Luka Dončić has far past proved that whatever coverage he sees, he most likely has an answer for it. But this season has been different, as if he’s taking his coverage-busting powers to a whole new level. No matter what you throw at him — being conservative, taking a risk by being aggressive, etc. — Dončić not only has an answer for them; he makes you look absolutely stupid for making those decisions, even if they objectively aren’t.
That’s what the Golden State Warriors tried to do against him, to no avail. Dončić ended up with 39 points on 29 shots — 9-of-16 (56.3%) on twos, 5-of-13 (38.5%) on threes), and an efficient scoring mark of 60.8% True Shooting. The Warriors were outscored by a total of nine points in his 37 minutes and 31 seconds of time on the floor.
After the game, Steve Kerr was asked how coverage decisions were made against Dončić.
“We tried to mix it up on him,” Kerr said. “We single covered him, we switched... we tried a lot of different things, but he’s a brilliant player, had a phenomenal game. I thought the mistakes we made defensively in the first half especially were on our switches. We weren’t communicating. We had some good stretches where we were getting stops and our switches were good, and then our communication broke down. We started getting two on the ball and he picked us apart. He was fantastic tonight.”
The interesting part of Kerr’s quote was where he implied having two players on the ball against Dončić wasn’t part of their game plan, and that miscommunication happened whenever someone else came over to double Dončić instead of letting the switch man handle him in isolation.
Switches were a heavy part of the game plan against Dončić, and it inferred Kerr and the coaching staff’s overarching strategy against him: let him isolate and try to score, and hope that he won’t have the scoring support behind him to get the Dallas Mavericks over the hump.
On the surface, it doesn’t sound like a bad game plan — after all, the Warriors have tried similar approaches in the past against Dončić and have succeeded with it. On paper, they still have the personnel to send out the matchups they’re fine with against Dončić on switches.
With Trayce Jackson-Davis as the starting center over Kevon Looney, he was tasked as the initial switch-big trusted with holding his own against Dončić, who felt it necessary to test the rookie immediately by telling Jackson-Davis’ man to come over and set a screen for him to induce the switch.
By Kerr’s standards, these were what he would consider “good” switches. But Dončić picks individual matchups apart like a surgeon. He made these Jackson-Davis switches his own personal playground:
To be fair to Jackson-Davis, even Kevon Looney — who’s had past success as a switch big against Dončić — didn’t do that much better:
The film didn’t show much miscommunication in terms of switching against Dončić. For the most part, they were able to execute the switches against him without much of a hitch. The process was sound; the result wasn’t what they wanted.
If there were any miscommunication on switches, it was mostly because the Warriors didn’t want Steph Curry switched onto Dončić — and in the process of preventing that outcome, they ran over themselves trying to protect Curry, which got Dončić looks such as this one:
You could also categorize the possession below — where the Mavericks run “Spain” pick-and-roll action in which a backscreener sets a screen on the roll-man’s defender (in this case, Jackson-Davis) to give Dončić an open driving lane — as lack of communication as to how to defend the Spain action:
Were there other things the Warriors could have done better? For one, they botched their matchups against Dončić on a couple of possessions — such as having Chris Paul defend him.
I don’t think sending a 38-year-old Paul to see what he can do against Dončić is a sound idea, given that the Phoenix Suns have already tried that strategy before when they let Paul switch onto Dončić in the 2022 NBA Playoffs — a matchup that Dončić was more than happy to take advantage of:
It also doesn’t help that — besides the coverage and matchup decisions — the Warriors felt sluggish in transition defense. They allowed 168.8 points per 100 possessions in transition against the Mavericks — which would easily be the equivalent of the best transition offense in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. Dončić was easily finding outlet targets because the Warriors were either slow to match up or didn’t match up at all:
Hard doubles were hit or miss — and as always, it was highly contingent on the execution. Half-hearted doubles that were late, telegraphed, on the fly, and left gaps open behind them were picked apart:
While doubles that came much earlier, with more oomph behind them and left little space and time for Dončić to make a sound decision, fared better:
Despite the goal of not having Dončić’s teammates support him with scoring and finishing off his shot creation chops, the Warriors still managed to let his supporting cast cook. Five non-Dončić Mavericks players ended up in double figures:
- Dante Exum: 19 points
- Josh Green: 18 points
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: 16 points
- Dereck Lively II: 12 points
- Grant Williams: 10 points
Dončić ended up creating 64 of the Mavericks’ 132 points — 39 from him, 25 off of his assists. The Warriors tried a variety of coverages, but it felt like things were left on the table. The things they did try to do, Dončić was just plainly better.
Adjustments were made, matchups were shuffled around, and solutions were constantly being considered. There’s only so much a team can do against an all-world offensive creator such as Dončić — but at the same time, it felt like the Warriors didn’t try everything they could possibly throw out there against him.