After four games, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle spoke cautiously, but optimistically about the refreshing consistency his team was showing on the defensive end.
Then the Denver Nuggets came to town and Carlisle called it the worst defensive performance of the season.
Two nights later the Boston Celtics rolled through and Carlisle called it the best defensive performance of the season.
Tonight, the Mavs are in Memphis looking to make up for a sure win they fretted away to the Grizzlies in Dallas a couple of weeks ago.
"They are a tough, talented young team," said forward Shawn Marion, who could start tonight with Caron Butler out with back spasms. "Everybody’s got to take the challenge individually of playing their man. That’s what it boils down to. We’ve got to play team defense and you got to play your man. If you don’t do that, you get beat."
The Mavs are not a great defensive team. Dirk Nowitzki can sometimes earn the tag of underrated defender, but offense is his game. Jason Kidd reads passing lanes as accurately as anyone, but he's no longer a great on-the-ball defender. Jason Terry tries. Tyson Chandler has the ability to upgrade the defense substantially as he showed against the Celtics with a pair of blocks a steal and 10 defensive rebounds.
Individually, the Mavs are not great defenders. Collectively, Carlisle believes they can be a rugged defensive unit. And he knows that's the only way this team challenges the Los Angeles Lakers.
Stubborn defense might even be more important for the Mavs than other teams. Dallas continues to show it has extreme issues with its halfcourt offense. Fourth quarters, when the game slows down and is predicated on halfcourt execution, have been low on points and high on turnovers. The Mavs are best in transition and that requires the ability to rebound and run.
So far, the defense has been pretty solid. The Mavs rank fifth in the league in opponent scoring, allowing 91.5 points a game, and No. 1 in opponent field-goal percentage at 41.8. In Dallas' best defensive performance of the season, the Celtics scored 87 points and shot 41.8 percent. In their worst, Denver scored 103 points and shot 45.1 percent, 61.9 percent from behind the arc.
The Celtics failed to score on their final seven possessions because the Mavs mucked things up. They played intensely and with determination on defense.
"Our defense showed a lot of will," Nowitzki said. "We were down five or six late and we came together in the final timeout and said, 'this is our game, let’s go out and get it.' The defensive effort down the stretch was great and we had a 7-0 run to end the game. If we can keep playing hard on defense we’ll be in every game."
And there's the question. Can the Mavs keep playing hard on defense? Last season, they jumped out to a 19-7 start and Carlisle praised the defense. From there, long stretches of .500 ball reflected a defense that lacked an edge.
"If you can play defense it will always give you a chance," Marion said. "The more we keep helping each other on the floor the better we are; active and just being aggressive and making them take tough shots."
In the first game against Memphis, the Grizzlies were without big Zach Randolph, who seems to always give Dallas trouble. He's back tonight.
"They’re a very big, physical team; very skilled with Zach Randolph and [Marc] Gasol in the paint," Nowitzki said. "They’ve got [O.J.] Mayo and [Rudy] Gay on the outside, two very, very capable players and [Mike] Conley is very improved so they’re a handful. We’ve got to be ready. Our defense has got to be set."