The Dallas Mavericks entered Friday's win over the Miami Heat, having ranked 29th in defensive rating for January and allowing 406 points over their last three games. The lack of execution on that front had reached rock-bottom levels with a dire need for a wake-up call.
After the Mavs' loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, coach Jason Kidd likened the team's defense to allowing a shootaround. Dallas had given up 130 points for the third consecutive game in what had become the latest display of shortcomings defensively.
"If it’s with this personnel, you have to keep asking or demanding for those guys to play defense," Kidd said. "It’s not, you know, just the offensive end, and tonight, again, we gave up 130. The team shot 57 percent … It’s a shootaround. You know, in this case, in this league, you do that no matter if you have Luka [Doncic], or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] or LeBron [James], you’re going to lose.
The Mavs responded well to being called out for the lack of effort. Dorian Finney-Smith led the charge in the locker room by expressing that the team "has to be better" on that end after the loss to the Hawks.
"I thought Doe said it after the game and yesterday that our defense has to be better," Kidd said of Finney-Smith.
Kidd also revealed that Maxi Kleber, who is currently sidelined as he recovers from a torn hamstring, was as vocal as he's ever been during a team film session. He pointed on no shortage of things for the team to clean up.
"I thought Maxi's voice yesterday in film was right on. Some said that's the most he's talked in the time that he's been here," Kidd said of Kleber. "But that was right on watching film. He said a lot of stuff that hit home with everybody."
A big adjustment for the Mavs featured the deployment of a small ball group. They had recently been starting Dwight Powell and Christian Wood alongside each other. With Wood sidelined due to a fractured thumb, the team went with Powell at the five and even used lineups featuring Finney-Smith in a micro-center role.
When the Mavs are deploying a lineup that doesn't feature a traditional big man enabled them to be more aggressive in running 3-point shooters off the line. They can make the second, third, and fourth rotations quicker and without hesitation; with that group, there is continuity in doing so along with the physical tools to execute it.
"They were good," Kidd said of the small ball lineups. "That group has played with each other; they understand what they have to do. There's no indecisiveness. They play, they talk. Deflections were probably the highest tonight. Just running guys off of 3s. Just the extra effort was there. It kind of reminded us of last year at the end of the season when we were playing with that effort."
There is no possession that greater epitomizes the ideal outcome for the Mavs' defense when putting this style to use than when Luka Doncic had used multiple fly-bys to prevent a 3-point attempt. In the process, Powell had cut off a drive on the initial help rotation, then contested a pull-up from mid-range on the second look.
With greater speed by playing small, the Mavs could more effectively send a double at Jimmy Butler in the post to not only get the ball out of his hands, but to actually make the subsequent rotations to prevent an advantage. During the team's recent five-game road trip, they were shredded by Kawhi Leonard in these situations with bigs on the court.
The play in the clip below is a prime display of the Mavs' defense being on a string after doubling Butler in the post. With an underlying goal of running shooters off the line, the commitment required when recovering is even greater for the unit. The ball reversed numerous times with the end result being a contested short-range jumper for Butler late in the clock.
The timing of communication is instrumental in neutralizing potential slight advantages when doubling. In the clip below, as Tim Hardaway Jr. disengages from doubling Butler, he signals to Dorian Finney-Smith to take the weak-side corner, enabling him to force a rushed, contested catch-and-shoot jumper. Had that communication not happened, maybe the outcome ends up being different with the Heat having a slightly greater advantage.
The Mavs benefit from having a lot of perimeter size in their small ball lineups by having a backcourt consisting of Doncic and Dinwiddie. Having such personnel enables them to be more care-free with switching screening actions. As long as the group is paying attention when the roller is tagged, the results to finish the play can be like in the example below: a partially blocked catch-and-shoot jumper late in the clock.
“We know what we have to do when we go into practice," Bullock said of the Mavs' defensive preparation. "We look at 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 effort and stick to the game plan. Go out there and just try to perform and do it.”
Being able to deploy a center that can effectively hold his own out in space after switching onto a shifty guard like Victor Oladipo is one of the advantages the Mavs' defense had at their disposal. Powell ends the possession below with an impactful contest on a naturally inefficient shot attempt.
It also helps to have more wing personnel available to play who can hold their own against tough matchups. After having a game back under his belt following a return to the lineup, Green had a strong possession against Butler. The outcome was a turnover after containing a drive despite having to make a quick lateral slide and accept contact.
The Mavs had struggled with properly communicating as plays developed in recent games. In order to properly recover after doubling, quick decisions and commitments have to be made. There are limitations that come with all personnel and schemes. Being cognizant of them helps to raise the floor of how the unit performs.
One of the general advantages with switching everything and playing close to the level of handoffs and screens is the ability to take away the option of initial outcomes for the offense. The Heat like to use handoffs to create quick trigger 3-pointers, but the Mavs challenged those looks.
An example of how the Mavs overcame some of the limitations of their switch everything approach came with interior help rotations. In the play below, Kyle Lowry is expecting the switch on the handoff, which would naturally leave a window to make a bounce pass. Josh Green was in a great position to wall up the finish attempt, forcing a missed shot.
Again, when the opposition attempts to weaponize those potential discrepancies that systematically come from a base approach, it takes a commitment from the unit to overcome it. Against the handoff in the play below, Finney-Smith pressured the pass after the initial switch. Doncic rotated to engage Butler on the catch. All of that allowed Green to recover to contest the short-range shot attempt.
Partly why the Mavs had so much success defensively was their ability to contain Bam Adebayo despite going small and often sending doubles at Butler. The Heat needed their big man to make the Mavs pay for deploying a small lineup to perhaps prompt them to deploy JaVale McGee to have more size on the court. Instead, Adebayo went scoreless in the post and struggled to consistently create advantages using his size. Powell's impact against Adebayo was clear in addition to his energy when swarming.
"Oh he was great," Kidd said of Powell's performance against the Heat. "He was great at both ends -- the energy. He's never going to be talked about as someone scoring 10-20 points a night but just the energy, effort, doing all of the little things. I thought, again, he did a pretty good job on Bam [Adebayo]. Bam's an All-Star in this league. He's tough to guard but I thought he made it difficult. Even Bam made some shots but I thought [Powell] was incredible tonight."
With the Mavs favoring speed and quickness with their lineup combinations, they had the tools at their disposal to execute at a high level by playing a swarming style of half-court defense. Doing so requires consistent effort and the team feels as though that was provided.
"I thought they played for 48 minutes," Kidd said of the Mavs' defensive effort against the Heat. "I thought even the group that was in at the end played with energy and effort. I think there was clarity of what we've asked them to do in this game plan and they responded."
The Mavs clearly have continuity and comfort with going small, but again, without more talented personnel that fits such a style, they have to continue to iron out the details when deploying a big man like Wood or McGee. The team felt it was needed to add more size after their Western Conference Finals series for a reason.