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How Game 1 was a showcase of the Warriors’ multifaceted defensive game plan

They gave Luka Dončić and the Mavericks different looks.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The most eye-popping defensive possession of Game 1 between the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks was probably this one to end the 1st quarter.

It’s no secret that the Mavericks like to hunt for favorable matchups. Luka Dončić is a master at getting whatever mismatches he wants. The secondary ball handlers and shot creators surrounding him — Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie — are also keen on hunting for the matchups they want to isolate against.

Dinwiddie — guarded by Draymond Green in this particular instance — tries to hunt for Kevon Looney. Looney is by no means a slouch when defending out front; he’s disciplined, sturdy, and knows not to fall for all sorts of herky-jerky movement and pump fakes.

But there’s enough reason for it to give people pause. Looney isn’t the most athletic switch big. His lateral movement may ascribe to fundamental defense, but it’s also not the fastest. Past injuries to his hips have hampered his ability to quickly swivel them from one position to another, in an attempt to keep his assignments in front.

But still, Looney tries his absolute best. In some instances, effort and knowhow trump natural gifts. Which is why, even when he isn’t involved in the meat of this defensive stop, he deserves as much credit:

When Green switches onto Dorian Finney-Smith, he doesn’t follow him all the way to the corner — but that doesn’t stop him from being aware of what the Mavericks are trying to do. He points to the corner to make Stephen Curry aware of a possible pin-in screen by Frank Ntilikina, and proceeds to stay in the paint to shadow a potential Dinwiddie drive.

Looney is aware of Green behind him. He shades Dinwiddie to his right, toward Green’s help. Dinwiddie times his kick-out to the corner simultaneously with Ntilikina’s pin-in for Finney-Smith — but Green already knows what’s coming.

He closes out hard toward the corner and makes one of his patented close-out rejections — and the Mavericks come up with nothing to show for their last possession of the opening quarter.

The story of the Mavericks’ offensive night was just that — virtually nothing to show. They were held to an offensive rating of 91.6, including a half-court offensive rating of 80.9 — well below their typical excellence in the half court.

As usual, the Mavericks’ overall struggles on offense started from the top. Dončić — second only to the great Michael Jordan in career playoff points per game — was limited to 20 points on 18 shots (3-of-8 on twos, 3-of-10 on threes), with a 46.5% True Shooting mark.

Much was made of Dončić’s primary defender prior to Game 1. The general consensus was that no one on the Warriors stood a chance at making life difficult for him in single coverage; even if someone were to find pockets of success against him, the Mavericks would try to switch Dončić away from his primary defender onto someone less feasible.

Let’s address the Wiggins concern first — which, if Game 1 was of any indication, wasn’t much of a concern at all.

Wiggins used every bit of his length, deceptive wiry strength, and laterality to keep Dončić in front. The level of Wiggins’ focus on defending Dončić was also apparent through how high his pick-up point was — at times, nearly three-quarters of the court.

But Wiggins doesn’t deserve the sole credit. The Warriors’ team-wide defense and schematic shifts gave Dončić different looks, almost on a per-possession basis. That was always considered the key to limiting not only Dončić’s rhythm as an individual scorer, but also making sure his teammates are constantly on the outside looking in.

When Dončić or one of Dinwiddie and Brunson tried the classic bully ball approach in the low post, the Warriors packed the paint, showed help from the elbows and at the nail, and had the low man pinch in from the weak-side — all part of what is construed as “strong-side overloading.”

When the Warriors pulled out their go-to change-of-pace tool — a 1-2-2 zone to keep actions in front and away from the paint — the Mavericks did not attempt to counter it with any sort of middle penetration or flash to the middle, something that is part and parcel of any attempt to counter a zone.

Even a box-and-1 was on the table for a couple of possessions.

Once the bane of their Curry-centric offensive existence, the Warriors have made the box-and-1 a somewhat common weapon in their defensive repertoire — so much so that you’d probably be able to recognize one and differentiate it from a run-of-the mill 1-2-2 zone.

But how about switching? The Warriors did switch, but not unconditionally.

If it was Looney on a switch against Dončić, the Warriors trusted Looney enough to keep Dončić in front, force him into tough shots, and lure him into long-range bombs off the dribble that the Warriors will take their chances on.

As aforementioned, Looney doesn’t easily fall for deception and trickery — tools that are part of Dončić’s bag, considering that he doesn’t have the required burst or athleticism to give him a blazing first step.

But if it wasn’t a switch onto Looney — or other capable defenders such as Klay Thompson, Otto Porter Jr., or Green — the Warriors were adamant about not giving up the easy switch, something the Phoenix Suns failed to do against the Mavericks.

Mismatch hunting was expected to be the Mavericks’ bread-and-butter. The Warriors were able to plan for it extensively, using something they’ve used in the past against marquee superstars who also have a history of hunting for the perceived weakest links.

As I wrote in the series preview:

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.

True to expectations, the Warriors did indeed have Curry and Jordan Poole hard hedge and recover whenever Dončić, Brunson, or Dinwiddie tried to involve them in a screen-and-switch action.

The ultimate manifestation of the Warriors’ hedge-and-recover scheme came during one particular possession — one that had several layers to it.

To summarize the good stuff that happened above:

  1. Curry hands Reggie Bullock off to Green and takes Green’s man (Brunson) to avoid being involved in the direct screening action (“pre-switching”).
  2. When Brunson sets the screen to get Curry involved, Curry hedges out to prevent the switch.
  3. Green slides in the paint to cut off Brunson as the short-roll release valve.
  4. Curry “peels-off” toward Bullock on the wing.
  5. Thompson, staying largely attached to Dinwiddie in the corner, blocks the shot attempt.

There were 11 instances of the Warriors using a hedge and recover against Dončić, Brunson, and Dinwiddie; the Mavericks scored a total of 7 points on them — 0.64 points per possession (PPP), in addition to 2 turnovers.

The Mavericks bank on creating advantages through their spread pick-and-roll half-court offense. They largely failed to bend the Warriors defense to the point where they were able to find breathing room on the perimeter — but as you may have noticed, they also were able to find opportunities from the outside.

Opportunities that, according to the Mavericks’ outside shooting clip (11-of-48, 22.9%), were wasted.

A cautious outlook suggests that Dončić won’t be this inefficient moving forward, that he’ll find a way to counter the coverages and looks the Warriors have been giving him. It also suggests that his teammates won’t shoot this poorly; they’ll eventually knock down their open shots.

It also suggests that, if the Mavericks truly are the defensive team that their billing presents them to be, they will make their own adjustments to the Warriors’ highly chaotic and seemingly random motion offense, one that can often enact death by a thousand cuts.

Those are a lot of “ifs” for the Mavericks to live up to — but they have plenty of time to concoct the appropriate response.