- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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SALT LAKE CITY -- Not even Don Nelson would be proud of the Dallas Mavericks' defense these days. Rick Carlisle is repulsed by the recent defensive regression.
Carlisle emphasized during training camp that the Mavs needed to improve from mediocre to good defensively to be contenders. The Mavs accomplished that mission during the first two months of the season, pulling out several ugly wins during a 22-10 start.
Mediocrity would be an improvement over the Mavs' defensive performance over the past month. They were miserable during an 8-7 January, allowing 101.5 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting, prompting Carlisle to describe the Mavs with a four-letter word that was often applied to Dallas during Nellie's run-and-gun tenure.
"We've gotten very soft defensively as a team," Carlisle said after the Mavs let Portland's Andre Miller score 52 points in a 114-112 loss Saturday night. "We were a tough-minded team in the first quarter of the year. That's gone by the wayside. It's an attitude adjustment that we're going to have to make to get it back."
Erick Dampier's sore left knee, which caused him to miss three games last month and limited him in several others, is one explanation for the defensive drop off. But that's no excuse. The Mavs managed to play solid defense during Dampier's extended absence earlier in the season.
The Mavs ranked among the stingiest defenses in the league at the end of December. Opponents were shooting only 43.8 percent from the floor.
That just adds to Carlisle's frustration after watching the Mavs' last three opponents make more than half their shots from the floor.
"It's not like I'm talking about some concept that might be there if they gave their commitment," Carlisle said. "It's something they've done."
Carlisle says that, as the coach, he accepts accountability for the Mavs' recent defensive failures. Perhaps he can be blamed for putting undersized J.J. Barea in situations that have exposed his defensive inadequacies, but the Mavs' problems aren't about what's being drawn up on the whiteboard.
For whatever reason, Carlisle's constant demands to focus on defense are falling on deaf ears. The Mavs haven't kept their commitment.
"We've got to take the challenge of stopping guys," said Shawn Marion, the Mavs' best defender. "What more can I say? Ain't nothing else to it. That's what it is. We've got to stop people."
If the Mavs don't, opponents will continue to blow by them ... on the court and in the Western Conference standings.
8dEthan Sherwood Strauss