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How Luka Dončić exploited the Warriors’ ‘Luka Rules’

A playoff coverage the Warriors employed was countered.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In my series preview of the Golden State Warriors’ 2022 Western Conference Finals matchup against the Dallas Mavericks, I had this to say about the Warriors’ counter against a heavy dose of mismatch hunting from Luka Dončić:

Curry and the Warriors have a specific anti-switch measure they’ve used in the past, against the likes of LeBron James and James Harden in previous playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets, respectively.

Whenever Curry’s man sets the screen, Curry “hard hedges” to put temporary pressure on the ball handler and cause a split-second bout of hesitation, after which he recovers back to his original assignment.

By virtue of facing rivals in the past who heavily relied on high-usage superstars, the Warriors are perhaps the most experienced at facing offenses who seek out the lowest-hanging defensive fruit. As a result, they are arguably the most matchup-hunt-proof team in the league because of the many battles that fine-tuned their ability to counter potential mismatches.

Curry has seen several instances of LeBron James and James Harden trying to get him directly involved in the action — not because Curry is an inherently terrible defender, but for reasons twofold:

  1. Curry is typically the smallest defender on the floor.
  2. Curry is the offensive lifeblood of the team; going at him on defense continuously forces him to expend energy that may not be there on offense.

The Mavericks had the same idea during the Conference Finals — but as expected, the Warriors refused to give up the easy switch. They saw what happened to the Phoenix Suns whenever they willfully switched smaller defenders against Dončić. Even worse — the Suns barely sent any help toward their compromised personnel.

The Warriors simply opted to not make the same mistake.

It’s highly reductive to pin down the Warriors’ success against the Mavericks as simply hedging out to prevent mismatches. But there was more to that — timely low-man help (aka, “trapping the box”), scram switching, pre-switching, and crisp rotations helped limit a heliocentric offense.

But as a high-level talent is wont to do, Dončić has extensive knowledge of every kind of coverage thrown at him. Curry and he are kindred spirits in the sense that they operate at a much-higher plane of existence than normal human beings, let alone other NBA players. These basketball demi-gods may see their paths obstructed from time to time, but they manage to find solutions to problems at a near-instantaneous rate.

Much like Curry, there may be no correct answer against Dončic:

Even hedging has a limited shelf-life. While it was largely effective at preventing mismatch hunting during the Conference Finals, Dončic and the Mavericks found pockets of success through slight tweaks — from adjustments in screening angles to simply changing the screener for Dončic.

While experience may be a teacher for the Warriors in terms of how to counter mismatch hunting, the shoe is on the other foot when it comes to Dončic learning how to counter the Warriors’ efforts to prevent mismatches.

Take, for example, this possession:

Dončic hunts for Curry by having Curry’s man (Dorian Finney-Smith) set the screen. As expected, Curry hedges out in an effort to prevent the switch. But take a close look at what Finney-Smith does — he holds Andrew Wiggins long enough on his screen to prevent Wiggins from recovering back toward Dončic, even adding in a nifty flip of the angle to make sure Wiggins is cut off from Dončic.

With Wiggins prevented from switching back, Curry has no choice but to pick Dončic up and defend him — which he manages to do, leading to a turnover.

Even while facing a significant size disadvantage. Curry’s improved functional strength has allowed him to hold his own on some of these switches, as Dončic found out below:

Seeing that Curry wasn’t as easy of a matchup-hunt target as expected, Dončic and the Mavericks curiously went away from downright seeking Curry out on isolations — and instead took advantage of one aspect of the Warriors’ hard-hedge scheme that provided Dončic a brief but sufficient window.

Typically, Kevon Looney switching onto Dončic isn’t disadvantageous. Looney is a capable perimeter switch-big; even with slow feet, he is rarely out of position and almost always manages to put himself in front of assignments who should be blowing by him.

But as you can see in the possession below, Dončic took advantage of Looney’s slow feet in an unconventional manner:

Dončic seeks the matchup against Looney — not to go at him in isolation, but to exploit the “recover” aspect of the Warriors’ hedge-and-recover. Curry’s man goes over to set the screen. Curry hedges — but again, watch what Finney-Smith does. He holds the screen on Looney long enough for Looney to be late on the recovery. Coupled with Looney’s slow feet, Dončic is given enough space to step back for a three.

It wasn’t just the hard hedge Dončic exploited. Knowing the Warriors weren’t content with leaving their defenders on an island during isolation possessions, Dončic took full advantage of additional help being sent his way. He is a master at sensing where help is coming from — and which of his teammates are left open.

Coupled with a near-unrivaled ability to thread passes to teammates using unorthodox deliveries, Dončic is one tough puzzle to solve.

Dončic’s 1.055 points per possession (PPP) on isolations that involve him finishing or passing to a teammate who shoots is only a middling 19th among 38 players who’ve been involved in at least 50 such possessions, per Synergy. But he’s tallied 219 possessions — the most by far, and 41 more possessions than second on the list.

Such is a testament to how the Mavericks offense is highly monopolized by Dončic. It’s nothing new for the Warriors — they know that to cut off Dončic from the rest of his teammates is to cut off what makes the Mavericks a potent team. They’ll develop counters for future matchups; should a playoff rematch materialize, they will have sufficient data on hand to counter the counters.

But Dončic and the Mavericks took the upper hand this time by adjusting to the Warriors’ “Luka Rules.”

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