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No defense equals trouble in Dallas
by Gary Clemente / March 29, 2002

Boom!

You heard it used by Denzel Washington as Alonzo, the raw as an exposed nerve L.A. narcotics cop in "Training Day." A crooked lawman who never met a greenback he didn't like, Washington's character buzzsawed his way through his victims like a heat-seeking power forward rocketing through the lane.

Boom! could also describe the Dallas Mavericks laser-guided offense. After years of languishing as bottom feeders in the NBA, the Mavs are now munching on smaller prey with the ferocity of a tiger shark. Thanks to an offense with a gargantuan appetite for scoring, it's no wonder Dallas is cashing in with a C-note worth of points almost every night.

But when Finley, Nash, Nowitzki and company aren't cutting up the cords on offense, there's only one word to describe the team's defensive effort at times.

Ppffftt! As in fizzled out. Boom, then bust is how the team seemingly vaporizes the opposition at will when the possession arrow is in their favor, only until it's time to lock the door down under their own board.

Second half rallies, a flood of unexpected buckets, a crucial three-pointer at the worst possible time, these are the defensive lapses that make head coach Don Nelson want to retire to his cushy offseason Hawaiian digs.

Give the Mavs their due. When they have the ball in their hands, they've been able to cheat death while crafting the league's second best record recently, just a buzzer beater behind Sacramento. It was the Kings who fell to Dallas right after Nelson pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade that landed Raef LaFrentz, Nick Van Exel and Avery Johnson. The trio add more firepower, more points to pour in, but no standout defensive help.

Alright, we heard that. It's offense that plants butts in the American Airlines Center seats, you say, right? Good point. Dallasites have a reason to feel giddy about the muscled up Mavericks with the way they've been lighting up the scoreboard like pinball wizards. The unbelievable and unthinkable has arrived after a playoff drought that must have started during the Reagan administration. Local fans expected to feel like whipped puppies as they headed for the parking lot after watching the Mavericks get sucked into a black hole night after ugly night.
But only if. That's the wonderment of guessing just how dominant the team could be if they were to consistently put the brakes on their defensive skids. Sure, Dallas may scorch their opponents with an average of 105 points every game, but they give up a startling 102 clicks-way too close for comfort.

Recently, during a four game span, the team had to be feeling pretty cocky after holding their foes to, get this, an average of 100.8 points. For the defensively puny Mavericks, that was like having Michael Jordan resting on top of Wilt Chamberlain's shoulders with his hands up in the air under the glass.

Dallas can't afford either to be coughing up points to their Western conference competitors while jockeying for playoff position. Witness how during their March 28th game they zapped Minnesota for 111 points, but let the Timberwolves eke out 113. It was a last ditch Steve Nash croaker on the rim that gave the Mavs an L for their effort.

So why is such a talented team allowing a floodgate of points in the first place? There are no easy answers, just questions. Who's responsible? A few or the whole team? Have they become overconfident that their potent offense will always pull them out of the well? Are they content to gamble and keep rolling sevens like they have or will they crap out with snake eyes during the playoffs from an anemic offense that threatens to send them home with empty pockets?

Inquiring basketball minds want to know.

There are three possible finger pointers. History is one. High scoring offenses that play like Zulus on one end, but pygmies on the defensive boards are not uncommon in the NBA.

During the golden era of the 80's with Jabbar, Magic and Worthy, the L.A. Lakers were Showtime personified as they just about scored at will from the bleachers, their eyes possibly closed at the time.

Still, it wasn't unusual for a typical pattern to arise, almost yawningly predictable. Act one: the Lakers would blow out the other side in the first half, check into the locker room for their Perrier spritzers and caviar. Act two: L.A. would let the other guys creep back into the game in the third quarter, making it alarmingly close. Act three: Lakers coach Pat Riley would call a time out late in the fourth quarter-more spritzers, more caviar, Jack Nicholson would grin, Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." would blare, and the Lakers would drop-kick a three pointer from halfcourt for a last second win and go home.

The only item different with the Dallas scenario is that rather than caviar, owner Mark Cuban is trying to look chic-chic with chalupas. Players. They're the other obvious reason the Mavs struggle on defense at times. One factor is their height. Dallas is a tall team indeed with giants such as Nowitzki, LaFrentz, Danny Manning, Evan Eschmeyer, Wang Zhizhi, and not to mention the little guy, 7-6 Shawn Bradley. They say you can't teach height, but you also can't teach a skyscraper to maneuver like a point guard.

Factor in, too, that Dallas is not blocking as many shots as they did last year. LaFrentz is almost as good as they come, but Bradley, who now languishes on the bench, has not been able to showcase his previous league
leading shot blocking prowess this season.

Lastly, the zone. While the league has changed the rules of zone engagement for everybody and not just some, there are still those teams that haven't adjusted as well to the new guidelines. Dallas is one. And there was talk from Nelson even before the season started that zone matchups might be a problem for the machine gun Mavericks. Nelson historically is a sharp cookie when comes to defense and with the gaggle of assistant coaches Cuban has hired to help him, at least one of them, Sydney Moncrief, knows the complexities of solid defense. Still, the Mavs were a predictor of their own zone problems before they began and are still trying to make sense of it with the available personnel they have. Sorely needed by them is the sort of defensive stopper the Lakers had in Michael Cooper, or even the glove-like presence of a Gary Payton.

Meanwhile, let the points fall where they may. If the Mavericks haven't gotten the hang of it on defense by now, it's probably a good bet they won't be holding anybody under 50 points anytime soon. Forecast for the playoffs: their offense will be like a breath of fresh mountain air, but don't hold it too long on defense, otherwise-Boom!

Gary Clemente is a freelance writer based in Dallas and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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