DALLAS -- The zone defense that stormed the league and carried the Dallas Mavericks to a 24-5 record is no longer as prominent as the Mavs look to ratchet up their man coverage.
"Teams around the league are getting more sophisticated at attacking it because they're seeing it more, not just from us, but from other teams," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "If you play it all the time, teams are going to adjust and they're going to be able to attack it well, so you've got to be able to change it up. Look, man defense is going to be your foundation."
The Mavs' defense, really since Dirk Nowitzki went out on Dec. 27, has slipped significantly. Before the injuries hit, Dallas' defense ranked in the top five in the league in both scoring and field-goal percentage. Entering tonight's game against the Houston Rockets, who shoot the 3-ball well and will demand more man-to-man defense, Dallas ranks sixth in scoring (94.4 ppg), but has dropped all the way to 11th in field-goal percentage (44.9).
Over the last few weeks, the Mavs have ramped down the possessions in which they go to the zone, which had become such an effective weapon that opposing players and coaches were referring to the Mavs as possessing the most-used and most-effective zone defense in the league.
Injuries to Nowitzki and Caron Butler, while having to mix in new players, is another reason Dallas has cut down on the zone. Teaching zone principles takes practice time, something that's often in short supply during the season.
"We played a little zone against the Clippers [on Tuesday], but I think we probably have been playing more man of late because you're going to have to be able to guard at some point in this season," guard Jason Kidd said. "And for us, we were working on double-teaming and coming out of the double-team in that last game."
Dallas was effective doubling Blake Griffin with Kidd often the guard coming down on the double. The Mavs haven't phased out their zone by any means, but they know that when push comes to shove in the playoffs, they won't get by with zone defense alone. They've got to be able to man up.
"We're still working on it," Carlisle said. "Sometimes it's the team we're playing. Sometimes we just feel like we've got to stick with our man and make that work. With the case tonight, Houston really stretches you out because of their 3-point shooting and their ability to pass and cut."