DALLAS - The last time we saw the Dallas Mavericks on an NBA floor, they found themselves trying to stand up for themselves. The Los Angeles Clippers may not have won that first-round playoff series because of their at-edge-brutality, their over-the-line racial howls or their incessant bench-jockeying ...
But it didn't hurt.
Enter ... "The Dawgs.''
"The dawgs,'' J-Rich says in this video of him sharing a flight to Dallas with Johnson, "is on the way.''
In that series and in his career, Luka Doncic has never backed down from a challenge - even challenges meant to intimidate him. But he doesn't initiate the chippiness. In that series, Kristaps Porzingis was so willing to be physically supportive that he was the first to a scrum in defense of Doncic. But he doesn't initiate the chippiness, either.
Josh Richardson has a reputation as a defender who will hassle opponents with both skill and attitude. James Johnson has a reputation as someone who, had he been on the floor while Doncic was getting wrestled with or getting stepped on, would have entered the fight ...
And ended the fight.
There is the basketball-only stuff that Dallas has added to the roster this season with Richardson (acquired in a trade of Seth Curry to the Sixers), Johnson (acquired in a complicated trade that clears out Delon Wright and Justin Jackson) and top draft pick Josh Green (the Arizona star taken at No. 18). Toss in the signing of Wesley Iwundu and the new group registers as likely-premium defenders - something to balance a Dallas team that relies heavily on the most efficiently productive offense in NBA history.
“Coming off of last year our offense was historically great,'' coach Rick Carlisle said. "We need to get our defense better, and some of it is going to be the kind of work that we put in during training camp (which starts Tuesday). But the other part of it is when we draft and when we acquire players, we want to acquire players with that mindset and with that ability.”
The Mavs' collective mindset just changed. Luka now has "bodyguards.''
Carlisle is fond of saying a team cannot be made up of all "milk-drinkers.'' Then-Clippers coach Doc Rivers, summing up what his non-milk-drinkers accomplished in that series, proudly labeled some of his guys "agitators.''
Now Dallas employs both.
No, the next time Dallas plays the Clippers, they might not have to use lots of Maxi Kleber or the (now-departed) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Kawhi Leonard. The Mavs are now closer to being able defend him, and players like him, with guys who are almost as good at defense as he is at offense.
While Johnson sort of "is what he is'' (a black-belt in Karate with MMA training and "Bloodsport'' as a nickname) it so happens that Richardson is also capable of scoring (he's been a 16-points guy and can do that again alongside set-ups from Luka. Iwundu is a 6-6 perimeter defender who, due to his 7-foot-1 wingspan, defends and contests shots. And Green? His defensive motor is always on, with hopes that he can develop on the other end, too.
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The Mavs front office entered this short offseason (training camp begins Tuesday and the regular season in three weeks) with a to-do list. "Getting a third star'' hasn't happened yet. But "getting better defensively'' and "adding some dawg'' has.
Carlisle's team is suddenly just as gifted as ever on the offensive end (especially in a few weeks, when Porzingis' knee heals) but now substantially better in terms of physicality, brutishness and 'tude.
The next time a Dallas opponent tries to intimidate and shove around Luka and the Mavs, Dallas will shove back. Or maybe, thanks to "The Dawgs,'' Dallas will be the first to intimidate, the first to shove.