Early this season, the Dallas Mavericks, the defending NBA Champions, looked cooked. Four of their first five games were losses and three of them were blowouts: 105-94 to Miami on Xmas Day, 115-93 to Denver on Boxing Day, and 99-82 at Minnesota on New Year’s Day. Respected analysts like ESPN’s John Hollinger pointed out quite rightly that past champions (cratering ones like the ’99 Bulls and the ’70 Celtics notwithstanding) didn’t get their teeth kicked in like that.
Not so fast. Since that horrid opening stretch the Mavericks have gone 8-1. A softer schedule has something to do with it, a steady diet of Detroit, Milwaukee sans Andrew Bogut, and New Orleans, will cure what ails you, but during this run, the Mavericks have also laid one of the only two losses sitting on Oklahoma City’s ledger.
The difference is Dallas’s defense. A freaking mess, during the early games of the season, the Mavericks have allowed only one team, the San Antonio Spurs in a 93-71 loss on January 5th, more than 89 points during their run. And while tempo matters, the Mavericks are in the top half of the league in possessions per game. Thus, Dallas ranks third (www.basketball-reference) or fourth (Hollinger at ESPN) in Defensive Rating.
Their MLK Night matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers is interesting for more than Kobe Bryant’s 40 points a game streak it now sits at four). It will be the best test for whether the Mavericks streak is just a fluke or a champion returning to form after an early season slump. Their road trip includes dates at the L.A. Clippers and in Utah to play the Jazz (three decades on and that still seems like a strange team name to me).
If the Mavericks continue their run of winning basketball and airtight defense then it’s time to consider their slow start a lockout induced fluke. If not, then maybe that 8-1 run is mostly due to a weak schedule. It’s a key stretch for a Dallas because they *are* the defending champions, and whether they got their groove back will depend on their D.