The Defense Rests

Can the Mavs guard anyone? To find out, John Gonzalez gets offensive with a drunk Don, a focused Finley and a nutty Cuban.

Oh, you're going to get better defensively? Right. Because you say so. We hadn't thought of that...OK, we'll run it at 11...

Now, there's no question they need to get better on defense. Last year, the Mavericks ranked 28th out of 29 teams defensively, surrendering 101 points per game. That's just one spot ahead of the Golden State Warriors, a team that played defense like the French at the Maginot line.

Perhaps Nelson will be the guy to effect the change. The porous defense obviously wore on him last year, and he does know how to coach that end of the floor--during his tour in Milwaukee, his squads routinely ranked in the top 10 in defense. But the personnel on those teams was a might different from what he has now. You go tell Nowitzki and Steve Nash and Michael Finley to take a charge instead of drain threes and throw pretty no-looks. And good luck with all that.

Dirk Nowitzki is known as one of the purest shooters in the NBA, but what the Mavs really need from him this year is more toughness.
Mark Graham
Dirk Nowitzki is known as one of the purest shooters in the NBA, but what the Mavs really need from him this year is more toughness.
Popeye Jones, with owner Mark Cuban, is currently injured but is expected to give the team added rebounding muscle when he returns.
Mark Graham
Popeye Jones, with owner Mark Cuban, is currently injured but is expected to give the team added rebounding muscle when he returns.

No, despite the company line, it's hard to see this defensive push as much more than a protean endeavor.

"They really don't have that sort of team," says one NBA Western Conference scout. "When they started saying they were going to play defense....yeah, interesting. I'll have to wait, like, you know, 10 games into the season to tell if they're making an effort, but I'm not buying it right now, no."

If they do turn it around, it will be with essentially the same lineup they ran at the end of the year (out are Greg Buckner, Wang Zhizhi, Danny Manning and Johnny Newman; in are Popeye Jones and Raja Bell). A lineup that allowed its opponents to shoot a robust 45.2 percent from the field.

"I really do believe that we'll be better," Del Harris says. "We've been getting on them about defense, that's been the theme so far, and they look like they know that's what we have to do. They're ready to work."

That part of it--the working, or the lack of same--will be integral in deciding the club's fortune. True, the Mavs figure to win 50-plus games and scream into the playoffs. But the postseason is a different entity, completely unique in its demands. It requires not only smooth shooting but also true grit. "Defense" becomes synonymous with "bar fight," and the games can morph into elbow shots and kidney-bruising punches.

So the question becomes, who among them will throw down? Are their collective balls bigger, or was Nick Van Exel right last season when he wondered aloud about the Mavericks' toughness?

"We need to do some of that, yeah," Finley says after practice as sweat streams down from his closely cropped hair. "Hey, losing makes you tough. Heartbreak, the Kings series, makes us tougher. To get better as a team, we have to get tougher. But...we can try to do all these things--play defense and get tougher--but, really, that's not what our team is about. We're not going to be the old [Detroit] Pistons. That's not our style. We're great shooters. We can score. We don't have a lot of guys who will bang."

At least he's honest.

Take this next bit for what it's worth: Shawn Bradley, the resident "defensive stopper," the guy everyone keeps telling me can alter a game with his presence, was in an intersquad scrimmage during a preseason practice when he was called for some foul or another. It was really no big thing. Bradley made it a big thing. He bitched and moaned for a few long minutes.

Later, when the ref who called the foul was taking a breather on the sideline, he took a Mavericks assistant coach into his confidence. "Why is Bradley always crying?" the official whispered. "He's 7-foot-6. I mean...fuck."

Mavs PR staffer Sarah Melton has now delivered three beers or so to Don Nelson, all of which sit in front of him like some sort of wonderful new currency. His stash of alcohol mocks me. I have no beer, and damn it, I haven't seen the waiter be minutes now. The next time Melton comes by here, I'm going to tackle her like Darren Woodson and run off with the shipment.

It could be that Nellie can see the thirst on my face. That, or he's just in a benevolent mood.

"Want one of my beers?" he asks, thrusting a sweaty Bud Light into my hand before turning back to the game. It's the second quarter. The Mavs are winning 53-42. It's their biggest lead of the first half.

Donnie, who is also the team's president of basketball operations, is in the middle of telling Mike Rhyner that Bradley is having a good game. I hate to say it, I hate to even think it, but he's right; Bradley isn't doing half-bad. That idea runs contrary to what I've believed of Bradley for much of my life--he's a nice guy, but as a basketball player he's an incompetent clod who provides nothing but comic relief.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Donnie nailed it. Maybe Bradley has improved.

Suddenly, the din grows thick with booooos. The crowd is going nuts. The fans are absolutely losing their f-ing minds. From behind several people, I crane my neck toward the screen. The replay is ugly but familiar: Bradley just missed a dunk. Disdain washes over me for the umpteenth time. I swear, if the Mavs somehow lose this game and Bradley costs me free cold beer, the next time I see him I'm going to smash his big Popsicle-stick legs.

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