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The Mavericks have to communicate better on defense

An ugly loss to the Clippers highlighted an ongoing problem

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks have dropped three out of four games, taking a bit of the shine off the sparkling 8-2 start after the first 10 games. Dallas is still an impressive 10-6 on the season, but the defensive pains are starting to feel more pronounced.

This site has looked at the defense recently, such as when the Kings molly-whopped the Mavericks a week ago. If you’ve watched the Mavericks for most of this season, the bullet points are easy to point too: the team is too small, there are a lot of one-way players getting major minutes, and the team appears to lack any semblance of defensive identity.

Those trends unfortunately continued against the Clippers on Saturday night, resulting in an ugly 107-88 loss, despite the Mavericks being on two nights rest and the Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back. Of those trends, defensive identity appeared to be one of the biggest culprits. After watching this game, I was struggling to discern what the Mavericks defensive goals are from possession to possession.

It certainly hurts that rookie sensation Dereck Lively missed this game with an injured back, but the breakdowns in communication and lack of leaned on principles existed before Lively’s injury.

The Clippers offense from a distance didn’t even look that great — the team scored 107 points, shot 43.2 percent from the floor, 27.6 percent on threes, and overall just 11-of-41 (27 percent) on jumpers. Not bad, right? Well the Clippers balanced that out by getting to the free throw line at will and making 23 shots at the rim, leading to 54 points in the paint. It also could have been much worse, as most of those missed jumpers from the Clippers weren’t a result of stellar Mavericks defense, but missed opportunities.

There were two plays in particular that really highlighted the Mavericks lack of communication, although you could certainly point to more. We’ll stick to just these two for now.

This play is just a cascade of miscommunication. As James Harden enters the ball to Kawhi Leonard in the post, Kyrie Irving moves off Harden to double Leonard. With the way the Clippers spaced the floor, that left Harden a simple one pass from Leonard to have an open three. That’s not great, but at least Harden isn’t known for his spot-up shooting, so it’s probably a worthy gamble by Kyrie to help Tim Hardaway Jr. with Leonard in the post.

What happens next is almost laughable. Paul George comes off a pin-down screen from Ivica Zubac, with Grant Williams getting caught in the screen, giving George a clean catch at the free throw line. George immediately hits Harden for an open look and both Kyrie and Williams chase Harden at the three point line.

From there, George slides from the free throw line into the pocket of open space between Leonard and Harden. Harden then swings the ball to George and instead of Williams rotating to the open man in George, he instead goes past George to cover an already guarded Leonard, presumably because he thinks Hardaway is going to rotate to help on George.

George gets the cleanest look at a three he had all night, but misses it. This is a textbook case of bad process, good results. At no point did the Mavericks properly rotate once Kyrie began to double Leonard, and the Mavericks were lucky to not pay for their bad defensive communication. It’s hard to tell exactly who is to blame without being on the floor or in the huddle, but it’s clear there was a breakdown somewhere.

The next play is a bit simpler in terms of mistakes, but it’s just as glaring and frustrating if you’re a Mavericks fan. In the third quarter as the Mavericks are trying to keep the game within arm’s reach, Zubac gets a wide open dunk off a communication error between Dwight Powell and Josh Green.

Initially Powell is on Mann, who has the ball in the short corner, and Green is crashing down on Zubac to prevent an easy two. Mann throws a cross court pass to James Harden on the opposite wing, and the Mavericks perimeter players actually rotate correctly, with Hardaway moving to pick up Harden and Kyrie then picking up George at the top of the key.

Powell and Green then clearly communicate to one another, and you can hear Powell talking in the clip, and as an outside observer, it appears that Powell is telling Green to switch back to Mann, so Powell can pick up Zubac. But then Powell sorta....leaves Zubac for some reason. He shades toward Harden, but Harden is guarded well with the shot clock winding down. Did Powell think Harden was going to drive hard past Hardaway and was helping early? Did Powell expect Dante Exum to crash down onto Zubac, helping off Leonard? I’m not sure, but as Powell drifts from Zubac, no one steps in to help Powell. It takes just one pass for Zubac to get an easy dunk and I’ll be honest — I have no idea what the Mavericks were trying to do here. Was this bad communication, bad execution, or bad defensive play-call? It could be all three for all I know.

Dallas is already at a defensive disadvantage due to the personnel of the roster. The main rotation has a lot of smaller, one-way players that can’t guard well individually or within a team setting. Having said that, the team has to find a way to prevent these types of easy breakdowns. It’s bad enough the Mavericks are outmatched in the paint and at the rim regardless of defensive gameplan or scheme. To double down with poor communication only exasperates the issue. The Mavericks aren’t going to magically grow taller and longer before the season ends, but they can talk to each other better on the defensive side of the ball, and that needs to happen sooner rather than later.