Hold Steady

Posted by Rob Mahoney on February 1, 2010 under Commentary | Read the First Comment

Saturday’s game offered us a glimpse into an alternate dimension; it’s a freakish world where pass-first point guards can bend the laws of space and time with their drives to the basket, and recreate the laws of the game based on their every whim. Hence, y’know, the perfectly competent but hardly explosive Andre Miller dropping 52 points against what’s supposed to be a top-notch defensive squad.

The Mavs haven’t been performing well defensively of late, and Miller is simply the latest to take advantage. But here’s the bizarre thing: the Mavs didn’t defend Andre Miller well, but despite the incredible manner in which the Blazers put points on the board, the Mavs weren’t overwhelmingly miserable on defense.

There’s no excuse for what Andre Miller was able to do with Jason Kidd. Miller doesn’t have notable quickness or shooting ability, and Kidd’s knack for bothering ball-handlers should have helped his cause. But no Maverick guard — not Kidd, not J.J., not JET — had any hope of slowing Miller. The stars aligned and Andre Miller was resolved to destroy.

But Miller aside, the defense was surprisingly competent. I realize that omitting 52 points from the scoreboard is asking a bit much, but all I ask is that this not be considered a complete defensive breakdown. Even Miller was forced into plenty of tough shots, and though the Mavs did anything but stop him, I don’t consider the game to necessarily be a team-wide defensive failure. Miller’s explosion represents something far more singular. Though the Mavs had a hard time getting stops against Andre Miller on Saturday night, they actually did get their fair share of stops against the Portland Trailblazers.

Miller’s shot volume (31 FGAs for the night, plus eight FTAs) for the night was pretty incredible. And his efficiency (22 of those 31 FGAs were makes) with that volume had a lot to do with the Blazers shooting 53.5% for the evening. But the rest of the Blazers shot just 43.6% from the field, which is more than passable. Andre Miller was able to do something completely fantastic, but that doesn’t mean that the Mavs weren’t playing effective defense in other areas. Obviously, the on-ball defense of Kidd and Barea, in particular, needs work. Erick Dampier’s bum knee didn’t help him protect the basket. And Rick Carlisle’s too little, too late decision to switch Shawn Marion onto Andre Miller in overtime was absurdly tardy. But in between, the Mavs forced the Blazers into plenty of bad shots, a handful of turnovers, and a few shot clock violations. Portland’s journey to 114 was hardly a parade, and though the final defensive numbers for the Mavs (111.8 points/100 possessions, 55.2% eFG allowed, opponent turnover rate of just 11.8) are decidedly subpar, I feel like this really is a case where the stats and the headlines don’t tell the whole story.

Having an opponent explode for 52 points is, from a defensive standpoint, unacceptable for a team like the Mavs. That alone is reason enough to worry about the defense. But don’t overstate the significance of Miller’s performance. Now, if you’d like to point out that the Mavs have allowed 117.5 points per 100 possessions over the last three games as evidence of a defensive fall-off, that starts to look like the beginnings of a bonafide trend.

But it’s possible you’d be wrong. Recall to the first game of that three-game stretch, a 108-107 Mavs’ win over the Bucks. Here’s what Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don’t Lie had to say following the “shootout”:

This is not a case of reputation taking precedence over play, both the Mavericks and Bucks got after it defensively. They are very good defensive teams that just happened to come through with a pair of knockout efforts offensively, in what made for the best game of the night.

Dallas just screens and screens and doesn’t stop moving, even if it isn’t running all that much. Milwaukee still loves that screen and roll start, but once penetration is achieved the Bucks keep defenses on its heels by spreading the floor and always looking for that baseline three-pointer.

The result was a fantastic game.

You have to evaluate defenses based on results. I get that. But to ask a solid defensive team to perform at a high level every night is ludicrous. Some nights an opponent will waltz into the arena and make everything look easy, regardless of the defensive presence. It’s the kind of thing we’ve seen Dirk do to opponents time and time again, regardless of the prestige of an opposing team defense or individual defender.

The Mavs’ defense is far from perfect, which is a given considering this weekend’s events. But the flaws are hardly as deep-seeded or significant as one might think. The Mavs are still playing with effort and intensity on D (with a few exceptions), even if there are significant errors in their execution. Over the course of the regular season, it’s important that a playoff team do two things: demonstrate that they’re capable of playing quality defense and maintain a high level of effort, even if not execution. Teams can tweak and tech against particular opponents in a seven game series, but if the issues are motivational? Well, that’s a bit more complex. Come April, I’d much rather that the Mavs’ greatest defensive hurdles be in the film room than in their own heads.

Advanced box score values from HoopData.

  • Kirk Henderson

    I’m really not worried, which is new as I’ve spent the last few years in WTF mode following a loss like that.

    We watched the 2007 team Juggernaut to an unreal record, only to find out harshly that there wasn’t another gear to kick into. I think this team has a few more gears we’ve only glimpsed at, and I’m fine with that.

    All-star break has a way of playing havoc with a teams chemistry and rhythm. I hope and believe this particular Mavs team will find that balance and rhythm down the home stretch and maybe, for once, we’ll go into the playoffs with a sense of dominance.