Defense hasn’t been the Dallas Mavericks’ calling card this season. They’re known for their offense, which is one of the best in the league. Yet, it’s the desire of head coach Rick Carlisle for the team to become a top-10 defensive team. That’s not an easy task, especially in the scoring frenzy that is today’s NBA. It will take some time, but in a 110-102 victory Saturday night against the Toronto Raptors, the Mavericks showed that they can get stops and notch wins thanks to their defensive effort.
After recent losses to the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics, Dallas’ defense was on a downward trend heading into Saturday night. In the Mavericks’ last four games, where they went 1-3, they posted a Defensive Rating of 113.6, ranking them twenty-fourth in the league, per NBA.com. That didn’t bode well. Therefore, the team spent its morning shootaround focusing on defense. It paid off.
Dallas held the Raptors to 41.6 percent shooting overall and forced 14 turnovers. Even when Toronto gained momentum, or a lead, Dallas would come right back, making everything hard for the Raptors offensively.
“In today’s game, you know, we used to talk about 20-point quarters, ‘Hey we need 20-point quarters,’” Carlisle said. “Today’s game, I think 25-point quarters are more of a benchmark for a good defensive quarter. We had three of them against a team that is a bit depleted but it still a high-level team and that was a great sign of progress…We stuck together and found a way to get enough stops tonight. It got a little hairy at times, but they’re a team that will put you in tough spots.”
The Mavericks held the Raptors to 25 points or fewer in the first, third, and fourth quarters. A lot of the reason for that was the work done by their starting lineup. Carlisle’s starting unit has been fluid this season and Saturday was no different. Maxi Kleber got the nod over Dwight Powell and it made a world of difference on the defensive side of the ball.
Kleber drew the task of being the primary defender on Pascal Siakam. Coming into the game, Siakam was averaging 27.2 points and scoring the ball efficiently. Kleber shut him down.
“He was great tonight,” Carlisle said of Kleber. “And Siakam has really been killing it. He’s averaging 29 or 30 points the last five games. That was mostly his responsibility. Look, he held him to 6-24, which is really a great job. He guarded him most of the time. Dorian [Finney-Smith] guarded him a little bit. Tim [Hardaway Jr.] guarded him a few possessions. But, you know, Maxi’s versatility on defense is a big, big factor for us.”
Siakam ended the night with 15 points. Not only did Kleber help hold him to 25 percent shooting overall, Siakam shot just 20 percent from deep. It took everything that Kleber had to lock down one of the league’s best players. After the game, his efforts earned him a 10-minute dip in the ice bath.
“I mean, I just tried to play him physical. Make it hard, you know,” Kleber said. “Give him more of the shot than the drive because I know he likes to attack you and spin. He had one on me, I think it was the third quarter, when he had the left-handed layup. So, I know he’s always coming back. You just try to cut him off and make it as hard as possible because he’s a very good player.”
It wasn’t just Kleber who stood out. The entire team’s defensive focus was apparent, especially after Carlisle burned his first timeout when the Mavericks fell in a 10-3 hole early in the first quarter. What Carlisle preaches to the players is that good defense leads to good offense. Stops lead to scoring opportunities. Though they only scored seven points on six fast break opportunities, the message remains the same.
“Every time we play well on defense, we get stops, our offense is better and tonight was no different,” Kristaps Porzingis said. “I thought maybe our shots wasn’t falling the way we wanted to, but we moved the ball better. We played together more in the offense. That came from the defense. We got some fast break points, some transition points, and some good looks from three because of Luka [Doncic] creating or somebody else driving into the lane and kicking the ball out. So, it was good, but it all started from defense.”
The Mavericks posted a Defensive Rating of 101.8 last night, per Basketball-Reference.com, their second best mark of the season. It’s just one game, but the Mavericks showed that when they’re zeroed in defensively, they can slow down and stop one of the better teams in the NBA. It might not happen every night, but Saturday’s game could go a long way in establishing a mindset that lends itself to consistency.
“Everybody was ready,” Kleber said. “We had a good shootaround this morning, you know. We talked about how they play, what they do, and we wanted to make up, especially for the loss in New York. We knew that we owed it to ourselves too. Everybody was locked in and ready. Everybody did a great job on defense today.”