The D is definitely back in Dallas

DALLAS -- Defensive messes don’t get much uglier than the Dallas Mavericks’ sorry start this season.

The Miami Heat pretty much scored at will while running the Mavs out of their own gym during a Christmas Day catastrophe. The Denver Nuggets basically did the same thing to the Mavs the very next night. And then the Oklahoma City Thunder became the third straight team to crack triple digits against the defending champions, with a Kevin Durant buzzer-beating 3-pointer sending the Mavs spiraling to an 0-3 start.

Oh, how the Mavs missed their defensive anchor, the dearly departed via free agency Tyson Chandler.

Maybe not so much, actually.

Don’t look now, but the Mavs have been one of the NBA’s best defensive teams since stumbling out of the blocks. They’ve now held nine straight foes under 100 points after rolling to a 102-76 rout of the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night.

“We knew the first couple of games weren’t who we really are,” big man Brendan Haywood said. “We knew we were going to get better. Those games count on our record and it wasn’t pretty at all, but we knew that’s not who the Dallas Mavericks were going to be for the course of the season.”

The Mavs believe these numbers are much more reflective of the character and quality of this team: 86.9 points and a .421 field goal percentage. That’s what they’ve allowed while winning seven of the last nine games to climb out of their hole and back into the pack of Western Conference contenders.

That points allowed figure would rank third in the league. The field goal percentage allowed would be the seventh-lowest in the NBA.

“Reality hit us pretty quickly,” said coach Rick Carlisle, whose team is 7-0 when allowing less than 90 points and 7-5 overall. “The first two games helped us with our conditioning a little bit. It helped us get our minds pointed in the right direction. And we came out with a lot of fight after that. It’s competing, it’s fight, it’s all those things that are really key to this year.

“Yet, at the same time, it’s fragile. You can never feel that you have things figured out in this league, ever.”

That’s the message from assistant coach Monte Mathis, who filled the large shoes of Dwane Casey when the Mavs’ defensive coordinator became the Toronto Raptors’ head coach soon after last summer’s championship celebrations.

Mathis is pleased the Mavs’ newcomers seem to be grasping the team’s defensive principles, including the various pick-and-roll coverages and a zone scheme Haywood says “is like reading Chinese” at first. He appreciates the players’ intensity. But Mathis certainly isn’t ready to declare these Mavs a defensive success story.

“We’re definitely playing better on defense,” Mathis said. “The effort is there. … We’ve got a lot of improvement still to come to get where we want to get, but the guys are buying in.”

If the Mavs keep this up, folks will have to start buying into them being a tough defensive team, a stunning development after their gift-giving Christmas debut.