DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks front office put in a lot of work to build the kind of defense capable of providing hope of a playoff run.
The first major step was to bring back big man Tyson Chandler by negotiating a trade with the New York Knicks in June. The next was to make a deal with the Boston Celtics for point guard Rajon Rondo in December.
Dallas is a below-average defensive team without Rondo, who hasn't played since suffering a broken nose and left orbital bone Jan. 31. The Mavs had a third of a season of proof of that before they pulled the trigger on that blockbuster trade.
Dallas is absolutely dreadful defensively without Chandler. The Mavs only needed one awful night to confirm that.
Chandler sprained his left ankle 39 seconds into Monday's 115-98 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and limped around for another 45 seconds before leaving the game for good. Not coincidentally, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan had the most dominant performance of his career, as he put up 22 points and an NBA season-high 27 rebounds.
"He looked like Wilt Chamberlain playing out there in 1963," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "Really, he did. He played great, and we didn't have any good answers."
The Mavs didn't have any good answers for Clippers point guard Chris Paul, either, as the All-Star went off for 25 points and 13 rebounds.
Paul is on the list of elite West point guards the Mavs had in mind when they dealt for Rondo, a four-time All-Defense pest. So is Golden State's Stephen Curry, who torched the Mavs for 51 points in a Warriors win last week.
The Mavs had a top-10 defensive efficiency rating during the stretch when they had Rondo and Chandler healthy.
Without them, it's bound to get ugly, even against a Clippers team that sputtered into American Airlines Center at the end of a eight-game road trip and without superstar power forward Blake Griffin.
"We've got to try," said power forward Dirk Nowitzki, who has always been challenged defensively, due to his lack of athleticism, and is especially so at the ripe old age of 36. "We've got to try to rotate for each other and play hard. I don't know what else to tell you. Hopefully they won't be out too long."
Tuesday will probably be a critical day in determining Dallas' playoff seeding, despite the fact that the Mavs are off, other than weights and film sessions.
Rondo has a doctor's visit and is likely to find out for certain whether he can avoid surgery. That could be the difference between his returning quickly after the All-Star break and a potentially extended absence.
The Mavs will know more about the severity of Chandler's ankle sprain, which they hope is of the mild variety.
Dallas will also get word on the severity of the left hip strain that caused shooting guard Monta Ellis to sit the final 44 minutes of Monday's loss. Although Ellis isn't a good defender, he is the Mavs' leading scorer and one of the league's premier clutch offensive players.
The Mavs might be able to survive a spell without their starting backcourt. That certainly isn't the case with Chandler, the league's sixth-leading rebounder and the only pure center on the roster.
"Tyson's everything for us on defense," said J.J. Barea, who has been filling in for Rondo in the starting lineup.
Part of the problem is his backups are so bad that Al-Farouq Aminu, a small forward most of his career, has been getting most of the reserve center minutes. Dwight Powell has some promise, but the second-round pick is a rookie developmental project -- not part of a playoff rotation. Greg Smith just isn't good at basketball, as he reminded with a five-minute stretch in the first half in which he had a negative-15 plus-minus.
There's a reason the Mavs eagerly anticipate 18-year veteran Jermaine O'Neal getting out of his rocking chair and joining them. He at least has the bulk to bang and the wisdom to be in good position.
But O'Neal isn't going to be ready to help Wednesday against the Utah Jazz, and the Mavs absolutely don't want to limp into the All-Star break with three losses in four games. How can they put up a decent defensive fight without Chandler and Rondo?
"We've just got to be persistent, we've got to scramble and we've just got to find a way," Carlisle said. "That's what it comes down to."