The Mavs have won 3 in a row and 4 of the last 5 after slumping through a 6 game losing streak. The difference? The Mavs have figured something out on defense.
Last night, the Mavs put up an historic game on the Utah Jazz, winning by 50 points 118-68 after dropping the first two in the season series to the Jazz. The Mavs clearly didn’t want to be swept on the season by Utah and came out with an intensity that we haven’t really seen from them to start the game. Now Rick Carlisle pointed out after the game that this completely lopsided game is clearly an outlier and not an indication on how great the Mavs suddenly are or how horrible the Jazz are, but it is just the latest game in a trend that has the Mavs trending in the right direction.
At the start of the season, every Mavericks fan knew that it would take time for this team to gel, specifically on the defensive end of the floor, but we didn’t expect them to be as porous as they were coming out of the gate. Teams’ best players were scoring over 30 points a game on us, teams were shooting nearly 60% from 3 against us and through the first 9 games teams were scoring over 116 points against the Mavs. This is not a sustainable model unless the goal is to end up back in the lottery, which we know it’s not.
With the acquisition this offseason of DeAndre Jordan, everyone just immediately assumed the defense was fixed! Well, DeAndre is good at many things down low, but teams shooting 50%+ from 3 is not on him. You have a starting backcourt of a 19 and 20 year old who are admittedly defensive liabilities. Wes Matthews is still a plus defender, but not the lockdown he’s been in the past. This expectation vs reality nature of the Mavs defense led them down a depressing slew of losses and caused the coaching staff to look at what they could change to fix it. Clearly, with winning 4 of the last 5 games, they figured something out, but what was it? With defense, it’s hard to quantify it statistically, but it’s much easier on the eye test and a few direct quotes never hurt to help explain how the Mavs went from opponents scoring over 116 points per game through the first 9 games to only allowing an average of 95 points per game over the last 5.
To start the season, the Mavs were interested in emulating the Golden State model of “positionless basketball” on both ends of the floor. Which means that everyone is willing and able to guard everyone on the other team 1-5. We were top 3 in the league in defensive switching through the first 10 games of the season and it was showing that this philosophy was not working for us. The eye test agreed. DeAndre looked uncomfortable stepping out to guard the perimeter, Luka was a step slow on faster guards, and Dennis was getting shot over with ease. On top of that, with all the switching, someone would always get lost and leave a shooter wide open, hence the great shooting numbers against us.
Harrison Barnes spoke on the ESPN radio pregame show about what changed, giving all credit where credit is due to Assistant Coach Jamahl Mosley for simplifying the defense for the team. Getting the philosophy paired down to where the players can not only accept the plan, but feel confident in it and trust the man next to them to execute it. It shows on the eye test, especially last night, where rather than sagging off their man to make sure they can switch seamlessly the Mavs stuck to their man and made every last shot as difficult as possible. Getting every man the buy in leads to defensive stops, which leads to transition points, which leads to runs, which leads to wins. This is how the Mavs have turned it around.
There have been questions around the team regarding individual player’s efforts and whether they are even trying. Clearly over the past few games, the efforts of a few players have provided the blueprint for how the Mavs need to approach the defensive end to the floor. While DeAndre was brought to Dallas to be the defensive anchor to this team, he is definitely not a one stop shop for fixing this defense. For one, he’s 32 and he can’t go all out covering 5 opposing players for 36 minutes, that just not in the cards anymore. The same can be said of Wes Matthews, he’s getting older and he can’t do what he used to on defense no matter how much he wants the assignment of the best opposing player on the floor. So who have been the defensive powerhouses lately? Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber. These young players have made huge strides this year. In limited minutes and roles, they have shown to be the best defenders we have on the floor.
Maxi has averaged 18 min a game and leads the team in blocks with 1.43 per game off the bench. He is blocking shots, deflecting shots, and is seemingly everywhere on the court at once. Apparently, it all stems from his attitude about defense that needs to rub off on the rest of the team.
“I’m going for it, even if sometimes it’s a bad decision and I’m going to be on a poster or whatever. I’m always trying to go for every block. If I call myself a rim protector, I have to go for it.” – Maxi Kleber
I love that players continue to think they can challenge Maxi Kleber pic.twitter.com/WeE6HUXmbR
— Isaac Harris (@IsaacLHarris) November 15, 2018
No one LIKES getting posterized. No one LIKES getting beat off the dribble in a close game situation. But you have to do your best as an individual player. And when you know that the guy next to you is willing to do the same, the defense dramatically improves and gives everyone confidence which flows through to the offense and makes basketball fun to play.
For all the talk this season of locker room turmoil, the Mavs have clearly made an effort both off and on the court to show they are together. Assistant Coach Darrell Armstrong and Dennis Smith Jr. both put out comments on social media supporting DeAndre Jordan after rumors circulated that he’s not fitting in in Dallas. DeAndre reciprocated the love tonight by getting T’d up from the bench supporting his teammates on the court. “I wanted to get a tech, just to kind of get our crowd into it, get our team refocused,” Jordan said after the game. And about a minute later, Luka got T’d up for a few choice words towards the ref and then closed the half out by hitting a deep, Steph Curry-esque 3 that brought the house down after the two back to back techs got the team and crowd going. After that, the Jazz slowly but surely bowed down to the Mavs with Utah only scoring 22 points in the second half (a franchise record for Utah).
No one is saying this 3 game win streak, which includes some struggling teams, means we’re going to destroy Golden State Saturday and march steadily toward the playoffs, but it does indicate that this team has figured out how to stop the bleeding from literally half of the possessions of every game. The old adage is that defense leads to offense and the Mavs efficiency numbers are inclined to agree. We may not be scoring more, but we’re much more efficient than in previous games. And, of course, winning cures all, and Carlisle has preached all along that it stems from defense.
“I can’t remember a better defensive performance by a Mavericks team in 11 years. I’m just really impressed with the way the guys brought it against a ridiculously difficult team to play.” – Rick Carlisle
There is still room for improvement, but if the effort and energy from the past few games can persist, and this team continues to get more and more in sync, this team will be very fun to watch down the stretch. Now if we can only get a handle on these turnovers….
Photo: Featured Image: coachtopix.com, AP Photo - Michael Ainsworth, Isaac Harris Twitter