When Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle took over for Avery Johnson during the summer of 2008 and gathered his new team for training camp at SMU's practice center, he stressed two key points:
1) With Jason Kidd leading the show, the Mavs were going to throw out the offensive playbook and operate as a "flow" team to take full advantage of Kidd's floor skills and vision.
2) If the Mavs were going to succeed as a "flow" offense, they would have to adopt a "defensive disposition." In other words, Carlisle was not going to coach the Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors. He wanted the offense to run free, but the defense had to be grounded in physical, half-court principles. Johnson certainly changed the defensive culture after Don Nelson, but Carlisle emphasized the difficulty in playing fast and loose offensively and at the same time hard-edged defensively. He constantly spoke of not letting fastbreak-style offense "erode" disciplined defense.
That Carlisle was preaching the same message after Game 76 of Year 2 must be frustrating. The Oklahoma City Thunder had just put up 121 points and led by 19 points midway through the fourth quarter. Only a desperate comeback attempt made the final score, 121-116, respectable.
"One of the things about being a flow team and being able to play off each other and not have a lot of play calling and stuff is when you get in a groove offensively, you can't allow it to erode what you are trying to do defensively," Carlisle said. "We had an eight-point lead (29-21) at one point in the first quarter and then we gave it up as the quarter came to a close."
An eventual 16-3 Oklahoma City run set up the rout as the Thunder burned the Mavs with easy buckets inside. Most aggravating during that stretch was eight points in two minutes to start the second quarter by reserve forward-center Nick Collison, with all but two points coming under the basket. Collison averages 5.7 points a game, but finished with 17.
Between Oklahoma City closing out the first quarter with a 14-8 burst and ending the second with a 9-4 spurt, the young and talented Thunder took a 67-59 lead and a ton of confidence into the locker room.
"Good teams have got to be able to close out quarters and hold leads in those situations," Carlisle said. "We struggled to do it in the first quarter and in the second. We got behind and were behind the rest of the night."
Defense has come and gone for the Mavs throughout the season:
*In their first 26 games, going 19-7, the Mavs allowed three teams to shoot 50 percent or better and they gave up 100 or more points 10 times.
*In going 13-13 over the next 26 games leading to the All-Star break, Dallas gave up 50 percent shooting or better nine times and 49 percent five other times. The Mavs surrendered at least 100 points 15 times, and at least 110 eight times.
*During the 13-1 stretch after the trade, the Mavs again buckled down and allowed just two opponents to shoot 50 percent or better. They went six consecutive games without allowing 100 points until a rash of injuries forced the Mavs to play smaller and faster. That ended the string of sub-100-point games, but it didn't sabotage good team defense that kept opponent shooting percentages fairly low.
*And finally, in this last 5-6 stretch, seven of 11 opponents have surpassed 100 points. Three have reached at least 115 and two have exceeded 120. Six teams have shot 50 percent or better.
"I don't know. Not much, obviously," was Dirk Nowitzki's reply to a question asking what's going on with the defense. He elaborated: "We've all got to be on the same page defensively. If there's a coverage, we've got to execute it, all five guys. It's not one or two guys."
Carlisle calls it defensive disposition.
"I think the effort is there," Kidd said. "It's more or less inconsistency. Sometimes we're not following the game plan. If you give up 50-something-percent shooting, you're not going to win."