The Mavericks have been known for their offense all season, and rightfully so. Dallas ranked third in the league in offensive efficiency behind monster seasons from Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. But until now, these Mavs haven’t been known for their defensive prowess. It’s come as a surprise to some, then, that the Dallas defense ranks No. 1 overall among playoff teams since the postseason began.

As we discussed after Game 2, the Mavs’ biggest defensive adjustment between the end of the regular-season series with the Spurs and the first game of the playoffs has been the team’s insistence on switching against every pick-and-roll involving Spurs guards not named Manu Ginobili. San Antonio’s point guards, Tony Parker and Patty Mills, are two of the quickest, shiftiest ball-handlers in the game, so it might seem on that Dallas voluntarily switches big men onto the guards while the Mavs’ smaller defenders bang with the Spurs’ big boys inside. But that strategy has certainly paid off thus far, especially in Game 2, when Dallas forced 22 Spurs turnovers that led to 33 Mavericks points.

The Mavs typically tried to avoid switching bigs like Nowitzki or Sam Dalembert against pick-and-rolls. Neither are necessarily poor defenders, but smaller guards for the most part won those individual matchups during the regular season. That’s what makes it such an interesting strategy, and what also makes the team’s defensive success more surprising than usual. But as head coach Rick Carlisle said after Friday’s practice, against a team as good as San Antonio you have to find something that works and stick to it, no matter how out of the ordinary it might be.

“We’re doing a lot of different things on defense that we don’t necessarily like to do, because they’re such a great team,” Carlisle said. “It’s a difficult task. It’s a very difficult task. We’ve got to keep adjusting as the series goes along, but the most important thing is they’re a team that keeps playing throughout possessions. They’ve hit us with a lot of points late in the shot clock, and we’ve got to do a better job there.”

Let’s take a quick look inside the Mavs’ switch-heavy defensive system to see how it worked so effectively in Game 2. In this example from the first quarter, Tiago Splitter is going to set a screen on Shawn Marion, responsible for guarding Tony Parker. But instead of Marion going under the screen, leaving Dirk Nowitzki to hedge by himself (risking a Parker blow-by for a layup), Dirk willingly switches onto Parker and Marion takes the screen all the way.

Dirk Marion Switch

A less patient point guard might immediately settle for attempting a tough 15-foot floater, but Parker is too experienced for that. He’s waiting for Splitter to slip away from Marion, or for Dirk to challenge hard off the screen. If the latter happens, Parker can turn on the jets and dribble past Nowitzki. But that doesn’t happen. Nowitzki holds firm and Marion briefly double-teams Parker, eliminating any chance for a pass to the rolling, wide-open, Splitter.

Quick Double

Splitter is all by his lonesome, but there’s no way Parker can make that pass. He’s trapped. Patient as ever, though, as Carlisle mentioned, Parker dribbles back out to the three-point line before ultimately being isolated against Nowitzki. A less-experienced defender would follow Parker all the way, but Dirk realizes his speed limitations and stays planted at the free throw line.

Nowitzki back off

With the shot clock winding down and no driving lane open, Parker is forced into a mid-range jump shot, the least desirable outcome for any Spurs possession. Because Nowitzki and Marion were able to execute the switch so seamlessly, it eliminated every single outcome the Spurs had hoped for:

1. If they’d failed to switch, Parker would have had a layup,
2. If they’d switched but not defended the passing lane, Splitter would have had a layup,
3. If they hadn’t switched, the Mavs defense would then have had to rotate quickly, in the process possibly leaving Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green open behind the three-point line, OR
4. Dalembert would have to leave his man, Tim Duncan, to help out against the driving Parker, leaving the Big Fundamental wide-open for a layup of his own.

Instead, Dallas prevented all four of those much more efficient looks and the Spurs had to settle. Of course, not every ball-handler is as patient as Parker. Some might have tried to force the action in one way or another, whether by dribble penetration or attempting a difficult pass. That’s where all the turnovers came from.

“With us, what we’re doing defensively, we’re able to stay with guys a little bit longer and not leave shooters wide open,” Mavs point guard Devin Harris said. “It’s enabled us to really be more active on defense.”

Added Nowitzki, on the 22 turnovers forced: “That was big, especially against a smart team. We didn’t really expect that. But we’ve got to come out with the same force defensively and not let up, and keep getting back in transition. That’s the number one key. I like what we did, but it’s just one game. We’ve got to prove it here coming home.”

If Dallas defenders can keep navigating through San Antonio’s fast-paced pick-and-roll offense, the Mavs have to like their chances in Game 3.


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