Monday, March 28, 2011

Defense? Defense!

I'll start off with this: I fully believe the Mavericks played two of their worst games of the season this weekend against Utah and Phoenix. What makes my brain numb is that Dallas, a team that struggles to win by more than five or six points, won by 17 and eight in both games respectively. For a majority for both games, the Mavs were sloppy, lifeless, careless, apathetic and downright bad.

Honestly, it was brutal basketball to watch. I won't blame you if you switched off the channel and started watching the Desperate Housewives of Oak Cliff (which if it isn't a show, it should be). The Maverick offense that seemed to find its footing since the return to a full lineup (minus Caron Butler) was a complete mess. Jason Kidd returned to his early season hibernation, Jason Terry was plagued by the ghost of playoff pasts, Shawn Marion developed a nasty case of "Erick Dampier" hands and the one constant, Dirk Nowitzki, struggled to hit shots that I presume he could hit with his eyes closed.

About two weeks ago, these two games would have been epic meltdowns of epic proportions. The kind of losses that would of exploded the interwebs with nasty headlines and hashtags about the #oneanddoneboys. But for some reason unbeknownst to me, the Mavericks displayed a defense on Saturday and Sunday night that (at times) resembled the defense we all were giddy about in December.

Against Utah in the fourth quarter, Dallas held serve to allow the Jazz to score a frosty 17 points. I don't care how many possessions there are in a quarter, 17 points is atrocious for an offense. Against Phoenix on Sunday, Dallas held the Suns to a frigid 16 in the fourth and didn't allow the Suns to break 20 points in either quarter of the second half. There were some holes to be found such as the complete lack of pick and roll defense in the first quarter, and the Suns missed some open threes, but in the second half the Mavs were impressive.

Most impressive was the work done to Steve Nash. After allowing Nash free reign in the first quarter, Dallas finally bottled up and took a stand. When defending the pick and roll, there is no room for waffling. Both the on-ball and help defender have to be in the same boat: either trap the ball-handler aggressively and rely on rotations from the weak side, or fight through the screen and the help defender shows for a second before returning back to his man. Going halfway in which neither of these options is fully realized is how the Mavs got in trouble in the first quarter. Roddy Beaubois and Tyson Chandler weren't on the same page, with Chandler hovering in "no man's land" -- He wasn't recovering to the roll man or aggressively hedging the ball-handler, just waiting in between as he wasn't sure what Beaubois was trying to do either, stuck in basketball defense purgatory. The result ended up in Marcin Gortat scoring 12 first quarter points, a majority from Steven Nash's seven assists. Once the Mavs switched who was guarding Nash with a more experienced Jason Kidd or Jason Terry, the communication picked up and the rotations tightened.

The best way to cut off Nash on his pick and roll is limiting his options when he gets underneath the basket. At least two or three times in the fourth, Nash went aggressively off the screen and towards the baseline, with Chander having to check Nash. What was beautiful was Dirk or the other weak side defender picked up the roller, and the defender on Nash rotated out to a shooter Nash was looking for on the strong side. With his options cut off in front of him, Nash's only options were to kick out behind him to a shooter on the opposite baseline, which would be impossible with Chandler all over him underneath the basket. The results were some awkward, forced reversed layups that were weakly attempted. The Maverick's did something few teams do to Nash -- they flustered him, to the point that he was uncomfortable making decisions on a play he has run over a thousand times.

There's no telling if the defensive efforts of the past week can hold up to more accomplished teams such as San Antonio or Los Angeles, but some progress is better than no progress. Less than a month ago, there were complaints about the Mavs' defense against teams like the Timberwolves, Sacramento and Toronto. To see the defense hark back memories of pre-Butler-injury Mavericks, it can only mean well. Sustainability is key, but the fact that Dallas is headed in a positive direction defensively for the first time in weeks coincides nicely with the playoff run.

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