The short answer: it was a bit of both.
Not to inundate you with a long-winded explanation of what worked and what didn’t, but the fact of the matter is that the Dallas Mavericks were able to find answers against the Golden State Warriors’ zone — and the first answer was simple.
They just made shots.
A huge talking point going into Game 4 was the argument of the Mavericks plainly missing wide-open shots throughout the first 3 games. They were finding holes in the Warriors’ zone; Luka Dončić was using the attention he was garnering to create holes and generate advantages. His teammates were set up to pull the trigger on the shots that Dončić was creating for them.
In Game 3, Reggie Bullock and Maxi Kleber combined for a 0-of-12 clip from beyond the arc. Some of those looks were shots they’d normally knock in — but for some reason, failed to do so.
In Game 4, Bullock and Kleber combined for an 8-of-13 clip on threes. The Mavericks shot a blazing 20-of-43 — 46.5% — from beyond the arc. The open shots that weren’t falling finally went in, but the shots that were decently contested — the pull-up threes that are generally more inefficient than the open catch-and-shoot variety — also went in.
In a way, it was one of those nights where variance reared its ugly head for the Warriors. But that’s not the full story. The Warriors won’t escape this game without criticism.
Their zone — shifting from a 1-2-2 to a 3-2 and vice versa — has mostly been solid and without much holes to poke at. They’ve been near seamless with their mid-possession switch-ups from zone to man, and from man to zone. It’s a feat most teams aren’t capable of making; they’d need a timeout to set up the switch, because most of their personnel require a considerable amount of time to reset and refocus.
The Warriors aren’t most teams. They’ve got the veteran experience, knowhow, and IQ to switch coverages in between possessions.
Which is why this particular possession portended their night of uncharacteristically getting mixed up:
After Kevon Looney misses the free throw, pay particular attention to Mike Brown on the bench. He holds up two fists — the team’s hand signal for a zone. Draymond Green also holds up a fist to signal to his teammates that they should get into a zone, but not everyone gets the message.
Some try to match up, while others are getting ready to settle into their designated areas. Klay Thompson, in particular, seeks out Bullock, mistakenly thinking that the Warriors are playing man-to-man. Once he realizes his mistake, he rushes toward the wide-open Dončić — along with Andrew Wiggins — to cut off his open lane to the rim.
From then on, the Warriors are put in rotation. The Mavericks punish the confusion by moving the ball around until it finds its way to Kleber in the corner, who drills his first three of the night.
Dončić, in particular, also did something that he isn’t particularly prone to doing. As a ball-dominant lead creator, he rarely has opportunities to be off the ball. Whenever he’s off the ball, it’s usually as a stationary observer and not as an off-ball threat, whether as a cutter, screener, or floor spacer.
But watch these two possessions:
You rarely see Dončić move after giving up the ball, but that’s what he does in the possessions above. He catches Looney off guard by cutting after passing, and immediately receiving the ball back from Frank Ntilikina. He sees the opportunity to perform a slot cut in the second clip when the Warriors’ zone presents a glaring hole on the weak side.
On some possessions, all it took was the simplest of movements to get the Mavericks an open shot. Such movements consisted of filling an empty space created by a teammate’s movement, or cutting through the middle of the zone to create mini-diversions.
When Dončić calls for a ball screen, pay particular attention to Ntilikina, Bullock, and Dorian Finney-Smith. Ntilikina goes over to set the screen, but he calls for Bullock behind him to fill the space Ntilikina vacates at the wing. In turn, Finney-Smith cuts through the nail and fills the empty space (right corner) that Bullock vacates.
Finney-Smith’s cut-through serves as a diversion and distraction — it distracts Jonathan Kuminga from seeing Bullock relocate to the wing, preventing him from rotating in a timely manner to cut off Bullock’s space. Bullock subsequently drills the catch-and-shoot three.
The same concept applies on this possession:
Kleber sets the ball screen, but before doing so, directs Finney-Smith to relocate to the opposite (left) corner. Kleber then flips the screen to draw out a stunt from Moses Moody, who lingers a beat too long on his stunt (peep at Curry pointing at Moody to go back to his original spot) and fails to recover toward Jalen Brunson on the left wing.
Green can’t fully commit to Brunson, lest he give up an open swing pass to Finney-Smith in the corner. With Moody lingering too long on his stunt, Dončić swings it to Brunson for the open three.
On some possessions — particularly when the Warriors went to their 3-2 zone (which can look like a 1-2-2 zone, but with the absence of the defender up top pressuring the ball handler) — the Warriors just plainly left holes open, particularly on the left wing.
Green was visibly frustrated and angry in the first clip above — there were rotations that weren’t made, and some that weren’t supposed to happen. The second clip allows Dončić to stroll all the way to the rim due to botched rotations: Curry leaves Dončić momentarily to cover the ball screen action; Kuminga goes over to rotate to Nemanja Bjelica’s man, expecting Bjelica to rotate and cover Dončić — but all Bjelica does is to stunt instead of commit to the rotation.
A huge part of why the Warriors’ bench crew was successful in trimming the lead down to as low as single digits was because in several ways, they executed the 3-2 zone much better than their starting counterparts did.
Remember the Dončić drive in the second clip above, and how Curry’s commitment to the ball screen left Bjelica in a tough situation? Here’s a similar possession:
The difference: better communication, more crisp rotations, controlled close-outs, and a zone that failed to overly bend; a zone that doesn’t overly bend doesn’t break, keeps it shape, and puts someone in a position to make a defensive play, as Moody did above when he intercepts a wayward pass.
And that’s pretty much the main adjustment the Warriors can make going into Game 5. While the Mavericks shot better and did more to break the zone than in previous encounters, the Warriors did shoot themselves in the foot by failing to communicate, uncharacteristically botching coverages, and not having that high degree of execution that gave them the 3-0 lead.
Game 5 at home presents an opportunity for them to shore up their holes and end the series for good.