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How the Warriors’ 2nd-half adjustments earned them a 2-0 series lead over the Mavericks

Examining the 19-point rally in detail.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks shot 21-of-45 on threes — 46.7%. Luka Dončić had an otherworldly stat line, as he is wont to do: 42 points on 23 shots (7-of-13 on twos, 5-of-10 on threes), 5 rebounds, 8 assists, and a 70.9% True Shooting mark.

The Mavericks were a plus-21 on three-point shots. They took virtually half of their field goal attempts — 52% — from beyond the arc, while the other half consisted of mid-range shots.

You might be wondering: Why did the Mavericks lose despite having a commanding advantage in terms of long-range makes — an advantage that several people felt was coming after a relatively cold shooting night in Game 1?

The answer becomes apparent when you look at the entirety of their shot profile:

Game 2 Shot Frequency
Cleaning The Glass
Game 2 Shot Accuracy
Cleaning The Glass

The Mavericks threw caution to the wind and continued to bank most of their offense on threes. In Game 1, it was to their detriment; in Game 2, it gave them a 14-point lead at halftime.

Several factors were behind the Mavericks’ newfound success outside:

  1. The law of averages finally favoring them
  2. Botched defensive possessions from the Warriors
  3. Finding counters to some of the Warriors’ defensive coverages

But despite the Mavericks hitting their shots seemingly through a wide ocean, the Warriors persevered and weathered the storm. They enacted several noteworthy adjustments that virtually nullified the three-point-shooting discrepancy.

The first change is subtle and miniscule in comparison to the more aesthetically obvious adjustments the Warriors made — but in my view, it set the tone and changed the tenor of the Warriors’ half-court defense.

A subtle change in defensive assignments

The Warriors’ answer to Dončić’s rampant mismatch hunting in Game 1 was to have Stephen Curry and Jordan Poole “hard hedge” and recover. It was apparent from the start that, unlike the Phoenix Suns in the 2nd round, the Warriors weren’t going to acquiesce the easy switch.

It was interesting to see how Dončić was going to adjust and counter the hedges. We saw flashes of him and the Mavericks adjusting in Game 1: flat screens and other funky screening angles by the screener, to name a few.

In Game 2, the adjustment was simple: have Reggie Bullock — Curry’s man — set “ghost” screens, in which he fakes the screen and flares out toward the weak-side wing, and using his height advantage over Curry to nullify the recovery and pull up for a three.

After halftime, the Warriors brought Curry away from Bullock and had him defend Dorian Finney-Smith, with Klay Thompson taking the Bullock assignment. It was a sound decision — should the Mavericks continue having Bullock set screens, it would be a seamless switch from Andrew Wiggins to Thompson, who matches up better in terms of size.

Instead, the Mavericks continued to go at Curry by having Finney-Smith set the screens. Curry would continue to hedge — but while Finney-Smith is a capable shooter (42% during these playoffs), they would much rather have him take shots on the move instead of Bullock.

After having less success going at Curry and making him work on hedging and recovering, the Mavericks lessened their targeted attacks on him — and, perhaps headscratchingly so, shifted their sights toward a rock-solid wall.

Kevon Looney holding up on switches

Looney more than held up his own against Dončić in Game 1. He was fundamentally sound with his lateral movements — but more importantly, he displayed defensive intelligence — buoyed by a “KYP” (know your personnel) approach — that is often a hallmark of above-average switch bigs.

Looney is well aware that Dončić would rather favor his strong hand, and therefore prefers to drive to his right. As such, Looney has done a remarkable job of shading Dončić to his left, where it is more likely that Dončić will resort to a jumper or kick out to a teammate, as well as directing Dončić toward the help defense.

The intelligence and knowhow were still present in Game 2:

Shading Dončić to the left? Check. Making him resort to pull-up jumpers? Check. Funneling him toward a help defender? Check.

Looney’s 21 points and 12 rebounds will get the spotlight, and deservedly so. But his enduring presence as a capable switch-big deserves equal, if not more, recognition.

A befuddling zone defense

The Warriors are fond of their 1-2-2 matchup zone. It is part and parcel of their scheme versatility, a change-of-pace tool to throw teams off and put a wrench into carefully-crafted half-court game plans.

The Warriors’ hand signal for their 1-2-2 zone is a raised “double fist.” Here’s an instance of Poole calling it out on the floor:

Their ineffectiveness with the zone during the 1st half mostly wasn’t due to the Mavericks executing the requisite counter; it was more of the Warriors uncharacteristically botching their execution. One such instance was the Warriors failing to get back in time to set their matchup zone, falling asleep off a made basket and yielding a wide-open corner three.

Other than the mishap above, the Mavericks haven’t been keen on attacking the middle of the Warriors’ zone. Flashing someone through the middle to collapse the zone inward — opening up several options in the form of open kick-outs to the perimeter or high-low passes to roamers in the dunker spot — is the classic counter.

Watch how the Mavericks settled against the zone and largely refused to attack the paint:

A failure in attacking the paint and settling for the outside shot did the Mavericks in against the zone — a fact more pronounced by the staggering points-in-the-paint differential.

The points-in-the-paint differential

Scripted set plays aren’t the backbone of the Warriors’ half-court offense — but when the opportunity presents itself, a drawn-up half-court set is still the preferred method of generating efficient offense.

Steve Kerr has been one of the best coaches this year in terms of drawing up after-timeout (ATO) plays. The one he drew up after a timeout in the 3rd quarter was a pet Warriors play:

The play above — termed as “Motion Weak Fist” — gets Poole into the paint for a layup. But the process behind it is also fun to map out.

The first step: an entry pass to the wing, followed by a shallow cut by the initial ball handler and a ball reversal:

The next step: a cross-screen underneath the rim for the ball screener (screen-the-screener or “Ram” screen action), which turns the possession into an empty side pick-and-roll:

Peep at how Otto Porter Jr. fools Dončić by seemingly setting the screen to Poole’s right, only to suddenly change the angle by setting it to Poole’s left. This leaves Dončić in no man’s land, with Poole garnering middle penetration and completing the set with a nifty finish,

Those were 2 of the Warriors’ 62 points in the paint. They were a plus-32 in the paint against the Mavericks, which more than made up for the three-point discrepancy.

The Mavericks aren’t an effective rim-protecting unit — their 4.0 blocks-per-game average during the regular season ranked 27th; opponents shot 66.5% at the rim against them, 23rd in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Whenever the Warriors got two feet within the paint, the Mavericks couldn’t do anything to stop them from scoring up close:

(Moses Moody deserves a special mention. Kerr opted to send him out in the 2nd half in lieu of the ineffective Damion Lee. Moody made the most out of his minutes, showing defensive hustle and maturity beyond his 19 years, making an interior dump-off pass to Looney, and displaying some aggression himself by driving for a layup.)

The Warriors even gave the Mavericks a dose of their own mismatch-hunting medicine, with Curry targeting Dončić on a few occasions, resulting in more paint touches and layups:

The Mavericks’ 7th-ranked defense during the regular season banked highly on keeping actions flattened and out in front — a preference for keeping ball movement strictly an east-to-west endeavor, rather than a north-to-south affair. The Warriors, arguably more so than any team left in these Conference Finals, excel at stretching a defense to its limits, breaking it open, and letting the raging waters flow through.

After 2 games, 2 wins, and a successful defense of home court, that is proving to be the notable difference.