If it wasn’t already evident, it’s clear now that defense will be the yardstick by which the Mavericks’ success will be measured this season.
Thursday’s 116-108 loss to Oklahoma City supplied the proof.
The Mavericks were a step slow on rotations early in the game, allowed the usually off-shooting Thunder to get a rhythm, then couldn’t slow them down enough the rest of the way.
The result was 50 percent shooting for OKC from 3-point range, a number that belied their standing as the next-to-worst shooting team by percentage from beyond the arc in the NBA.
Contrast that with the previous 12 games, 10 of which were victories. In that stretch, the Mavericks allowed an average of only 111.3 points per game and allowed opponents to shoot only 45.9 percent, eighth best in the league.
Their overall defensive rating in that stretch was solidly in the top 10.
Before that, the Mavericks were languishing well below .500 and their defense had slipped into the bottom quarter of the league.
It’s enough to make you think that coach Rick Carlisle knows a thing or two about what makes this team tick, apart from heavy doses of Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis.
What he saw against the Thunder was a group that was not physical enough defensively and not having Luka and KP, who were resting previous injuries, could not be used as an excuse.
“Rotations weren’t good enough early,” Carlisle said. “And then they just got going. Some of the threes were contested decently. But they were shooting over 60 percent for a majority of the game and that just points that defensively we needed to be better. Sometimes teams get on shot-making sprees. And a slow start and letting them get going is what really led to it.”
The Mavericks’ players know that they are going to have to figure out ways to win games without Dončić and Porzingis from time to time. Carlisle made it clear that making sure that pair is as fresh as possible come playoff time is paramount.
The Mavericks have bigger fish to fry down the road.
But they also know they have to get down the road, too. The OKC game was the only one in the first two weeks out of the All-Star break against a non-playoff contender.
Starting Saturday with Denver, five consecutive games will be against playoff-bound opponents.
“We know what type of team we are at full strength,” said Jalen Brunson. “It’s on us. It starts with our defense. We got to make teams feel us. It starts there.”
That didn’t happen against the Thunder, although they added to their list of quality victories by beating the Mavericks. They also have wins over San Antonio (twice), Milwaukee, Phoenix, Portland and Brooklyn, despite being five games below .500 overall.
“You got to give them credit,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “They did a good job of making the right plays. We got to do better. After the first quarter, it was kind of even after that.”
As for playing without Dončić and Porzingis, Hardaway said: “Those guys have the ultimate confidence in us. During timeouts, they’re talking to us, encouraging us. We know what’s at stake.”
Briefly: The Mavericks are in a stretch of three games in four days and seven in 12 days. They used Friday as a travel day to Denver, where they meet the Nuggets on Saturday (9 p.m. tipoff). After that, they have consecutive home games against the Los Angeles Clippers and two road games at Portland . . . The Mavericks did not have rookies Nate Hinton or Tyrell Terrell at Oklahoma City. Terrell had an illness and Hinton’s situation was undisclosed.