SAN FRANCISCO — It’s only one game in a best-of-seven series, but after the Warriors dismantled a Dallas defense in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Wednesday, it’s fair to wonder what the Mavericks do next.
It took less than 30 minutes of play, but Steph Curry has put this Mavs defense in a bind that lacks a clear solution.
Dallas’ defense came into this series with plenty of buzz. After all, their tight rotations and excellent gameplays caused the NBA’s best regular-season team, the Phoenix Suns, fold in Games 6 and 7 of their semifinal series.
The Mavericks tired 37-year-old Chris Paul in the last round and then double-teamed Devin Booker when the 25-year-old guard had the ball.
Because Paul is just a small player without his trademark first step — incapable of breaking down a defense or getting up a shot at an elite level — and Booker, despite once being this team’s point guard, lacks the ability to play-make with the ball in his hand, the Mavericks’ defensive tactics effectively turned the Suns into the sorry operation existed before Paul’s arrival two seasons ago.
So of course Dallas was keen to try the same effective defense against the Warriors with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
But the Warriors don’t play the high pick-and-roll style of the Suns or Dallas’ first-round opponent, the Utah Jazz, and Golden State’s incisive cuts, back screens and ball movement carved up Dallas like a slow-cooked ribeye in Game 1.
“I think every series has a different makeup, right, and this team has its very clear distinct differences than the past two we’ve played,” Mavericks guard Spencer Dinwiddie said after Game 1. “They’ve been the best team in the league since probably 2015… This [series] is going to be completely different with their off-ball movement. They don’t rely on pick-and-rolls, like you said, like the other teams have. Just getting adjusted and getting ready for Game 2.”
But what will that adjustment be?
I don’t see one that will work.
Dallas’ defensive game plan for Game 1 was to double-team Steph Curry when he came across half court.
I know they expected a different result than what happened, but I’m not sure why.
Mavericks coach Jason Kidd surely has Doc Rivers’ phone number, right? The one-time Clippers coach tried that trap tactic year after year and the Warriors always beat it. It was the definition of coaching insanity. No one else had been bold enough to take up Rivers’ mantle since he was fired by the Clippers.
So the Warriors obviously welcomed the double-team when they saw it reprized by Dallas.
The Dubs’ counter is simple: Curry gets the ball to Draymond Green or Jordan Poole and they take full advantage of a 4-on-3.
“The way we play, once you get it, the first pass, they had two guys on me and then we have more actions to follow, that’s what we’ve been doing for years, and there’s a chemistry to that,” Curry said .
That chemistry was most clearly manifested in Curry’s wild, over-the-head pass from the corner to no one in particular in the third quarter Wednesday. Curry had unnecessarily worked himself into a problem (as he is wont to do at times), so he flung the ball over his head to the top of the key. Who does that?
Someone who implicitly trusts his teammates. Sure enough, Draymond Green corralled the pass to no one, and a little more than three seconds later, Curry knocked down a 3-pointer, courtesy of a laser-beam pass from Green and a bone-rattling screen from Kevon Looney on the perimeter .
The play looked chaotic. It was chaotic. But the Warriors are well-practiced in chaos.
“Those guys have a synergy from playing together for a decade… There’s a lot of value in that. Draymond has always been sort of the fulcrum of our offense as a passer, screener. He sees the floor so well. He sees those guys working off the ball. He sees the back-door cuts,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “That was an example of those guys just knowing each other well and Draymond knowing exactly what Steph was going to do… You can put Looney in there, too. There’s a lot of continuity with our team that’s important. Guys read each other well.”
If Kidd is hoping that his team’s defensive focus on Curry will tire out the Warriors’ guard, I don’t think he did his homework. Curry’s superhuman skill is n’t necessarily his shooting ability (though that’s incredible) — no, it’s his endless stamina. One could make a case that no one is in better shape in the NBA than Curry.
So the double team won’t work.
Yes, if the Mavericks keep trying to double-team Curry, this series will be quick work for Golden State.
But what else can Dallas do?
The problem is that the Mavericks don’t have a perimeter defender that can check Curry one-on-one.
Dallas’ backcourt defense goes from bad to worse. Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie are not capable of staying in front of Curry and Luka Dončić is a downright terrible on-ball defender. Plus, the Mavericks should not want him to be chasing around Curry. He needs to save his energy.
Perhaps they can put bench guard Frank Ntilikina — a good but hardly great on-ball defender who gets lost easily in rotations and is a massive offensive liability — on Curry, but that didn’t work Wednesday and he’s a massive negative on offense. Forgive me for doubling down on such a move will swing the series in Dallas’ favor..
But putting size on Curry won’t change anything either. Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith are long and mobile, but they had defensive ratings of 115 and 116 (points allowed per 100 possessions) after the Mavericks’ trade of Kristaps Porzingis, which sparked this nice run they’ve been on over the last few months.
Those defensive ratings are not accidents. Curry posted an offensive rating of 141 when Bullock was his primary defender Wednesday, per the NBA’s tracking data.
Against Finney-Smith, it was 138.
Ok, so Dallas can’t trap Curry and they can’t guard him one-on-one.
Can they follow Kerr’s template and go with “janky” defenses?
It seems like the only logical route. The issue is that the Mavericks are not exactly well-practiced at it.
Dallas’ basic defense is a matchup zone. They guard man-to-man on the perimeter and allow their wing defenders serious leniency to roam and protect the paint. It creates traffic on pick-and-rolls and drives, and Dallas rotates well enough that they can make up for the overload on the ball and their lack of a true rim defender.
The Warriors know this defense well — it’s what they run with Green on the floor. So they also know that one cut off ball could break everything down. it did.
After the Porzingis trade in February, the Mavericks did not have enough time to experiment with alternative defenses. They were simply trying to figure out this matchup zone under a first-year head coach.
So a 3-2 or 2-3 zone, a box-and-one or a triangle-and-two seem out of the question as a viable defensive option against Curry, Poole, Klay Thompson and the Dubs.
Plus, a true zone would leave the Warriors wide open shots from distance. We saw Dallas give up the mid-range with their match-up zone in Game 1. The Warriors took advantage, making 12-of-18 mid-range shots. Turning those 2s into 3s is not a model for success for Dallas or any other team.
Surely there are other options for Dallas. right?
Dallas can hope to shoot the lights out every game, but can they do that in four of the next six games? I seriously doubt they can pull it off in even one.
I’ll bet that Kidd, a Basketball Hall of Famer, is more adept at solving these defensive issues than some jerk with a newspaper column.
But from this jerk’s vantage point in the arena, I don’t see a defensive solution for the Mavericks outside of hope and prayer.
And that won’t get you to the NBA Finals.