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How Maxi Kleber’s defense helped the Mavericks contain Zion Williamson

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Kleber took a long soak in an ice bath after the game.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

A playoff atmosphere unfolded in a game billed as a battle between Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson on national television lived up to the hype. The Dallas Mavericks faced the New Orleans Pelicans in Dallas in a back-and-forth affair. While the cameras focused on the stars, it was another player whose yeoman’s work deserves much of the credit for helping the Mavericks secure a 127-123 overtime victory.

Drawing the unenviable assignment of guarding Williamson for much of the game was Maxi Kleber. The game plan was to take away easy layups. But specifically for Zion, the goal was to keep a body on him, knock him off his rhythm, stay in front of him. Dallas also wanted to limit his ability to grab offensive rebounds for easy put backs. Essentially, the strategy was bend don’t break. Kleber never wavered.

“I just tried to hold my ground every time he bumped into me,” Kleber said. “I tried to stand in there. Sometimes he got the layup. Sometimes I got a hand on it and blocked it. I guess that first bump and trying to hold my ground helps me to get up and get the block.”

Kleber finished the game with five blocks, which primarily uses his left hand to get, all on Zion shot attempts. Even though it may look like Kleber is the Mavericks’ defensive answer to Williamson, he was able to play him so well because of the help of his teammates. Every time Williamson entered the paint, the defense collapsed to try to prevent easy looks. Much of the help came from Kristaps Porzingis, who was often lurking on the weak side.

“Whenever I was on a five like Favors, I was kind of around the rim already so I could come and help him from behind,” Porzingis said. “I was telling him to try not to foul because most times I’m coming from behind and Zion doesn’t see me.”

It worked. Porzingis helped alter a number of Williamson’s looks with his help defense and swatted away five attempts by other players who came into the paint. Still, though, Williamson muscled his way to the rim all night. Only two of his shots came from outside the painted area. Even though he got where he wanted, it wasn’t easy. With big bodies swarming the middle, Williamson took the pounding.

“I am used to the physicality,” Williamson said. “They were very physical.”

Even with the physical nature of the game, Zion finished the night with 21 points on 9-18 shooting. He got one over on Kleber eventually. Williamson burned him for a dunk in transition with five minutes left in the third quarter. Kleber said that he was trying to take a charge but learned his lesson after that.

It’s remarkable the kind player that Williamson is at such a young age already. Much like Doncic, he may already be a generational talent. Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle said that watching film of Zion reminded him of the days being an assistant coach when he was splicing film of a young Shaquille O’Neal.

“Zion’s a little different than [Shaq] because he’s putting the ball on the floor more and things like that,” Carlisle said. “His dynamic ability to just go up and get the ball and dunk it, second jump for put backs, and things like that—it’s just something we haven’t seen in many, many years.”

That makes what Kleber did Wednesday night so impressive and even more important for the Mavericks going forward. It doesn’t mean that Kleber is invincible, though. He spent a long time in an ice bath after the game and the fatigue of focusing so much energy defending Williamson was apparent during the game, especially on offense.

“My legs were kind of heavy, you know. At one point I was just trotting up and down,” Kleber said. “My main goal today was focusing on defense and trying to get stops. Obviously, I want to make the open threes. So, I got work on that when you’re exhausted—squat a little bit lower is what we always talk about and shoot a little bit higher.”

Still, in a game billed as showcase of two of the league’s rising stars, Kleber is a reminder that basketball remains a team game. To a person, every teammate praised his efforts after the game. The Mavericks don’t beat the Pelicans without his fearlessness and the effort he put in guarding Zion.