They’ve said it basically ever since the end of last season: If the Mavs are going to win games, they’re going to do it with defense.
And Sunday night we finally saw what they meant.
“We just got stops,” said Harrison Barnes, who scored a career-high 34 points as well. “Everyone across the board — Justin, Wes, J.J., Dorian and Bogut. We just had everyone coming in and helping us get stops. I think that really is what allowed us to just grind away.”
Simply put, the Mavericks turned last night’s contest into a halfcourt affair. The Bucks have the athletes to push the tempo and play back-and-forth basketball, but Dallas did not allow them to. Of Milwaukee’s 100 possessions, just 10 of them came in transition, per Mavs analytics. And on the Bucks’ 90 halfcourt possessions, they scored just 63 points, or 0.70 points per possession. For the game, Dallas’ 71.2 defensive rating was a single-game best since a November 2014 win against Philadelphia.
“We had a plan, we stuck to it, and then we got down early,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “But we stayed the course, we stuck to it, and we wanted to make these guys have to beat us in the halfcourt. These games get very physical and a little ugly, because it’s hard to get shots. But in our situation right now, this is what we’ve got to do to give ourselves a win.”
There’s a precedent in place for the Mavs to find success in these grind-it-out kinds of games. Dallas was 22-8 last season in games played at a pace of 95.0 possessions per 48 minutes or slower, per NBA Stats, and last night’s tilt was played at a crawling 92.63 poss/48, the second-slowest game of the Mavs’ season.
The Mavericks believe their halfcourt defense is stout enough to withstand almost any opponent, and their defensive numbers in those situations have been on the upswing as of late. Dallas now has the 13th-best defense in terms of efficiency in the halfcourt, according to Synergy Sports, at 0.895 points per possession allowed. Meanwhile, the Mavs rank 28th in transition defense. It’s vital that this team dictates the tempo.
One source of the team’s success last night was rookie Dorian Finney-Smith, who played more than 31 minutes in what was essentially his NBA debut. Before Sunday, the 23-year-old had zero points and one rebound to his name, but by the end of the contest he forced Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo into an off-balance fallaway to win the game in regulation.
Maybe the Greek Freak was going to take a step-back all along. Or maybe Finney-Smith forced him into a shot he didn’t want to take, simply by staying patient. “Just keep the ball in front of me, don’t foul, and contest the shot,” the Mavs rookie said after the game, walking through his thought process on that final play. “I did a great job, he missed the shot, and it forced overtime.”
All together the Mavericks allowed just 53.2 points per 100 possessions when Finney-Smith played on Sunday, per NBA Stats. And this came in his first meaningful minutes as a pro. Not bad for a first impression.
Another was center Andrew Bogut, who put together his most effective performance as a Maverick, scoring just two points but grabbing 16 rebounds and drawing two charges. Through Sunday’s games, no one in the NBA had drawn more charges than the first-year Maverick.
“I think that discourages them, takes them out from what they want to do,” Bogut said. “And if we can clog the lane up and just make things tough defensively, it’s kind of like a pinball effect, where every time they come in the lane they get hit by someone, contested at the rim, or someone’s taking a charge. It gets annoying to play against a team like that after a while.”
Charges also result in a turnover, and Dallas forced plenty of those on Sunday. Milwaukee gave it away 27 times, tied for the most by a Mavs opponent since March 2004. The club is 16-4 when forcing at least 20 turnovers since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, per Basketball-Reference.
If the Mavericks continue defending the way they did against the Bucks, they’ll quickly become a very annoying opponent. And that’s exactly what they want to be.