After putting together one of their better defensive performances of the season against the Miami Heat, the Mavericks struggled to do the same against the Los Angeles Clippers in a 98-112 loss. The defense that held the Heat under 100 points, could not string together consistent stops in the fourth quarter against the Clippers, in which they were outscored 33 to 19.
The inconsistency on defense captures the shortcomings and frustrations this team has struggled to replicate last year’s defense tenacity. Perhaps, last season was the honeymoon phase in Kidd’s new system and the team’s buy-in for their new coach is beginning to dissipate. It’s still too soon to tell. But what is clear is this 2022-2023 defense has consistently failed to establish the identity that Kidd has preached all season long. And Kidd, bluntly publicly challenged his team. Sometimes, public critiques can ignite a team to respond positively and fervently. That’s what happened against the Heat. Down their best defensive big man Maxi Kleber and the return of their best wing defenders in Josh Green and Dorian Finney-Smith, the Mavs held the Heat leading scorers under their scoring averages.
Against the Clippers, the Mavericks showed similar effort and energy on defense that held the Clippers to 37.2FG% in the first half. However, that number went up to 55.9FG% in the second half as Kawhi Leonard and Norman Powell aggressively got to their spots and made timely shots and put the Mavs on their heels. An efficient Leonard (30 points, 10-of-18) was too much for Mavs defenders to contend with as the game progressed. He weaponized Mavs double teams, made uncontested layups, and found matchups to exploit. While the Mavs struggled to find points in the closing minutes, they didn’t do themselves any favors at the free throw line, converting 15-of-26, while the Clippers made 30-of-31 at the stripe.
“You’ve got to work. You’ve got to be confident. Your routine – you’ve got to work on it every day at practice.” Jason Kidd commented on the free-throw struggles post game. “It is a big thing. When you get to the line the most in the league and you’re shooting in the bottom of the league, that doesn’t help you win. Free throws can help you win, especially when you’re a good team. The Clippers shot 98%. They missed one. Understand it stops runs and it continues to keep a run going. That’s our next step, being able to make those free throws.”
Untimely injuries and personnel have challenged establishing a defensive presence the Mavs need to separate themselves in the wide open West. Currently 5th in the West, the opportunity to move ahead is still within reach. However, the Mavericks have struggled to establish paint presence all season long. Their internal lauded signing of Javale McGee has made the opposite effect the team envisioned for. The Mavs have turned to Dwight Powell, Christian Wood, and Maxi Kleber (prior to injury) to be their defensive anchors for the season. But with Kleber out for the foreseeable future, the Mavs have utilized Powell and Wood to serve as rim protectors. While their effort has served well in some possessions and games, per TeamRankings, the Mavs are allowing opponents to convert 49% points in the paint, currently 18th league wide.
After the Clippers loss, the Mavericks are 4-11 in January, sitting 5th in the West despite being 24th in defense. All of which reflects the inconsistent defensive efforts that have happened for four months. In a two game span, they showed their fullest capability against the Heat and shortcomings against the Clippers.
“For now, after this loss, we went back into the locker room and it was positive. We know we can hang with the guys.” Tim Hardaway Jr. talked about the mindset of the locker room post-game. “We know defensively we’re starting to get better. Especially with Doe [Dorian Finney-Smith] and Josh [Green] being back. I think the mood in the locker room is positive. We have to be better on that end of the floor. We have to limit little mistakes and keeping some guys off the line. I think that will go a long way for us.”
To avoid a disappointing season, they have to decide which defense they want to be. As discussed, they have the potential for both, with each resulting with a different outcome.