Against Miami, everything looked different.
No, not the offense. The defense. For what felt like the first time all season, the Dallas Mavericks held a team to sub-40 percent 3-point shooting, specifically 20 percent, in a 115-90 win over the Heat at American Airlines Center Friday night.
It marked just the second time all season Dallas held a team to under 100 points. A feat that was commonplace during the 2021-22 season. The uptick in defensive effort and intensity came on the heels of a 130-122 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, where Dallas’ defense was picked apart and chastised for its lack of effort.
So, what changed? If you ask Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd, it was two words: energy and effort.
“I thought even the group that was in at the end played with energy and effort,” Kidd said after the game. “I think there was a clarity of what we’ve asked them to do in this game plan and they responded. It wasn’t me calling them out or saying we had a walk-through or shoot-around during the game against Atlanta. You could see they were flying around. Now we’ve got to hold them to that standard.”
In what has been a mixed-bag season, Dallas’ defense has been the only consistent element of the team. The problem is the defense has been consistently bad. When Miami came to town, it was the first sighting of a Mavericks team that wasn’t content with merely trying to outscore opponents.
Again, Luka Doncic walked into a 34-point, 12-rebound, and seven-assist performance. But this time his offensive efforts weren’t in vain because Dallas actually got stops.
To Reggie Bullock, who scored 15 points and is starting to look more like his 2022 version of himself, the improvement on the defensive end of the floor came down to defending as a team.
“It was just a team effort,” he said. “Obviously, [the lineup] was a lot smaller tonight, people were flying around, giving multiple efforts, trying to take away 3s from them. But it was just the effort that guys put in, the five that Coach put out there.”
He added: “We know what we have to do when we go into practice. We look at the film, we see the things that they put two on, our spots that we need to be at on the defensive end. We just have to give multiple efforts and stick to the game plan. Go out there and just try to perform and do it.”
Often, when energy and effort are given as reasons teams struggle, it is looked at as coach-speak. But, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Dallas. This version of the Mavericks chooses when it wants to defend well. That is what makes this season an enigma — Dallas has its recipe for success, yet it often chooses the road most difficult.
So, Friday night’s win should serve as a lesson to the Mavericks. Having Doncic save the team night after night is electrifying, but sustained success comes from being willing to defend. To this point in the season, Dallas hasn’t been a team that plays like its defense matters. If it wants to try and make another deep run in the playoffs, defending and doing so well needs to be the internalized message moving forward.
“Sometimes they can be tired or upset,” Kidd said. “I don’t know. I think it’s just the journey that all teams go through of trying to find identity, trying to find continuity and trust. Sometimes you don’t have to lose but you do lose and you find out the character of the group in that locker room. I thought they responded.”
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