ready.’ ‘’
Mejri was just happy not only with the win that increased the Mavericks’ record to 35-35.
"Actually, I saw somebody with a Tunisia flag and that gave me a lot of happiness and a lot of pride to see a flag of my country,’’ Mejri said. "I bet 90 percent of Americans they don’t know where Tunisia is – I’m speaking from experience.’’
What folks in America do know by now – at least the ones that follow the Mavericks – is that when given the opportunity on a consistent basis, Mejri is a game-changer.
Just ask the Trail Blazers.
Dwain Price can be heard every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on dfwiradio.com