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NBA Playoffs Preview Guide Warriors vs Mavericks: A deep dive on a series between two opposing philosophies

The Warriors will have their hands full against a transcendent superstar.

SFChronicleSports Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

These two teams couldn’t be any more different from one another.

We all know what the Golden State Warriors bring to the table offensively. Their egalitarian motion offense is heavily predicated on ball and player movement. They don’t have just one guy who runs the offense and exclusively monopolizes it; they have multiple playmakers who take turns in creating shots for each other and for themselves.

Stephen Curry can handle the ball, pass, and create his own shot. Jordan Poole can handle the ball, pass, and create his own shot. Klay Thompson can create his own shot (but highly not recommended). Draymond Green can handle the ball and pass (but he can’t create his own shot).

You rarely see the players without the ball in their hands stand still and wait for their turn. They create their own opportunities. They move, cut, set screens, run around screens, and create all sorts of chaos for defenses to deal with. They generate advantages both on and off the ball.

The Warriors bank their offensive efficiency on playmaking from several points on the floor. Green is the quintessential “Delay” big, the one who makes decisions from a wide vantage point at the top of the arc. He can also be fed the ball in the low or high post and find cutters, movers, and shooters running amok.

If that doesn’t work? Feed it to Curry or Poole, set a pick, and generate an advantage through the classical manner of a high ball-screen with a spread floor — even if the Warriors primarily prefer not to attack that way.

On the other hand, the Warriors’ Western Conference Finals adversaries are the epitome of the spread pick-and-roll — and the face of such an offensive philosophy is one Luka Dončić.

Dončić is, to put it simply, a generational talent. He is the center of the Dallas Mavericks’ heliocentric offense. With all due to respect to Dončić’s supporting cast — all who complement his skillset to near perfection — the Mavericks would simply cease to function without him.

Dončić put up 28-9-9 on 46/35/74 shooting splits during the regular season, on a 57.1% True Shooting mark. Those numbers are more or less the ones you’d expect from a player of his caliber. But when the matter of the playoffs comes in, Dončić shifts into another stratosphere altogether.

A 32-10-7 statline. Shooting splits of 47/35/77. A 58.7% True Shooting mark. And more than just the numbers, a penchant for thriving under pressure and showing up whenever his presence is needed the most.

Dončić sported the highest usage rate in the league during the regular season (37.4%). With him on the floor, the Mavericks have the equivalent of the 2nd-best offense in the league (115.7 ORTG). Without him, their offense falls to the equivalent of 20th — a significant drop-off.

Despite the notion that this team is primarily Dončić-centric, the Mavericks have a couple of secondary ball-handlers, playmakers, and scorers who have played the role of burden relievers quite well. Jalen Brunson is a dynamic backcourt partner in the starting lineup who can create his own shots. Spencer Dinwiddie has been stepping up as the primary ball-handler off the bench whenever Dončić sits and rests.

As expected of a team that runs a heavy dose of high ball screens, the Mavericks run every conceivable set that takes advantage of a spread floor. The “Spain” pick-and-roll — where a back-screener provides a novel element to the traditional version — is a favored half-court set.

“Exit” screens toward the corner provide a second-side element that, if the Warriors aren’t paying enough attention, could open up passes to the corner that Dončić is more than capable of making — and where floor-spacing threats such as Reggie Bullock, Dāvis Bertāns, Maxi Kleber, and Dorian Finney-Smith could thrive.

But the classic ball screen continues to be Dončić’s bread and butter. He knows all the tricks when it comes to manipulating defenders around screens. He operates at his own tempo and cadence. Once you let him dictate the flow of the half-court game, it becomes extremely difficult to get him off his game and re-take control; before you know it, Dončić has already taken you into deep waters.

The Warriors must do absolutely everything in their power to prevent such a situation from happening to them.

Projected starting lineups

Warriors Mavericks
Warriors Mavericks
Stephen Curry Luka Doncic
Klay Thompson Jalen Brunson
Andrew Wiggins Reggie Bullock
Draymond Green Dorian Finney-Smith
Kevon Looney Dwight Powell

Relevant regular season team stats

Stat Warriors Mavericks
Stat Warriors Mavericks
Offensive Rating 112.1 (16th) 112.5 (14th)
Half-Court Offensive Rating 97.3 (12th) 100.1 (2nd)
Defensive Rating 106.6 (2nd) 109.1 (7th)
Half-Court Defensive Rating 91.2 (3rd) 94.3 (11th)
Effective Field-Goal Percentage 55.2% (3rd) 53.8% (13th)
Pace 98.74 (15th) 95.64 (30th)
Assist Percentage 66.9% (1st) 59.5% (20th)
Turnover Percentage 15.0% (29th) 13.0% (7th)
Free-Throw Attempts Per 100 Possessions 20.6 (25th) 22.2 (14th)
Free-Throw Percentage 76.9% (17th) 77.1% (16th)
Three-Point-Attempt Rate 45.6% (2nd) 43.9% (5th)
Three-Point Percentage 36.4% (8th) 35.0% (19th)
Offensive Rebound Percentage 26.9% (16th) 25.6% (23rd)

Defending Dončić

The question that comes into play immediately is this: who within this Warriors roster will be given the unenviable task of being Dončić’s primary defender?

The easy answer to this is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has been a rock as the Warriors’ primary wing defender. Defensive versatility is a highly valued commodity in the league, especially in a scheme-versatile set-up such as the Warriors’ — and Wiggins has emerged from his previously notorious reputation to become a highly reliable specialist.

Wiggins matches up with Dončić in terms of height. His length will be crucial in bothering Dončić’s vision and shot-making. His wiry strength and lateral movement are key to keeping Dončić in front and preventing him from dictating the half-court tempo, and also from generating all sorts of advantages.

Wiggins is the theoretical answer — but has he been effective in slowing down Dončić (emphasis in *slow down*, not stop, because it’s near impossible to halt him in his tracks) in the past?

That’s why we have film as a reference point:

What Wiggins does successfully as Dončić’s primary defender — as can be seen from most of the clips above — is force him into extremely tough shots. Dončić’s brilliance as a scorer will garner him some step-back threes, turnaround fadeaways, and wild finishes at the rim. But Wiggins’ ability to contest with length, stay in front, and keep Dončić mostly under control is going to be a very important stop-gap measure.

Wiggins being able to stay in front can keep most actions flat — i.e., the other four defenders can stay home and attached to their assignments, lowering the possibility of them being put into rotation. This can keep the Mavericks’ half-court defense into strictly a 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 endeavor.

As I’ve previously stated, NBA.com’s matchup data is an imperfect metric, so take these numbers with a grain of salt. In 4 matchups during the regular season with Wiggins as his primary defender, Dončić put up the following stats:

  • 33 points
  • 1 assist
  • 6 turnovers
  • 10-of-22 shooting (45.5%)
  • 6-of-12 on threes

All things considered, those are some pretty gaudy matchup numbers — but that’s to be expected from someone who has an answer for almost any kind of matchup thrown at him.

Jonathan Kuminga is an intriguing option. He possesses the requisite height, length, and physicality to give Dončić fits, while also having a significant athleticism advantage. He had promising reps against Dončić during the regular season:

You wouldn’t want to put all of your marbles on heavy Kuminga minutes with him guarding Dončić — but Kuminga is a good change-of-pace option, and he can absorb reps and fouls that may otherwise go to more important veteran pieces.

How the Warriors will defend the constant barrage of pick-and-rolls thrown at them will be interesting to monitor. Switching seems to be the easiest fallback option, but I have several thoughts on that. Let’s start with a specific hypothetical.

If Wiggins is Dončić’s primary defender, and Green is guarding Dwight Powell, the Warriors can easily switch the action. But knowing that, will the Mavericks intentionally have Powell set screens for Dončić?

If their intention is to draw out Green from his valuable role as a roamer and help-side defender, that could be a possibility. But I would assume the Mavericks would rather hunt for the lowest-hanging fruit on the floor — i.e., one of Curry or Poole.

As much as possible, the Warriors should avoid having Curry or Poole switched onto Dončić — or else, these kinds of possessions will happen:

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. There was one such instance against Dončić during the regular season:

It wasn’t the cleanest hedge-and-recover — Finney-Smith was momentarily available as a release valve, but Dončić opted not to pass it to him — but the principle is what matters. Curry hedges out, tags Dončić, and recovers back to Finney-Smith, with Gary Payton II sticking to Dončić and contesting the shot successfully.

If the Warriors employ this old tactic to prevent Curry or Poole from being switched onto Dončić, they’ll need to be near perfect in its execution. Dončić has the guile and craft to exploit the weaknesses of every of kind of coverage there is — including hard hedges.

Notice how Dončić’s counter to the hard hedge is to draw Wiggins as far out as possible, make him chase, and then attack. When Curry recovers back toward Finney-Smith, he is victimized by a back-screen to eliminate him from helping on the drive, giving Dončić a wide-open lane.

Aggressive coverages such as hedges and traps are very risky and hard to pull off against Dončić. Much like Curry, Dončić is an experienced operator against double teams, and he can find release valves and open teammates with an expertise that rivals that of Curry’s.

Unlike Curry, he has the height to see over double teams and find his teammates. Should the Warriors decide to throw the occasional two bodies toward Dončić, their backline defense has to be on point in terms of scrambling, rotations, “X-outs”, and defending on a string.

Otherwise, Dončić and his teammates will carve them up easily:

Dončić will also try to draw out isolation reps through late switches. Against Green, that should be more acceptable; if Dončić still makes his step-backs or manages to get past Green in some form, tip of the cap to him. But Green will stand the best chance out of all the Warriors’ bigs when switched out on the perimeter.

Again, I doubt the Mavericks will intentionally target Green on switches. On the other hand, if it’s Kevon Looney (more palatable, but still shaky) or Nemanja Bjelica (not at all feasible) that Dončić and the Mavericks target, it could be dinner time for the Slovenian.

Oh, and about that corner-three tendency the Warriors have had all season long?

Because of how much they scramble and rotate to plug rapidly created holes — a product of their pre-rotate/early-help/strong-side-overload philosophy — the Warriors have been prone to giving up plenty of corner threes. Dončić is masterful with his low-man manipulation; once he sees the low man “tag” the roller, he immediately whips a skip pass to the weak-side corner.

While the Mavericks don’t really have the type of low-post big that can give the Warriors trouble, they do have the luxury of two bigs with different skillsets — which gives them two different configurations to throw out against the Warriors.

With Powell on the floor — primarily a roll-man lob threat — the Mavericks are a 4-out-1-in offense, with Dončić having the option of throwing a lob to Powell, or kicking out to an open man on the perimeter as a result of Powell’s roll gravity, which can lead to swing-swing sequences that will put the defense in rotation.

The Mavericks make use of Dončić off the ball — one of the rare times he’s an off-ball operator in the half court — through a nifty set that has a Powell alley-oop as its endpoint:

With Dončić starting at the dunker spot, Brunson reverses the ball up top to Bullock, then clears toward the opposite corner. Bullock feeds Powell at the high post/elbow, then sets a “zipper” screen for Dončić, who curls around the screen, receives the handoff from Powell and turns it into a quick-hitting screen-and-roll, almost like “Chicago” action but with Dončić starting from the dunker spot instead of the corner.

(Also take note of how Curry can’t really tag Powell’s roll — he has to stay close to Bullock at the slot, which virtually eliminates him from helping on the screen-and-roll action.)

What’s nifty about the set above is that there’s a plug-and-play element to it, as it is with most of the Mavericks’ half-court sets. Brunson can take the place of Dončić to relieve him of the creation responsibilities; while he isn’t on the same level as Dončić in terms of passing and overall creation, being a reliable secondary self creator and decent passer ensures that he and Dončić are highly interchangeable.

While this “Pistol/Miami” action isn’t quite identical to the set above, the principle is the same: Brunson starting off the ball, receiving a wing dribble handoff (DHO), and running around a ball-screen in an attempt to get downhill, or to gain a favorable matchup in isolation:

Having Powell as the roll-man big is also valuable when the Mavericks run their patented “Spain” or “Stack” pick-and-roll. Defenses have to account for multiple threats, starting with the back-screener — often a shooter — who sets the screen for the roller and subsequently pops out beyond the arc.

And then there’s the ball handler himself, who can find an open lane to the rim if the defense gets caught off-guard.

If the back-screen catches the roll-man defender clean, the roller has a clean lane to catch a lob, as seen below when the Mavericks run Spain out of “HORNS Out” against the Utah Jazz:

If Kleber is at the 5 instead of Powell, the Mavericks turn into a legitimate 5-out spread offense, with Dončić gaining even more room to operate due to the addition of a bona-fide stretch center (Kleber is 36% on threes for his career, and is shooting a blistering 49.2% on 4.5 attempts per game during these playoffs).

When Kleber is the one setting screens, he rarely rolls to the rim like Powell does. He likes to pop out and take advantage of the increased attention Dončić garners around screens.

Dončić is the Mavericks’ primary weapon, and is rightfully the central focus of any defensive gameplan. But he has a knack for destroying all sorts of well-crafted strategies to slow him down. No matter what, he’ll get his numbers, all while his teammates play off of him.

The Warriors will have to be sharp — really sharp — in everything they do on defense. If they decide to show early help, they must be prepared to rotate behind it. If they want to prevent a mismatch from happening, they have to execute “scram” switches seamlessly, pre-switch without a hitch, and make sure the right personnel are involved in the action. If they give up a mismatch (not recommended!), they better have contingencies lined up.

If they let Dončić have his numbers, they should make sure that no else on the Mavericks gets theirs.

Attacking Dončić and the Mavericks defense

Any elite defensive team has that one guy as their bona-fide defensive anchor. The Warriors have Green as their roamer, helper, occasional 1-on-1 defender, and defensive floor general — the quintessential utility man on defense.

The Jazz have Rudy Gobert as their last line of defense. The Miami Heat are a team defense, but Bam Adebayo is their highly versatile switch big who holds everything together. The Boston Celtics boast tenacious perimeter defense spearheaded by Marcus Smart, the newly minted Defensive Player of the Year.

If you look over the Mavericks roster, can you point out one player that stands out defensively? I’m willing to bet that you can’t.

They do have solid defenders, especially on the wings. Finney-Smith and Bullock are versatile and can switch. Powell and Kleber are solid and aren’t overly exploitable. Even Brunson, despite his short stature, has the tenacity and determination to fight over screens and stick to his man.

Dončić is the perceived weakest link; he still has his moments of inattention, lackadaisical effort, and mishaps. But he has vastly improved compared to when he first stepped onto an NBA court, with a higher level of engagement that previously wasn’t there.

Despite the lack of a defensive go-to guy, the Mavericks finished the regular season 7th in defensive rating (109.1, 3 points better than league average) — a massive improvement from last season’s 21st in defensive rating (112.3 — a league-average defense last season).

The Mavericks play a brand of team defense that requires every cog to be in harmony with the entire machinery. It’s actually very similar to the Warriors’ scheme and philosophy: plenty of early help, strong-side overloading, pre-rotating, and an emphasis on preventing middle penetration through “ICE/Weak.”

They don’t really stick to one base pick-and-roll coverage — if there ever was one, it’s your run-of-the-mill drop coverage (mostly when Powell is at the 5; with Kleber, they switch more often). But the willingness to adapt to all sorts of situations — buoyed by the culture of accountability Jason Kidd has instilled within his squad — is a hallmark of this Mavericks defense.

Case in point: With the prospect of facing Curry, the Mavericks will most certainly send hedges and traps his way, while counting on their backline defense to rotate behind the main coverage and plug the holes. This places the onus on Curry’s supporting cast to make their shots and take advantage of a defense in rotation.

The thing is, the Mavericks are an excellent rotating and scrambling team. They know how to close out, who to close out hard on, who to leave alone, how to slide behind the main action to cover gaps, and how to recover quickly.

I want to zero in on this particular possession because it encapsulates just how good the Mavericks are when defending on a string:

The spacing didn’t help the Warriors above, nor did the personnel surrounding Curry. Green and Juan Toscano-Anderson are negative spacers; Wiggins’ ability to hit a shot comes and goes, which gives the Mavericks license to take a calculated risk by sagging off of him on the weak side. The other spacer left is Poole, and by the time the ball finds its way to him, the Mavericks have already X’ed out and closed in toward him.

But what if the Mavericks have to defend constant off-ball movement, screening, and cutting?

Just like other elite opponents in the past, they have the ability to stagnate the Warriors offense through overplaying/top-locking, switching, and all the other things that are kryptonite to a motion scheme:

So how can the Warriors punish a Mavericks defense that is hellbent on shrinking the floor, selling out on the most dangerous offensive threat, and is capable of shutting down pet actions?

The answer isn’t as complicated as you may think.

The Warriors will have to rely on making their shots from the outside, especially against a tilted Mavericks defense resulting from multiple rotations. Taking advantage of overhelp is paramount; by design, the Mavericks give up plenty of open shots. They close a lot of gaps, but they can’t close everything.

There are still some notable pressure points the Warriors can pick out and exploit to their own ends. Brunson’s size is a limiting factor despite his effort. Dončić is still a glaring chink in the Mavericks’ proverbial armor, despite his improvement as a defender.

Forcing him to defend in space — courtesy of early-offense drag screens, step-up screens, and other quick-hitting actions that can force switches — is an interesting avenue the Warriors may want to explore.

Who will round out the rotation?

Otto Porter Jr. is a no-brainer shoo-in. We all saw his value against a team that was supposed to dominate the Warriors in rebounding. Porter Jr.’s effort on the boards, floor spacing (which started to re-appear during the tail-end of the Grizzlies series), and ability to excel as a team defender are traits that will definitely keep him in the rotation.

Poole will be an interesting character in this series. There’s no doubt that the Warriors will keep him in due to his dynamic offensive nature as a shooter, shot-creator, and playmaker. But he’s obviously going to be targeted by Dončić on mismatches; the Warriors should do everything in their power not to let that happen. Poole will need to prove that his offensive value will more than make up for his deficiencies on defense.

Damion Lee is a controversial choice, and understandably so. But his inclusion is more of a necessity rather than a choice. With no Payton II or Andre Iguodala for the foreseeable future, Lee is another wing the Warriors can throw out there to absorb minutes. Let’s just hope that Lee’s motor and effort translates to productive minutes — i.e., surviving on defense and making shots to punish the Mavericks’ tilted defense.

This is a series where I feel Kuminga can shine. He doesn’t have to contend with overpowering and highly physical bigs. His athleticism as a screener and roller puts him in a great spot to take advantage of a Mavericks defense in rotation. He can switch on defense, including taking turns on Dončić himself. If he can make his long-range shots — because the Mavericks will most certainly leave him open — it would go a long way toward justifying his minutes.

My prediction of who will round out the rotation is as follows:

  • Otto Porter Jr.
  • Jordan Poole
  • Damion Lee
  • Jonathan Kuminga

Nemanja Bjelica should stay glued to the bench for this series. His limitations when defending in space is too much of a flaw — especially against someone like Dončić.

X-factor: Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins came up huge against the Grizzlies. He’ll need to continue to be that high-motor wing who’s locked in against the opponent’s best scorer and lead ball-handler. But in addition, Wiggins also needs to be a consistent 3rd or 4th option on offense.

The Mavericks will leave Wiggins open; not only should he not be afraid to take the open shots (he hasn’t, to be fair to him) — he needs to drill them at a rate that will keep the defense honest.

To do that while expending a considerable amount of energy getting bumped by someone as strong and burly as Dončić — while also navigating around screens, moving laterally to keep him in front, and recovering when falling behind — isn’t easy.

But Wiggins is shooting 16-of-40 (40%) from beyond the arc during these playoffs. He’s been showing that he can wear many hats and do a decent-to-great job in almost everything he’s asked to do. The consistency has been present — but now more than ever, it needs to persist.

Prediction

This could very well be the toughest series yet for the Warriors. Dončić’s transcendence has been on full display throughout these playoffs. He eviscerated the supposed best team in the league, and was supported by a defensive machinery that has completely bought in to Kidd’s philosophy.

Each possession will be highly scrutinized, which compounds the need for the Warriors to value each and every one that they are given. Wantonly turning the ball over and wasting possessions is not an option; Dončić is the kind of opponent that will pounce on mistakes without an ounce of mercy.

The Super Splash Brothers are the kind of offensive force that is suited to punish this Mavericks defense — but if their collective shooting struggles carry over from the Grizzlies series, the path toward a Finals berth will incrementally get steeper and steeper.

I think both of these teams are perfectly made to exploit each other’s weaknesses. Which is why I’m counting on this series to be a close and hard-fought slugfest.

Warriors in 7

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