How the Warriors' defense flummoxed Dallas, and where the Mavs go next

How the Warriors' defense flummoxed Dallas, and where the Mavs go next

The energy in The Bay was palpable, a crowd starved for its team's first Western Conference Finals berth since 2019. The dominant rule of this Golden State dynasty had been rudely interrupted by a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, a slew of untimely injuries and a superstar migrating across the country to skyscraping lands. Even the Chase Center flooring glimmered in anticipation.

The only thing that gleamed more was the twinkle in the eye of the Warriors' team defense.

The Warriors faced a new challenge in the West Finals, going from containing the quick-twitch athleticism strewn across the Memphis Grizzlies' roster to now containing the pick-and-roll craftsmanship of Luka Doncic, arguably the best player of the 2022 postseason. Luka's a nightmare to deal with, to say the least. He can attack your bigs or smalls on switches in isolation. He makes passes that only a select few across the globe can make should he even gain the slightest bit of an advantage. Most of all, he's a true-blue three-level scorer, geared up with step-back threes, post-ups with Dirk Nowitzki-legged fadeaways, sikly floaters and elongated layups at his disposal. 

Containing a player of that ilk is not as simple as just throwing one perimeter player his way and hoping for the best. And while Luka's primary defender, Andrew Wiggins, did an admirable job on Wednesday of holding Doncic to 4-of-10 shooting, it was Golden State's medley of defensive coverages that kept Dallas at bay during the 25-point evisceration. 

Steve Kerr's crew threw out six different coverages in the first half — blitzes, hedge-and-recovers, a shallow drop coverage, pick-and-roll switches, a 3-2 zone and even a Box-and-1 — to stifle Dallas' second-ranked playoff half-court offense to a crawl. Golden State's coordinated chaos worked effectively, as Dallas put up just 78.8 points per 100 possessions in the half-court during Game 1 (10th percentile, yikes!), well below the 101.3 Offensive Rating that Dallas normally averages in this setting. 

We'll touch on a few of those coverages momentarily, but it was Golden State's zone looks that were particularly interesting. The Mavericks haven't seen a ton of zones this postseason, especially coming off a series against the Phoenix Suns that featured mostly drop coverage or the occasional switch with Deandre Ayton manning the middle.

Interestingly, Golden State aligned its 3-2 zone so that Stephen Curry was atop the formation, meaning that he was typically Luka Doncic's primary defender. This goes against conventional thinking; normally, you'd expect the Warriors to hide Curry in the corners on one of Dallas' non-threatening options (think: how Miami deployed Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro in the 2020 postseason) instead of guarding the best mismatch-hunter on the floor. The Warriors, however, felt confident about shuttling defensive possessions to Curry at the point-of-attack, trusting their superstar to utilize his best defensive attribute — his quick hands— to frustrate Maverick ball-handlers.

Of course, it helps with Wiggins and Draymond Green situated at the nearby wings, able to sink down and contain should Doncic bullrush his way past the slighter Curry. That's exactly what happened during this first-quarter possession below; Curry bothered Doncic's dribble by sticking in an arm, and when Doncic gathered himself and prepared his attack, Wiggins provided assistance at the nail to erase the driving lane and coerce the kick out. Jalen Brunson, of course, misses the spot-up three (a trend on Wednesday night), and Golden State gets its desired result from the 3-2 zone.

There's some irony in the Warriors — the same team that once complained about Toronto's "junk defenses" in the 2019 NBA Finals — throwing out Box-and-1s to fluster Dallas' heliocentric offense. And yet, a minute later, Golden State busted out that janky look, with Curry, Jordan Poole, Green, and Otto Porter Jr. spread across the lane lines to form the "box," and Wiggins smothering Luka from basically the mid-court line.

When Maxi Kleber comes to set a screen for Doncic, Poole and Wiggins trap Luka and use the sideline as a third defender to force the pass. Dallas hot-potatoes the ball across the perimeter, frantically searching for a vialble option, and eventually the Mavs are left with a 27-foot three from Kleber. A result the Warriors will live with.

The Mavericks mustered up just 18 total points in the first quarter, which effectively set the tone for the rest of Game 1. Looking ahead after the brutal loss, it begs the question: Where can the Mavericks go next?

Well, there's the obvious answer, for one: Make more friggin' threes. Duh. The Mavericks whiffed on 37 of their 48 total outside looks, with some of those misses being pretty dang brutal. But there's more to the game than just blindly hoping for better results.

Thinning Out the Hedges

As mentioned, one of the coverages that Golden State threw at Luka was hedging and recovering on pick-and-rolls. Typically, this was done when Doncic and the Mavericks looked to target Curry in screening actions. Dallas would have Curry's defender — Reggie Bullock in the first clip; Spencer Dinwiddie in the second—set a screen on Luka's defender, Wiggins.

Rather than having Curry switch outright onto Doncic, Steph would instead jump out toward the 6-foot-8 ball-handler to buy Wiggins time as he recovered back to his assignment. Though it goes in, a tightly contested step-back three — which Luka is shooting just 32.1% on in the postseason — is a result the Warriors can stomach, especially with one of its smallest defenders (Curry) involved in the play.

Thus, going at Curry with a slew of straight pick-and-rolls wasn't particularly profitable in Game 1. Golden State is too experienced, too disciplined and too even-tempered to be caught off-guard by opponents repeatedly targetting its superstar. After all, that's been the game plan since, what, 2015? Steph is well-versed in evading such narrow offensive game planning.

But Dallas has some unexplored avenues.

One such way could be to mix in more slips to the rim. Below, after Golden State pre-switches to initially neutralize the Doncic-Bullock pick-and-roll, Luka calls for a second screen from Brunson to bring Curry into the fold. When Steph hedges, Brunson then cuts to the rim instead of flaring out to the perimeter. And although the possession is smothered by Draymond Green audibling a switch with Curry and playing some free safety (goodness was he ever incredible in Game 1!), Dallas was able to get two feet into the middle of the paint to make decisions. 

Flipping the angle of the screen at the very last second, which is something the Grizzlies did against the Warriors in the second round, is a counter yet to be tested by the Mavericks' offense. When Dallas did elect to re-screen in Game 1, it was only because the initial screen failed to connect. 

Dallas could also add some intricacy to its pick-and-rolls by forcing Golden State to navigate secondary screens. Screen-the-screener (STS) plays were, once again, something the Grizzlies tinkered with in the earlier rounds of the postseason, and forcing Curry to navigate an off-ball screen before being dragged into a ball-screen for Luka could put him behind the play, thus throwing off the timing of his hedge.

All Doncic needs is a moment of hesitation to create for himself or others, so mixing in each of the following— re-screens, slips to the rim, ram screens and/or STS plays and straight pick-and-roll—to keep the Warriors on pins and needles could prove to make the difference going forward.

Sniffing Out the Proper Switches

So yes, scoping out Curry on pick-and-roll-induced switches didn't go as planned for Dallas in Game 1 given his comfort level with hedging those plays into oblivion; but that's not to say that Dallas failed to get any sort of traction when Golden State swapped assignments after ball screens.

Here's something that should keep Mavericks fans up at night: Dallas was hunting the wrong Warrior guard. Poole was tested by both of Dallas' secondary and tertiary options (Brunson and Dinwiddie), and he looked like a fish out of water on switches. Collectively, Dinwiddie and Brunson went 2-for-3 from the field when defended by Poole in Game 1.

Dinwiddie is both too tall and too quick to be even slightly bothered by Golden State's prolific 22-year-old, and Brunson's veteran craft left Poole stumbling. Jalen's portfolio of pump-fakes, B-Boy dancer pivots and up-and-unders was one hell of a handful for the third-year player.

Even when Golden State attempted to hide Poole with hedges, he just wasn't disciplined enough to masterfully pull off this coverage with regularity. Here, he "shows" (or hedges) way, way too high up the floor against Brunson, who has yet to burn Golden State with pull-up threes, and Poole ends up getting flambéd in isolation.

Dallas' one-two punch of Doncic and Brunson also got off some pretty clean looks when served up Kevon Looney on a platter. Look, Looney had himself one hell of a Wednesday evening and was maybe the Game 1 MVP, but his lateral mobility was tested by Dallas' lead options. Take a look for yourself:

Dallas should continue to hammer this home in the series. Though it's admirable that Looney feels empowered to pick up individual creators of Doncic and Brunson's ilk so high up the floor, his hip flexibility doesn't afford him the requisite oomph when changing directions on either player's array of dribbling moves. Doncic found relative consistency in forcing Golden State rotations and passing to open shooters after beating Looney off the dribble; Brunson, meanwhile, danced and jitterbugged his way to his spots to go 3-of-4 when defended by the Warriors' starting center.

It's integral that Dallas continues to exhaust Curry by involving him in a never-ending loop of pick-and-rolls. The more mileage put on his body defensively, the better. But there's also some value in getting some easy ones against guys like Looney and Poole.

Other notes:

  • Testing Klay Thompson, still fresh off two major injuries, is inherently not a terrible idea. Doing so by posting him up and allowing him to use his strong base and 6-6 frame, however, is not so brilliant. Doncic wasn't able to gain any ground against Golden State's sturdy wing, and the Mavericks would be better suited having the bursty Dinwiddie or even the guileful Brunson go at Thompson in space.

  • Speaking of Brunson, how often he can make Golden State pay via pull-up threes should be a major theme in the West Finals. Golden State regularly went under ball-screens against Brunson, daring him to shoot, and he responded with a whole bundle of record-scratch moments. Brunson has shot a combined 30.4% on pull-up three-pointers in the regular season and the postseason on just 105 total attempts, and if he continues to feign at chucking them up when the defense drifts underneath screens, Dallas' offense will sludge itself to death.

  • The Mavericks are one of those teams where you just wish they'd incorporate a little more movement into their offense. Dallas leaves food on the table with screening actions on the weak side of the floor, and it allows the low man to stay engaged when helping over should Doncic (or Brunson or Dinwiddie) discover a crack in the defense. That's particularly problematic against a team like the Warriors and Green, a hellish secondary defender to tangle with. Notice how Golden State preoccupies Luka, the low man in the clip below, with screening action between Wiggins and Thompson. When Looney slips to the rim, Doncic is late on his rotation because of the ensuing traffic on the weak side. 

It'd be great if Dallas could incorporate some of that stuff into their pick-and-roll heavy offense.

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