The Dallas Mavericks have established an identity: Luka Doncic running the show on offense, and a team full of guys working together on defense.
As most things do, the defense has gone through ups and downs during the season. At times, things have looked like a layup line for opposing teams as they got to the basket at will for 48 minutes a night. At other times, the Mavericks looked like they had the best defense in the league under new head coach Jason Kidd.
It all started coming together in 2022. The lineups normalized. Doncic started playing arguably the best basketball of his career. And the defense took off. In January, the Mavs had the second-best defense in the league, only behind the surging Boston Celtics. In February, the defense dropped ever-so-slightly, but the team still managed to hold a top-four spot.
The defensive success has been a combination of learning/understanding the scheme, outstanding individual play, and connectedness on a team level. It was a product of complete buy-in from everyone that stepped on the floor.
There was so much talk about the awesome defense in January and February that the Mavericks had already earned the label of “elite defensive team” before mid-March when they started to skid.
The defensive slippage culminated in the revenge game in Washington, D.C on April 1. It was a game you would think the Mavericks would’ve gotten up for. Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans were returning to a place where they faced tons of scrutiny, and the Mavs were squaring up against former co-star Kristaps Porzingis.
Only... the Mavericks didn’t look ready. They gave up a whopping 135 points to a team that wasn’t even fighting for a play-in spot. They got molly-whopped on the defensive end by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kristaps Porzingis, Deni Avdija, and Rui Hachimura. It was a discouraging performance, to say the least.
After the game, I asked Jason Kidd about the defensive slippage in the month of March and what he felt about the quality of shots the opponents have been getting.
“I think it’s just the month of March,” Kidd told me. “You’re not always going to have a perfect month.” He went on to say, “Our defense slipped, but our offense went up.”
That’s true. Despite some defensive slippage, the offense has looked good. But that hasn’t been the identity of this team all season long. That isn’t what turned them into a contender. For the Mavs to function at a high level in the playoffs, they need to have a top-tier defense.
After the 135-point outburst by the Wizards, I asked Luka if there was any cause for concern on the defensive end of the court as the Mavs are closing in on the start of the playoffs.
“No concern at all,” Luka confidently told me. “I know how we can play. No concern at all. We just gotta watch the film and go from there.”
It was nice to hear Luka be so self-assured about the defense and where they are ahead of the playoffs, but I wasn’t as optimistic. Giving up 135 points to a lottery team ahead of a matinee in Milwaukee didn’t seem like a good sign.
Contrary to how I felt, the Mavericks strolled into Milwaukee and put the clamps on one of the most explosive offenses in the league. The first quarter was a little rough as Milwaukee connected on eight threes, but after that, it was smooth sailing for the Dallas defense.
The Bucks ended up scoring 112 points, which doesn’t look great, but a chunk of those came in garbage time.
After the impressive win in Milwaukee, I asked Kidd about the defensive response from Friday night to Sunday afternoon.
“That first quarter, it didn’t look too good,” Kidd explained to me. “We gave up eight threes. But I thought from that point on — that second quarter — I thought that was our defense. We just gave up one [three-pointer]. I thought the guys did a great job this afternoon, on the road, against a very talented team that can score. They all can shoot it, so they stretch you, but I thought the guys did a great job of running them off the three.”
So, how do we feel about the defense now? The Mavs have three games before they really start to matter, and all three are against either lottery or play-in-bound opponents. The Milwaukee game was their last real measuring-stick contest prior to playoff action.
After the Wizards game, I was ready to go into panic mode. It was that bad. But the response in Milwaukee was fantastic. Holding that group of players in check the way they did inspired some confidence, and it should leave you feeling good. Despite some recent slippage, Dallas still has a top-seven defense on the season as a whole.
As Luka said, there’s no concern at all.
Here’s our latest Moneyball Minute podcast episode, a quick roundup of all things Mavericks from around the internet. Click here, press play on the embed below, or go find the Mavs Moneyball podcast feed on your favorite player.