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Analysing the Effectiveness of the Dallas Defense Against Utah

Here is the first installment of an more comprehensive analysis series I plan I posting from time to time. You can ask just about anyone, and they'll tell you the story of the game was Dallas defense. But how exactly did it happen? Let me break it down.

The Mavericks employed both the 2-3 zone and basic man-to-man very effectively in this game. However, in both zones, they were able to extend out to contest three point shooters will still clogging the lane to prevent drivers. But why then were the Mavericks able to do this and other teams can't? The key for the Mavericks was that they chose not to double down to the Utah post players. With several talented big men in Jefferson, Millsap, Kirilenko and Okur (when healthy), no doubt Utah often forces teams to double, or else be burned again and again on the block. The Mavericks left them one on one the entire night, and never really paid for it. Jefferson and Millsap both were able to score, but many of their points came from finding space for jumpers.

A lot of credit should go to Brendan Haywood for this. His defense was fantastic, and for the first time this year, he actually brought more from the center position than Chandler did. In the future, we can hope that both players bring this type of production in the same game.

So which defense actually proved to be more effective? I rewatched the game and attempted to record the defense used and the outcome. I know right now that I'm not 100% accurate, that there's probably a couple times I mistook a zone for man to man, and that I may have even skipped past a possession or two unintentionally, but its close enough to be able to find some interesting statistics.

Defense FGM FGA Total % TO's Forced
Man to Man 11 44 25% 5
Zone 7 13 54% 8
Transition* 8 10 80% 0


That's pretty shut down man to man, isn't it? Of course, a statistical breakdown like this is not to be taken for absolute truth. This simple chart doesn't account for Paul Millsap just happening to hit a tough fadeaway jumper that he misses later against man to man, or Jefferson missing a short up and under that he later gets for an and-1, but overall, its still interesting. 11/44 is still 11/44, and that's quite impressive.

Now, the zone defense doesn't look the greatest when shown like this, but realize what those 8 forced turnovers mean. I saw 22 possessions of zone played, which means that the Mavericks were forcing turnovers in their zone defense 36% of the time. That's a crazy number, and significantly less than the 9% the man to man defense was causing. It also does not show that 21% of man to man possessions ended in a shooting foul, opposed to 9% of zone defense possessions.

What I also saw, though, was the effectiveness of a quick switch. The best example comes in the 4th quarter: the Mavericks come out playing great man to man defense, and force four straight missed shots defensively. Rather than keep playing man, which was working, they shift to zone and get back to back steals. However, the next possession results in the Jazz executing and getting an easy lob pass, so Carlisle had the Mavericks shift back to the man defense.

Two other interesting observations: In the 3rd quarter, note that the entire quarter was played in man to man defense. That means no zone, but it also means no shots were allowed in transition. The other thing was an interesting defensive strategy used by Dallas: a high 23 zone, extending the two guards out into the backcourt to provide pressure on the ball handler. It was only used twice at the end of the second quarter, but it did result in a steal on the first possession.

What should a Mavericks fan take from this? Right now, nothing. This is just to marvel at how well the Dallas defense actually played against Utah last night, once again playing "streak buster" and downing another high caliber opponent. However, going forward, I'm going to be watching carefully at both defenses, and whether the zone is truly our turnover forcing defense and the man to man our stopping defense, or if it was only for this game. Either way, its still going to be exciting.

*I define transition as anytime a shot goes up before all five defensive players have a chance to set up.