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The Mavericks’ defense is still a work in progress

Rick Carlisle wants his team’s defense to be in the top-10.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into Wednesday night’s contest against the Orlando Magic, the Dallas Mavericks boasted the best offensive rating in the NBA, a flashy 113.1, according to Their offensive prowess is a big reason why the team came into the evening with a 4-2 record. But offense isn’t everything. While the Mavericks are winning games, they still need to get better on the other side of the ball if they want to reach the levels of success they’re envisioning.

“I’m more concerned that our defense is [ranked] nineteenth or twentieth. That’s really what my focus is, what our focus is and needs to be,” head coach Rick Carlisle said prior to the game. “When we put the roster together, we knew we had a lot of skill guys, but the question was going to be, ‘How do we turn this into a top-10 defensive team?’”

Dallas ranked twentieth in the league, with a defensive rating of 108.7, when Carlisle spoke. Soon after, it was clear why he was putting so much emphasis on defense. Throughout the game, the Magic shredded the Mavericks, getting by defenders on their way to a bevy of shots in the paint and at the rim.

After one quarter, Orlando had scored 22 points in the paint on 11-15 shooting. They added 16 more in the second. By the time the final buzzer sounded, that number had grown to a total of 60 points on just 44 shots. Dallas interior defense was a sieve. Orlando finished the night shooting 73.9 percent in the restricted area and 53.3 percent in the paint.

The day before, the Mavericks spent three quarters of their practice on defense, preparing for the Magic’s physicality and offensive execution. It clearly didn’t matter.

Defensive letdowns have been a regular occurrence for Dallas this season. In each game, the team seemingly must drag itself out of a hole more than once. The inconsistency does make for thrilling games, however. Coming into Wednesday, Dallas played two games in which three or fewer points decided the outcome. It would have been three games had the Los Angeles Lakers not forced overtime last Friday. The Orlando game was more of the same.

After going on a 26-8 point run to close out the third quarter with an 86-79 lead, the Mavericks saw their fortunes fade in the fourth. Like other games, Dallas’ bend-don’t-break defensive effort boiled down to one or two plays. Luckily, those plays came in quick succession. With time running down, Dorian Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. drew charges on Aaron Gordon on consecutive possessions, preventing the Magic from getting a shot up that would likely have won the game.

“It was amazing, especially the last two plays,” Luka Doncic said after the game. “I said, ‘They saved me.’ I didn’t do the right plays on the offense, they saved me on the defense. We have to get better and better on defense.”

Dallas may have won the game, but the last point that Doncic makes is the common theme in the locker room. Each player has a picture in their locker with a triangle with their face inside it. Beneath their picture is their defensive duties. They see it every day.

So far, the timely, inspired play of individuals is bailing the Mavericks out, but their overall effort needs to improve. Oddly enough, stats say their defense did get better after Wednesday’s 107-106 win. Dallas’ defensive rating now sits at 108.2, eighteenth in the NBA, despite allowing Orlando to top 100 points for the first time this season.

Not only does the defense need to get better, it must be better at home, where Dallas is only 2-2. That said, the Mavericks are only seven games into an 82-game season. There’s still time to improve. The start so far has been rocky, though.

“It’s early yet,” Carlisle said. “We’ll look at trends—three, five game trends—to see kind of where we are. Because when you try to factor in the whole season after you’ve gotten off to a twentieth-in-the-league start, that’s not really a fair way to look at it. We’ve just got to do better.”