My town holds an annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration downtown. It is full of the typical accoutrements of the holiday: children with temporary shamrock tattoos on their faces; twenty-somethings using a pint of Guinness to stave off the cold; corny dads in kilts; and a modest parade with bagpipes, wolfhounds, and firemen praying nobody burns their corned beef so they can hurry off to the pub.
Last year, after the final penny whistle had sounded, I made my own way to the pub to catch the second half of a Mavs 95-92 win over Boston. I watched alongside my Celts fan brother and a few dozen quite relieved firemen as Luka Doncic and company secured their sixth win in March. They would go on to win twelve of their 16 games over the course of the month en route to a surprising four-seed and thrilling run to the Western Conference Finals.
As we enter March 2023, I find myself wondering what stroke of luck the Mavs found last year and whether it could be replicated. What sparked that squad’s auspicious run? How can this season’s new-look team learn from it?
Can Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks go on another March run?
The boring answer is the obvious one, the team goes as Luka goes. Doncic averaged just shy of 30 points per game during March of 2022 and punctuated the month with a 34-12-12 triple-double in a win over the Lakers on March 29th. After watching him huff and puff up and down the court during Sunday’s loss to that same team, it’s hard not to worry that his fourth clover leaf has been plucked off and that this team may not find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Okay, lame St. Patrick’s metaphors aside, Luka had a good scoring night on Sunday. His 26 was, as usual, a team-high, and his step-back three was hitting well (at least in the first half). So what more can he do?
I went back and watched highlights from that Mavs-Celts game. For whatever reason, I had limited recollection of the details, perhaps the firemen were too loud. Like Sunday, his step-back was as crisp as the waters beneath the Cliffs of Moher, the first Mavs bucket of the game was a Doncic three over the fully outstretched arm of Robert Williams, and he exploited frequent mismatches with Al Horford to get his typical easy buckets down the alley.
Still, the Mavs went to the locker room trailing and were down as much as 13 in the second half, but that’s when that oft-heralded hybrid defense came alive.
Much has been written and discussed about Dallas’s 2022 defense, wherein they play man on the perimeter and use a zone below. It reads like a James Joyce novel, highly effective when done right, but quite complicated to execute. When rotations are slow or when they’re stuck with ineffective rim protectors underneath, it leads to easy entry passes and momentum-swinging dunks.
In that game against Boston last year, Jaylen Brown made posters out of Maxi Kleber and Doncic on back-to-back possessions. Had it not been for a Dinwiddie buzzer-beater before the half, TD Garden would have looked like my Main Street during the St. Patrick’s parade.
But more often than not, it worked (Boston finished that game well below their season average of 111.8 points). So when I went back to watch Sunday’s loss to the Lakers, and I saw Reggie Bullock consistently being outclassed in man-to-man defense against LeBron, I had to wonder: has the luck of this conservative, cerebral, drop-coverage scheme simply worn out?
If you watch the tape, the answer is no. Luck has nothing to do with it. It is effort.
That March 2022 Mavs run happened because the team had a collection of players who, despite their varying defensive skills, bought in and committed to the scheme. Many of them are gone: Dorian Finney-Smith is a Net, Jalen Brunson is a Knick, and Maxi Kleber is injured (let’s raise our glass and say “sláinte” to his impending healthy return). Instead, we have Kyrie Irving and Christian Wood, two players not known for their defensive enthusiasm.
But the crux of it will always be Luka. Nobody expects or even hopes for Luka to be a force on the defensive end, but when he is unwilling to rotate inside or even get back down the court with anything resembling urgency, there is nobody else to motivate the team on that side of the ball. At a minimum, he needs to be willing to box out Dennis Schroeder coming from the baseline for an easy putback. That one was tough to watch.
Luka does not need to stand tall in the paint and drive players out of the lane like St. Patrick driving snakes out of Ireland. He simply needs to show that, as the leader of the team, he is willing to put his body in the way. That is where the luck comes in. When players play with energy and focus in the zone-hybrid, the ball tends to bounce rather fortuitously.
This year, our St. Patrick’s festivities are on March 12th. The Mavs are off that day, so I will be unburdened by my fandom while I watch 60-year-old men nearly pass out as they blow into their bagpipes. However, it is my hope that in the five March games that precede it, Dallas will have re-established their enthusiasm for team defense.
They have some tough opponents during that stretch, including Philly, Phoenix, and Memphis, but the Dallas Mavericks should have Kleber back, and most importantly, should recognize that the time is now to go on another run.
If so, my Irish-for-a-day eyes will be smiling, and the Guinness will taste all the sweeter.