The ‘other’ side: Appreciating Wesley Matthews’ defense

Offense sells tickets and gets us to tune in on TV. Offense goes viral on Twitter. Offense is beautiful art. For most of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, the Mavericks have played more aesthetically pleasing basketball on that side of the floor than any other team in the NBA.

Basketball fans love to watch offensive highlights. If you’re one of those people, I would tell you there’s no better place to take in all of those Mavs replays than this site.

Too often, though, we forget that there’s another side of the game, and it’s arguably much more important than the part where your favorite team scores its points. Defense matters a whole heck of a lot. I think we all agree on that. But I think we will all also agree that unless you’re a defensive-minded coach, there aren’t many plays made on that end of the floor that will compel you to buy courtside seats or pound the retweet button. Big blocks are great and smooth steals are cool, but most of the very best defensive players in the league won’t make a single highlight-caliber play on any given night. In fact, the only highlights you might see involving those guys will be of the player they’re defending making tough shots on them. You’ve got to remember that even if you play unbelievable defense against LeBron James or Kevin Durant, they’re still probably gonna make at least 10 shots on you.

We need to admit that defense isn’t necessarily as “fun” to watch as offense. Defense is disruptive by nature; the point is to make things look bad. It’s also not as easy to understand as offense. We all know what it means when Dirk pulls off a one-legged fadeaway, but unless you’re sitting in on the gameplan meeting, none of us really knows who’s supposed to do what when defending against the pick-and-roll. Playing defense requires five players to be on the same page, so it’s not as easy to shine the spotlight on one player the way you can on offense. Some guys, however — the lockdown guys — play a ton of one-on-one defense, and that’s where, if you pay enough attention, you’ll see some real highlight plays.

The Mavs’ lockdown guy is Wesley Matthews. After watching him scratch, claw, and battle through every possession for two full seasons, I feel comfortable saying there might not be another player in the NBA who so obviously tries as hard as he does on defense. It’s not always pretty (defense never is), but if you really pay attention, it’s easy to appreciate.

Here’s a series of Matthews defensive plays that put into perspective not only how hard he works, but how effective he is as a perimeter defender.

One of Mark Cuban’s favorite sayings is “the only thing in life you can control is effort.” That resonates when watching Matthews work on the defensive end. He isn’t the fastest or most explosive player at his position, but every night he’s tasked with defending supreme athletes at positions 1-3. He makes up for it with a try-hard attitude and a little physicality.

Because he often guards players who can both score and distribute, Matthews runs through mazes of screens on almost every possession. Not only does he have to worry about contact his own man will create, but he’s also got to keep in mind that 7-foot, 270-pound centers are always sneaking up behind him with the goal of laying him out to clear up some room for their teammate.

That doesn’t prevent him from attacking his man, however. As part of the Mavs’ general defensive plan, Matthews often runs into or over the screen as opposed to under. By doing that, he’s inviting his man to dribble inside the pocket of space between the 3-point line and the Mavs’ center, who stays way below the play near the paint. Dallas willingly creates space for opposing wings to shoot pull-up 20-footers, as those are the most inefficient shots in the game. Those players obviously don’t want to settle for those shots, but by the time they’ve recognized what’s happening, Matthews has already recovered from the screen and is in their face again.

In the play above, Matthews fought through three Robin Lopez screens to stick with Jimmy Butler. The end result is Butler taking an off-balance, contested mid-range J late in the shot clock. This is a masterful defensive possession by Matthews and his big man partner Andrew Bogut, who patiently camped out in the lane instead of lunging out at Butler, risking a blow-by or a foul. Sometimes great defense is more about the shots you don’t allow than the shots you surrender. Butler easily could’ve gotten to the basket or at least to the free throw line, but the Mavericks didn’t allow it.

Matthews was one of only two Mavs last season to average more than one mile traveled per game on the defensive end. That might not seem like much, but when you think of how small a basketball court is, it’s hard to even imagine how covering that much ground would be possible. Then when you watch him play, it’s clear as day. Matthews hustles and keeps hustling until either the play is over or he ends up on the ground.

Matthews ranked 34th in the NBA in total deflections last season, per NBA.com, and tied for 14th in charges drawn. He’s not afraid to sacrifice his body in order to make a play, and it’s that unselfish defensive mindset that makes offensive mistakes easy to forget about.

He also finished seventh in the NBA among players 6-foot-7 or shorter in shots contested per game. Centers typically rank at the top of the list because they challenge a dozen layups a game or more, but smaller players generally only contest shots on the outside. Remember how he invites players to take those pull-up jumpers? Sometimes they’re open looks, but usually they’re not.

The Mavs’ strategy of inviting those pull-up jumpers accomplished two things. First, it led to Dallas allowing the fewest attempts from the restricted area per game in the NBA last season. You don’t want your opponents taking layups, and the Mavericks allowed fewer of them than any other team. Second, it forced opponents to take inefficient jump shots, and Matthews’ motor made those looks even more inefficient. Per Synergy Sports, opponents shot just 34.3 percent on pull-up jump shots against Matthews last season, an unbelievable rate — if you’re the Mavericks, of course. Matthews’ ability (or desire) to fight through screens and still get a hand in his opponent’s face might not directly affect the outcome of the shot, but if anything it’s just a not-so-subtle reminder to his opponent that they haven’t beaten him. It’s a mind game.

He’s judicious with his challenges, though. He doesn’t just fly at his opponent regardless of the player and the situation, and that makes him an even more valuable defender. For example, in a late-season game at Milwaukee, Matthews was often tasked with defending Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak had a sensational game, pouring in 31 points on 18 shots and adding 15 rebounds and nine assists. He was magnificent. But when they were able to, the Mavericks wanted Antetokounmpo to shoot the long-ball. Check the pictures below.

Notice how Matthews is backed off pretty far. Antetokounmpo is a phenomenal talent but his 3-point shooting is his biggest weakness at this point, as he shot just 27 percent from deep last season. Matthews is still contesting the shot, of course, but he was several feet away at the time Giannis rose for the jumper. In essence, he was OK with allowing that shot, or he at least preferred a 3 to a dribble-drive.

That wasn’t the case later in the game, though. With under a minute left coming off a jump ball and the Mavs up three points, it was clear that the Bucks wanted to tie. When Antetokounmpo rose for the shot this time, Matthews was not nearly as OK with allowing it.

You can see the difference. Matthews got a little closer and jumped much higher to challenge the shot. Did it affect Antetokounmpo’s release, or the outcome? Who can say? But, again, the only thing you can control is effort.

He’s at his best when the referees let the players play and things get a little more physical. Matthews can be a very aggressive, tenacious player in those situations, and he’s unafraid to get up in an opponent’s air space.

In the play above, he forced Brandon Ingram toward the sideline and rode his hip all the way to the basket. All the while, he steered the Lakers rookie into the help defense, which resulted in a Salah Mejri block. Salah gets the spotlight, but Matthews made the play.

This is especially true late in games and late in the shot clock. On 93 attempts last season with four seconds or less remaining on the shot clock, opponents shot just 32.3 percent from the field against Matthews, per Synergy. You don’t want to have to create against him when you’re running out of time.

Everything we’ve seen so far is a factor in the next play, probably Matthews’ most famous as a Maverick. It came at the very end of a game last season at Portland, when it was Damian Lillard one-on-one against Matthews with Dallas up one point and 10 seconds left on the clock.

In this single play, Matthews twice muscled Lillard away from the middle and toward the outside. He didn’t bother dealing with the potential screen, instead shuffling his feet to cut Lillard off again on the wing and forcing a between-the-legs crossover. At that point Lillard had to pick up his dribble and had just three seconds left to create something out of nothing. He likely got away with a travel as he collected himself to shoot, and then launched a heavily contested fallaway. It missed.

The play features effort, aggression, tenacity, smarts, and a shot contest. Matthews demonstrated almost every positive one-on-one defensive trait you could think of in one 10-second sequence. And, yet, the nature of defense means if Lillard had made that shot, almost no one would have remembered anything Matthews did.

Defense is thankless and brutal. The best players still score half the time or more, even if they’re covered perfectly. A player could work his butt off for 23 seconds or 47:59 and still be on the wrong end of a miracle. Matthews has seen plenty of tough shots fall on his watch, yet he still scraps all game long to make sure that the next one won’t go his opponent’s way, knowing all the while that it’s not totally under his control anyway. It’s an exercise in insanity, frankly, but it’s amazing to watch.

I challenge you to pay more attention to defense in general this upcoming season. Between Matthews and Nerlens Noel, the Mavs have two of the more unique defenders in the league. Harrison Barnes showed some really good potential there last season, and Seth Curry grew by leaps and bounds as a defender as well. Defense is definitely not as pretty as a Nowitzki trailing 3, and it might not always work out their way, but the Mavericks are going to dial up the intensity on that side of the ball this season. There will be plenty to appreciate on the “other” end of the floor this year. You can guarantee that Matthews will be the one leading the charge.

Mavs locking it down on the defensive end

Postgame: Dirk Nowitzki

Despite being rudely interrupted by JJ Barea, Dirk Nowitzki weighs in on how good the Mavs’ defense has been lately, how much of a groove he’s been in offensively, Tuesday’s win over the Raptors and more.

For many years, critics called this team the “Allas” Mavericks because they played no “D.” Well, if that’s the case, this team has all of a sudden become the DDDDDDallas Mavericks.

Going back to Feb. 5, the day the Mavs beat the Kings on the road 101-78, Dallas boasts the No. 1 defense in the NBA. Their 93.8 defensive rating is tops in the league, and during that stretch the club has won six of its eight games, with wins against Portland, Houston, and Toronto.

It’s difficult to find just one thing to attribute the team’s defensive success to. One particular player hasn’t experienced a huge increase in minutes during that stretch — not even Al-Farouq Aminu, who along with Tyson Chandler has played terrific defense all season long. Rajon Rondo even missed some of those eight games, and his defense has been among the best in the league since joining the Mavericks.

This might seem cliché, but sometimes huge improvements can come from just looking at things as simply as possible.

“We’re trying to be tough, trying to rotate for each other,” Dirk Nowitzki said after the 99-92 win against Toronto, the No. 4 offense in the NBA this season in offensive efficiency. “Our gameplan has been there and we’ve been executing them.”

“We’ve been getting better and better,” Devin Harris added. “We continue to talk. Guys are getting comfortable with one another. We’re trusting one another, and it’s good to see.”

Generally speaking, you know things are going well defensively when players keep their quotes about D as brief as possible. Longer explanations mean things are going wrong. After holding one of the best offenses in the NBA to just 92 points, Harris and Dirk didn’t have to say much. The Mavs’ work spoke louder than chalk talk could. So do stats, and the Mavs have been doing just fine in that department in their last eight games, improving across the board when it comes not only to getting stops, but converting opponents’ mistakes into points the other way.

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In addition to forcing opponents into misses, Dallas has also capitalized more on turnovers in the last eight games. Against the Raptors, for example, the Mavs converted 19 Toronto turnovers into 28 points. Not only do those cheap points come easy, but they can also deflate the opponent and shift the momentum. Dallas trailed by as many as 11 points in the second half of the game but came back behind some quick, easy offense.

“With any team, we want to keep the pace as fast as we can,” Harris said. “I think we’re better at that, when we stay in transition, less play-calling. We’re a lot harder to guard that way.”

As Dallas continues to work Rondo and newest acquisition Amar’e Stoudemire into the flow of the offense — as well as fighting through an injury to starting small forward Chandler Parsons — the most effective way to generate offense is by going defense-to-offense, meaning turning stops into quick chances the other way.

For example, after Greivis Vasquez hit a three-pointer to make the score 86-84 Dallas with 8:18 left in last night’s game, the Mavs D forced turnovers on four of Toronto’s next six possessions, converting those extra opportunities into seven points. During that stretch, the Raptors managed to score just one point, and by the time they regained their footing Dallas had extended its lead to 95-85.

“That’s how you win ballgames down the stretch,” Stoudemire said of the Mavs defense in the fourth quarter against Toronto, a frame in which Dallas allowed just 15 points. “You’ve got to get stops. With our personnel, we can score with any team in this league. Once we get stops, we’ll be a tough team to beat.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Mavs’ stout defense the last few weeks has been the consistency with which they’ve defended no matter who’s on the floor. Each of the five heaviest lineups in terms of minutes per game during this eight-game stretch has held opponents to poor shooting numbers while also forcing a high number of turnovers.

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Most good teams have a go-to defensive lineup, but the Mavs have performed so well on that end of the floor regardless of lineup combination that it speaks to something happening bigger than simply personnel. Defense has suddenly become this team’s strength, its focal point, and also the easiest means to an effective, explosive offense. It’s tough to argue with the results so far, and if the Mavs can maintain this level of dedication, intensity, and effectiveness on the defensive end, some special things could happen.

Tyson Chandler steals the show at Mavs’ Player Introduction Press Conference

1-on-1 with Tyson Chandler

Mavs.com's Lonnie Franklin III chats with Tyson Chandler after the team's player introduction press conference.

The Mavericks added several big names this summer in an attempt to contend for another championship. But one thing was clear at the team’s introductory press conference: For one day, at least, Tyson Chandler was Mr. Maverick.

Chandler, acquired this summer via trade with the New York Knicks, was the man of the hour as he and five other Mavs were introduced to media and the public. Even flanked by former All-Star Jameer Nelson and up-and-comer Chandler Parsons, the center stole the show. He was asked the most questions, he did the most talking, and he received the loudest cheers. Clearly, the city missed him after his one-year stint with the club during the 2010-11 season that resulted in the franchise’s first championship.

But what was most striking in between moments Chandler was given thunderous applause was the big man’s words about the city that longed for his return. That feeling wasn’t one-sided.

“I absolutely missed playing here,” he said. “I missed playing for this organization. I missed the fans. I’m extremely happy to be back, and I feel very blessed. I’m really looking forward to that tip-off and the first game of the season.”

The center became the club’s vocal and emotional leader during the championship season in 2011, when he averaged 10.1 points and 9.4 rebounds in 27.8 minutes per game. His play stood out so much that the Knicks swooped in the following offseason and awarded him with the contract he deserved, but the Mavericks chose not to match.

In the years following, Chandler won the Defensive Player of the Year award once and set the single-season record for field goal percentage. Last season, a leg injury sidelined him for 27 games, and a front-office change in New York suddenly led to Chandler’s availability. The Mavericks pounced on the opportunity. And now that he’s back, it’s safe to say he’ll stick around for a while.

“Let’s just say I’ve learned from my mistakes,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said with a laugh when asked about the possibility of Chandler staying with the team long-term.

There are no hard feelings between the parties, though. Chandler is as happy to be back as Cuban, GM Donnie Nelson, and head coach Rick Carlisle are to have him here.

“I’ve always loved these guys,” Chandler said of the Mavs brass. “And I felt like they gave me the ultimate opportunity by bringing me here the first time around and putting me in a position to succeed, so I’ve always felt in debt to them. To be able to come back now and have the opportunity to contend again, I’m gonna give them everything I’ve got again.”

The Mavericks will certainly be looking for instant impact on the defensive end from the big man. Last year’s squad allowed 55 percent shooting at the rim, per SportVU, second-worst in the league. Led by Chandler, the Knicks finished 12th in the league at 51.7 percent. Three percent might not seem like a huge difference, but that’s roughly two points every other game or so, and as we learned last season, every point matters. What’s more, Chandler’s presence alone in the paint influences opposing players not to drive all the way and instead either pull up for a longer shot or pass out of the lane. Even with Chandler hindered by injuries last season, the Knicks allowed 2.5 fewer attempts at the rim than the Mavericks; New York allowed just 19.7 point-blank attempts, fourth-fewest in the league.

Below is a chart with Chandler’s own field goal percentage allowed at the rim during the 2013-14 season compared to the five best rim protectors on the Mavericks for the same season.

Protecting the Paint

Player FG% Against at Rim
Jae Crowder 48.7
Sam Dalembert 52.0
Dirk Nowitzki 52.3
Shawn Marion 53.5
Vince Carter 53.9
Tyson Chandler (NYK) 50.9

The Knicks were 2.9 points per 100 possessions better overall when Chandler played last season. That’s the type of effect he can have on a defense. And as Carlisle said at the top of the presser, defense was the team’s most pressing issue heading into this summer. The acquisitions of Chandler and Al-Farouq Aminu, among others, gives Dallas the defenders it so desperately needed, filling the team’s most gaping hole. What does that mean for the club’s outlook in 2014-15? Leave it to Chandler himself to explain.

“As far as predictions, you never know what happens in this league,” he said. “The only thing you can do is come out and compete. But I will say that we have a very talented roster and we have every opportunity in the world to contend this year.”

Don’t overlook Chandler Parsons’ prowess on defense

It’s a given that Mavs small forward Chandler Parsons will make the offense better.

That much was clear when Dallas inked the 25-year-old to a contract last month. But what’s also evident based on the team’s other signings this summer is the Mavericks intend to get better on the defensive end of the floor, as well. The acquisition of Tyson Chandler should shore up the interior defense, and probable reserves Greg Smith and Al-Farouq Aminu are also excellent defenders themselves.

The team has made a concerted effort to improve from 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency last year into the top half of the league, and Parsons could absolutely help. For all the attention his offensive game has received since Parsons signed with Dallas, he’s an accomplished defender as well.

Last season with Houston he allowed just .74 points per possession (well above league-average) when guarding pick-and-roll ball handlers, limiting shooters to 35.2 percent from the field and forcing turnovers more than 15 percent of the time, per Synergy Sports. And he faced plenty of those plays last season: Nearly 28 percent of his defensive plays last season came against pick-and-rolls. That comes a year after he allowed a similar .70 points per possession against the same play. The two Chandlers — Parsons and Tyson — will give Dallas a markedly improved defense against pick-and-rolls involving bigger players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and anyone else Parsons might guard. At 6′ 9″, Parsons has the length to guard power forwards and the quickness to defend guards. That versatility will afford Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle the freedom to sic Parsons on whichever player he chooses. In addition, his ability to force turnovers will play right into Carlisle’s defensive strategy — Dallas thrived on playing dicey D last season, playing with active hands against ball-handlers and in the passing lane.

He’s also a very disciplined defender in one-on-one situations, committing shooting fouls less than five percent of the time in isolation. That will matter against players like James, Durant, and even Houston’s James Harden, all players whom are wont to make a living at the free throw line against foul-prone defenders. And considering Dallas will play Houston four times this season and the Thunder at least three times, that discipline will be paramount to the Mavs’ success in those contests.

Carlisle will also be quick to admit the Mavericks committed too many fouls against three-point shooters last season. Parsons, however, demonstrated not only the ability to close out against spot-up shooters, but he also did so without fouling. Opponents shot worse than 29 percent on spot-up threes against him in 2013-14, and against 216 total spot-up field goals, he committed a shooting foul just 3.3 percent of the time. He has the athleticism to contest jump shots but the technique to do so without making contact with the shooter.

Offensive numbers are definitely much more exciting to look at than defensive stats. That’s obvious. But Dallas is clearly looking to improve its defense, and for good reason: With the same offense an improved defense by just a couple points per 100 possessions, the Mavericks can elevate themselves to juggernaut status. Parsons is going to do plenty of exciting things on offense, but he’s also going to play right into the team’s defensive plan, too.

Three simple steps to Rick Carlisle’s winning strategy against Spurs

Practice Report: Rick Carlisle

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle discusses some of the team's strategy on the defensive end against the Spurs, Devin Harris' impact on the series and much more.

NBA coaching strategies are far more complex than we give them credit for, but the Mavericks’ gameplan Wednesday night was actually pretty simple: defend the drive, defend the pass, and run. There are many layers to that scheme, but at the basis of head coach Rick Carlisle’s winning strategy in Game 2 was the team’s collective commitment to disrupting everything San Antonio does at a fundamental level.

Through two games, the three-step recipe for an upset is becoming just a bit more clear. Dallas has now played San Antonio six times this season, and at this point Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki, and the rest of the gang know that the surest way to beat the Spurs is to slow down their passing and throw Tony Parker off his game. That’s easier said than done, but the Mavs hatched a masterful defensive plan Wednesday and are now tied 1-1 with the next two games at home.

There’s no reward for getting just one win, however. Dallas needs to execute its plan three more times in order to win the series, so get used to watching this swarming defense for at least three more games. Let’s take a look at what Dallas was able to do in three easy steps to grab the road W.

STEP 1: KEEP TONY PARKER AWAY FROM THE RIM

Step one to beating the Spurs is keeping Parker, one of the best point guards in the game, outside the paint. The Frenchman is devastating in the pick-and-roll game, and because Dallas has committed to switching on almost every Spurs ball screen, it’s important that the big men (particularly Nowitzki) can stay in front of him.

The play below occurred in Game 1. Parker realized Nowitzki switched onto him, so the crafty point guard dribbled back out to the three-point line. Nowitzki unwittingly followed all the way out before Parker blazed by him for a layup.

Dirk Parker Close

You never want to see a big man that off-balance against a point guard as quick as Parker. The correction, however, was simple: Whenever a big switched onto Parker in Game 2, the key was just to stay as far back as possible. The Mavericks allowed the Spurs guard all the space in the world to take 18-footers in favor of keeping him out of the paint. In fairness, Parker has developed into a terrific mid-range shooter, but as far as Dallas is concerned, surrendering a jumper is a much more desirable outcome than giving up a layup.

This is a play from Game 2. Tiago Splitter set a screen on Shawn Marion, once again leaving Parker isolated against Dirk. This time, however, Nowitzki chose not to greet Parker 25 feet from the rim. Instead, the German stayed back and invited Parker into taking a 15-foot jumper.

Dirk Parker Backoff

Again, Parker can and will knock those down at a fairly regular rate — he shot nearly 45 percent on mid-range shots this season — but that beats giving up a shot at the rim, where Parker hit 59.9 percent of his attempts this season. Everything Nowitzki did here was correct. He maintained balance, most importantly, but he’s also keeping his body between Parker and the rim. In the first image, Parker has a clear driving lane to his right (preferred) hand. That wasn’t the case in Game 2.

Parker was still at times able to navigate his way into the paint, and even restricted area, in Game 2. But when he or another San Antonio ball-handler would, the Dallas defense would swarm the player and force either a pass or a turnover. The result? Parker had just one point-blank attempt in Game 2 versus the nine he had in Game 1, and the Spurs had 12 fewer attempts at the rim than on Sunday.

STEP 2: ACTIVE, ACTIVE HANDS

The Mavericks came away with 13 steals in Game 2, their most in the playoffs since Game 4 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals. All together, Dallas coaxed San Antonio into 22 turnovers, and the pesky Mavs were able to convert the extra possessions into 33 points — 16 more than the team’s season average. It’s an uncharacteristically high number of turnovers for the typically well-disciplined Spurs, but the Mavericks deserve plenty of credit for giving Manu Ginobili (six turnovers), Parker (three), and the rest of the team fits all night. The Mavs intercepted passes, they deflected them, and they even committed three kicked ball violations. The defense did whatever it could to impede the pass-happy Spurs.

The most exhilarating play of the game might have come on a steal in the open floor. After rebounding a missed Monta Ellis three-pointer, Tim Duncan began dribbling up the floor before throwing a long outlet pass intended for Danny Green. Ellis, though, had other plans. He leaped into the air, snagged the ball, and led a fast break the other way, ultimately assisting on a Shawn Marion dunk.

Ellis Steal, Marion Slam

Monta Ellis makes the steal and finds Shawn Marion who throws it down.

STEP 3: RUN AND RUN SOME MORE

Ellis’s transition charge represents step three of the Mavs’ Game 2 win. All night, Dallas ran and ran hard off of any Spurs turnover. After converting just three fast break points in Game 1, the Mavs upped their total to 17 in Game 2. That played no small part in the win. Fast break buckets are easy and momentum-shifting, and the Mavs found fast breaks aplenty Wednesday night.

As much credit as the Mavs deserve for slowing down Parker’s driving game, they were also able to keep Manu Ginobili on the perimeter. The Spurs’ sixth man did score a game-high 27 points and knocked down 5-of-6 from beyond the arc, but when he put the ball on the floor, Dallas made him pay. Ginobili’s six turnovers nearly matched the Mavs’ team total of seven, and they were caused by plays like the one DeJuan Blair made on the Argentinian wing in the third quarter. As Ginobili accepted a screen from Jeff Ayres, Blair stepped up and swiped at the ball, then led a dramatic one-man charge down the floor before finishing with a layup.

Blair Coast to Coast

DeJuan Blair makes the steal and goes coast to coast for the deuce.

The extra fast break chances contributed to the 32 shots at the rim Dallas attempted in Game 2, up from just 19 in Game 1. For reference, the Mavs made as many layups in Game 2 as they attempted in Game 1.

Combined with Jose Calderon’s patient play in the third quarter, yet another outstanding cast performance by the bench, and some vintage Dirk sprinkled throughout, the Mavs’ defensive gameplan paid off in Wednesday’s road win. Dallas will now come home for Games 3 and 4 (to an American Airlines Center that is sure to be rocking), and that atmosphere could potentially further influence the turnover battle that swayed so dramatically in Dallas’s favor in Game 2. However, newly minted Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich is sure to unveil some challenging adjustments Saturday afternoon, so Nowitzki, Ellis, and the rest will once again need to play top-notch defense in order to stop the Spurs’ offensive machine. Carlisle will likely tweak his gampelan just a bit more before Game 3 tips off, but through the first two games of the series, he’s proved he has the smarts to stymie one of the most efficient teams of our time. He’s provided his players with the blueprint for an upset. All that’s left is executing the plan.

Game 3 will be by far the most important yet. The winner of Game 3 in a best-of-seven series tied 1-1 has won 78.6 percent of the series. Home teams — in this case, the Mavs — are 37-16 all-time in series after taking Game 3. Surely, Saturday’s contest will tilt the momentum and odds in one team’s favor. It’s a must-win for both teams, and expect even more intensity on both sides than we’ve seen so far.

Defensive effort paying dividends for Mavs

Mavericks vs. Rockets

Dwight Howard scores 15 points and grabs 17 rebounds as the Rockets drop the Mavericks in Houston.

Aside from Dirk Nowitzki’s peculiar ejection, another rarity took place in Houston last night. The Mavericks accomplished something against the Rockets that the team has not done for at least 28 years.

Dallas recorded 13 steals and 12 blocks in Monday night’s 100-95 preseason loss to the Rockets. According to Basketball-Reference.com, that’s the only time the Mavericks have achieved those numbers in the same game since at least 1985-86, which is as far back as the site’s database goes. The Mavericks began playing in 1980.

Nowitzki led the Mavericks in blocks with four, a number he’s totaled only four times in the past two seasons. Sure, last night’s game was an exhibition, but there was nothing lazy about the Mavs’ defensive effort. Nowitzki, chasing block No. 5, was ejected after committing a hard foul on Houston’s Omri Casspi, a foul which was considered a flagrant two. Samuel Dalembert added three blocks, and nine Mavericks contributed a steal.

The aggressive defensive effort is part of head coach Rick Carlisle’s overall plan for the Mavs this season. Carlisle has stressed defense again and again throughout all of training camp and the preseason, beginning with his first address at Mavs Media Day on Sept. 30.

“What we’re gonna have to do is rebuild our system with nine new guys,” Carlisle said. “Showing a lot of early help, taking pride in guarding your guy one-on-one as much as you can, and then we’re going to have to get the ball when it’s in the air.”

The largest criticism analysts around the country have given against the Mavericks’ defense is aimed at the perimeter, where guards Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis are more well-known for their stellar offensive ability than their defensive prowess. Dalembert will be especially important in protecting the rim in case breakdowns do occur.

“We don’t have any first, or second-team All-Defense guys on our team, so we have to do it collectively,” Carlisle said at Media Day. “We have to establish a covenant that it’s going to be important, and I’ve got to have the stomach to make sure that guys are doing the things to sacrifice to put us in a position to be a lot better than we were last year.”

Dallas forced 23 Rockets turnovers Monday night and the previous four Mavs opponents have turned it over an average of 22.5 times per game, so it appears the hard work is beginning to pay off.

Point guard, defensive big man top Mavs’ offseason wishlist

DALLAS — Coming out of their first-round playoff series sweep in 2012 at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was clear to the Dallas Mavericks’ front office that the team had to address two areas of need during the offseason.

After falling to the eventual Western Conference champions in four games, Mavericks president of basketball operations and GM Donnie Nelson made it clear that the team needed to add a perimeter player capable of engineering the offense while also creating shots for himself and others. Nelson also coveted a defensive big man capable of protecting the rim against the Kevin Durants and Russell Westbrooks of the world.

But, after failing to lure former All-Star point guard Deron Williams away from the Brooklyn Nets in the offseason during free agency and never adding a consistent defensive presence, the Mavericks (41-41) went into the 2012-13 season still lacking in both areas. They now head into a second straight summer needing to address their floor general position while also seeking a big man capable of providing the same defensive spark that former center Tyson Chandler added to the fold during the 2011 NBA championship run, attempting to improve a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years after breaking even with a .500 record.

“Look, we’ve been spoiled with guys like [Steve] Nash and Jason Kidd, and those are certainly big shoes to fill,” Nelson said after a multitude of point guards manned the position this season. “And I think, you know, the quarterback position is one that we’re going to look very, very hard at. We’ve always liked players that are veteran, players that are smart, and having the ability to raise our collective IQ is also something that’s important to us. And yes, we’re always into rim protectors and shot blockers. That certainly makes life a lot easier for everyone on the floor. But we’ve got six guys under contract. We’ve got three veterans and three young guys, and we’re in pretty short order going to try to address all of those available positions. … It’s free agency, it’s draft, it’s trade, and so we’ll turn over every rock in attempt to get where we need to be, which is not where we are right now.”

Looking to add talent around veteran leaders Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, the Mavericks will again head into the summer looking to attract prized free agents. They will also try to bring along rookies Jared Cunningham, Bernard James and Jae Crowder, hoping the trio is capable of playing bigger roles if called upon by Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle next season.

Ranking eighth in the league in scoring (101.1 ppg) and fifth in assists (23.2 apg) this season, the Dallas offense would likely only see improvement if the Mavs were about to add an elite-level floor general to boost a team that struggled with late-game execution. Meanwhile, the Dallas defense ranked just 27th in points allowed (101.7 ppg), making the need for a defensive catalyst a pressing concern as well.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the Mavs will have to fill expected holes in the lineup after finishing the season with nine players on expiring contracts. And with point guard and defensive center still high on the priority list, the Mavs head into this offseason well aware that they have plenty of areas to address in order to build a playoff contender this summer.

“You’d love to get a point guard that can score, get in the lane a little bit and create his own shot, but also a good passer, a guy that loves to compete on a high level and make his teammates better. I mean, all the good stuff you like to see in a point guard really,” Nowitzki said.

“Well, we’ve got to get better at every position if we can,” Carlisle added. “Personally, I’d like to have as many of these guys back as we could that fit, because the fewer new guys that we have next year the better it’s going to be from the beginning of training camp going forward to get the team functioning the way we want it to function. So, you know, those things will be evaluated. We had a lot of guys that did good things, particularly in the latter stage of the season, and in the summer those things will work themselves out and we’ll go from there. But we’re going to have some new guys on the team. We know that. We’re just not sure exactly who at this point.”