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Playoff scouting: Dallas Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks are a tough test for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Dallas Mavericks v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks are one of the few teams to rebuild quickly and successfully. The Mavericks grabbed Luka Doncic in 2018, arguably the best player in the draft, and Dallas pulled off a blockbuster trade to acquire Kristaps Porzingis from the New York Knicks.

It was expected that the Mavericks would be wrong as their young core developed.

Dallas has over-achieved regarding expectations. The Mavericks will make the playoffs, and their success is mostly due to the contributions of Luka Doncic, a 21-year-old player from Slovenia. Doncic was the best player in European competition for Real Madrid, but it was expected that he would struggle with the physicality of the NBA.

Luka has taken the challenges in his stride and has played at an NBA level for the entire season. It is reasonable to state that he has been one of the top fifteen players in the league. His impact on the Mavericks has been undeniable, his playmaking and scoring have made the Dallas Mavericks into one of the most efficient offenses in the league.

The Mavericks haven’t made the playoffs since 2016, and in that period, the roster has turned over.

Dallas has a lot of young players who have not experienced post-season basketball, which could be good news for the Thunder in the end.

OKC has plenty of players who understand that the playoffs are about delivering under pressure.

Create Turnovers

Dallas’ offense runs through Luka Doncic. He is the engine of the offense. Doncic is a difficult player to stop due to his playmaking and ability to score inside efficiently. These kinds of players cannot be obstructed entirely. The Thunder’s aim has to be to make Luka inefficient from the field.

His size aids Luka’s efficiency, Doncic is 6’7 and can see over taller defenders when handling the ball. The height works to Luka’s advantage. He can spot passing angles to teammates that the majority of point guards cannot see. When Doncic’s size is considered alongside his vision as a passer, it forms a potent combination.

Luka’s passing is hugely impressive, and there are very few passers in the league who can find the angle to set their teammate up for an excellent scoring opportunity. Luka’s skill as a play-maker is one of the reasons why he averages 8.7 assists per game.

However, Doncic’s playmaking does have flaws; the most crucial issue is his propensity to turn the ball over. Luka averages 4.2 turnovers per game, which is bad for the Mavericks, these turnovers provide accessible opportunities for the other team. Oklahoma City can capitalize on the transition opportunities by being active on defense and advancing the ball quickly up the court. Shots attempted are some of the most efficient looks in basketball, and the Thunder need to maximize these chances.

Oklahoma City can create turnovers by applying pressure to Doncic when he handles the ball. Luka is the first option for the Mavericks in the half-court, especially when he’s playing 35.8% for the season. The Thunder can attack Luka in these opportunities by sending blitz coverages to crowd Doncic and force ill-advised passes.

The key for the Thunder will be sending two defenders to make life difficult for Doncic. These players have to defend Luka. They cannot allow Doncic to get into a nice, scoring rhythm. The uncertainty must be created in Luka’s mind, and only then will he start to make rash decisions on the ball.

Doncic is a cool operator. He has experience in pressure situations. He ran Real Madrid’s offense in EuroLeague competition while being a teenager. It will not be easy to pressure him, but I believe that the Thunder will be able to do so. Oklahoma City has the personnel to force Doncic under challenging decisions.

This strategy will not work for the Mavericks as a whole. Dallas is a team that takes good care of the ball. The Mavericks have the second-lowest turnover percentage in the league behind only the San Antonio Spurs. It is a hallmark of a Rick Carlisle side, and the team does not make unnecessary errors.

Three-Point Land

Dallas is a team that is very good at knocking down shots from deep. The Mavericks shot 36.9% on 3-pointers as a team. The substantial contribution from behind the arc means that the Mavericks lead the league in offensive rating due to the sheer volume of threes that they take. Dallas is second in the league in three-point attempts, and they make these shots on excellent efficiency, the effectiveness from three stems from the roster constructed by Donnie Nelson.

Nelson has worked for the Mavericks for over 20 years. He oversaw Dirk Nowitzki’s time in Dallas, and in recent years, his focus shifted to building a new roster. Nelson took Jalen Brunson in the 2018 NBA Draft, which added a two-way threat at the point. Nelson added deadeye shooter, Seth Curry, in free agency, and he uncovered a European gem in the form of Maxi Kleber.

Nelson realized that Luka would operate best with a corp of marksman sniping away from deep, it would provide space inside for Doncic to work. It is one of the reasons why the Mavericks gave up a lot to get Porzingis, Kristaps’ versatility at the power forward works nicely alongside Luka.

The presence of marksman makes Dallas a tough proposition. The perimeter defense needs to be excellent to prevent a player like Curry getting hot and becoming a headache for the Thunder. The Thunder needs to run shooters off the three-point line and force the players away from taking jumpers in rhythm. There must be secure communication between the perimeter players; any defensive breakdown will be capitalized on.

Oklahoma City should not adopt this strategy for Luka Doncic. Doncic is a poor shooter from deep compared to the rest of his team, Luka takes 9.1 three-point shots per game but only makes 31.8% of these looks. Those are not firm numbers at all. It often means that Doncic relies on his free throws to balance out poor shooting nights.

In the playoffs, free throws evaporate, and it becomes more important to have good nights from the field. Doncic’s efficiency will fall off during the playoffs if he continues to shoot the three-pointer at his current rate and volume. In theory, Luka should be a good shooter from deep.

Doncic’s form is consistent, and there are no noticeable hitches in his jumper, the reason for his low three-point percentage is Luka’s reliance on the step-back jumper. Doncic settles for this look a lot and rarely receives the ball in catch and shoot situations. The step-back requires a perfect form for the shot to fall due to the difficulty of the look. It is hard to ensure perfection on every step-back shot.

The step-back three-point shot is a valuable look in today’s NBA. The ball can be unstoppable when used correctly by the attacking player as it is difficult for the defender to challenge the shot effectively. James Harden is a player who has maximised the step-back three-point jumper. Before Harden’s interpretation of the look, it was seen as a gimmicky look.

The value of the shot is not merely the points that can be scored by the attacking player. There are three strands to the step-back jumper that directly relate to its value. The first part of the jumper is it creates a good look for the attacker from an area on the floor that is prioritized by most teams in the league.

Moreover, the step-back jumper has become the ideal tool to initiate contact for the league’s premier scorers. Lou Williams is a player who is adept at creating connections and selling the foul. Williams moves his body into a position where contact can be made before pretending that he has been fouled. This is what creates a scoring opportunity where the attacking player has three free throws at the line, a highly efficient look. Doncic is adept at drawing fouls on step-back shots.

The last value aspect of the step-back jumper stems from the fear it creates within defenders. The primary defender does not want to give up uncontested three-point looks and has to step out even further to contest the shot. The defensive player is out of position, and a smart, attacking player can drive past the defense into the lane for a look at the rim. In effect, the threat of the step-back jumper can be leveraged to create the interior looks that all offenses would like.

In my opinion, Luka settles for the step-back too much and does not maximize the value of the shot. Doncic is an efficient inside scorer. He is shooting 71.4% on looks inside 3-feet. He can have big scoring nights at the rim against the Thunder. It will be essential to wall him off and encourage the deep shot.

Slowing down Doncic will not be easy; the Thunder will need to be aware of Luka’s skill at drawing fouls. It would be a good idea to stick Chris Paul on Luka as Paul’s active hands will give Luka fits. Paul has displayed an ability to defend taller players by getting into their body and knocking the ball away. Chris did this effectively against Kevin Durant last season when he played for Houston.

Cross-Court Toss to the Corner

The Mavericks run a lot of high spread pick and roll with Doncic as the primary ball-handler. Carlisle diagrams the action to have three players situated on the perimeter with just Doncic and the big involved in the work. The effect creates a lot of passing options for Doncic, but he favors a cross-court pass to the weak-side corner.

I have watched a few Dallas games over the last few weeks, and the cross-court pass has been a staple of the Mavericks offense. It can be tricky for a defense to stop as the corner defender usually pushes up to the paint so that the court is squeezed. It means that the defender is well away from the corner, and a quality shot can be generated for the offense.

This pass is hard to execute correctly, the ball travels in the air for a long time, and a skilled defender can snatch the ball, providing that they position themselves correctly. Luka makes the hard pass look easy. He is very good at whipping the ball across the hardwood at the right moment.

It is imperative to stop Luka from hitting this pass regularly as the corner three is one of the most efficient looks in basketball. A player like Seth Curry or Dorian Finney Smith will feast on open threes. Moreover, the quick switch of play to the weak-side can open up the Thunder’s defense.

On the weak-side, Dallas usually stations two players behind the arc. One player sits in the deep corner, ready to catch and shoot while the other player is located at the break. The Thunder chose to squeeze the strong side means that one defender is left to play two attackers, which is not an ideal situation.

Playing two attackers is never easy; a defensive player is forced to make snap decisions that need to be correct; the opposing team will punish any mistakes. In addition to this, contesting the weak-side requires a lot of mental and physical exertion. The defender must sprint to the weak-side and decide who he wants to guard. The 1v2 situation can create indecision on the part of the defense, which will lead to open looks.

The Mavericks make this look harder to defend when they stick a secondary ball-handler in the court. Dallas has a few players who are comfortable handling the ball, and Rick Carlisle usually likes to employ a two play-maker lineup. It often means that Luka feels the ball, but a player like Delon Wright is ready to keep the possession rolling.

When the secondary play-maker receives the ball in the corner, they have many offensive options. They can shoot the ball reasonably uncontested, or they can swing the ball to the player sitting at the break. Both decisions create quality looks, which makes it more difficult for the defense to decide who to challenge.

The Thunder coaching staff can make a few adjustments to stop the cross-court pass being such a valuable tool in the box for the Mavericks. Billy Donovan could choose to move the corner defender away from the paint and closer to the deep corner.

This decision would make contesting looks from the weak-side much more manageable. The player does not have to cover as much ground to challenge the shot effectively. Coach Donovan choosing to make this adjustment will have ramifications for other aspects of the scheme.

The weak-side corner defender will not be able to rotate quickly and efficiently towards the interior. The lack of help will mean that Steven Adams will need to be excellent to contain the Mavericks’, big man. Adams will not be able to rely on another player easing the resistive load.

Gallinari Guard Post-Up

Danilo Gallinari is a highly efficient scorer whose contributions have been significant in the Thunder’s success this season. Although Gallinari has played brilliantly, Oklahoma City has not always used the full capabilities of his game. Gallinari is excellent at posting up smaller players; this is something the Thunder could use against Dallas.

The Thunder were able to get Gallinari onto a smaller player during the regular season contests against the Dallas Mavericks. Gallinari used as a screener, and the screen forced a guard to switch onto him while Porzingis or Finney Smith stepped out to cover the ball-handler.

The screen set was varied and subtle, occasionally Gallinari would set a ball screen, but the majority of screens came off-ball. Gallinari would drift into a pin down before gravitating towards the post. The Mavericks choosing to switch defenders creates a mismatch down low that Gallo can use to his advantage.

In the regular season, Gallinari feasted when Delon Wright or Jalen Brunson were switched onto him. The smaller players could not stop Gallinari when he backed them down and launched a high hook into the bucket.

In addition to Gallinari being able to use his size effectively, his footwork is excellent, and he knocks down the fadeaway jumper consistently. Gallo’s fadeaway is a work of art; it is accurate and has just enough lift to glide through the net. The jumper means that the defense cannot play Gallinari in only one way.

The variety of moves keeps the defense guessing and does not make it easy for the Mavericks to defend. Dallas cannot merely wall off the paint because Danilo has that ability to spin backward and knock down the jumper, the Mavericks have to play Gallinari down low.

However, the Thunder need to be careful when generating this look. The distance between Gallinari and the help defender needs to be managed. It can be easy for the big to rotate over and contest if Gallinari is too close to the bucket. Two defenders playing Gallinari in the post will not have good results for the Thunder, it will lead to turnovers.

The action drawn up by the coaching staff needs to start with Gallinari in the mid-post rather than having a deep touch in the post. The work starting at this position creates distance between Gallinari and the help; it makes it hard for another defender to involve themselves with the play.

Compared to the other teams I have scouted, the Mavericks are the best match-up for the Thunder in the first round. Dallas is light on playoff experience and highly dependent on one player. Luka is a brilliant player, but the Thunder can exploit his weaknesses if Oklahoma City plays its cards right.

I fancy Oklahoma City to win this series in six.

The Thunder’s veterans will have the knowledge and experience to grind out the victories.

I do not know if the Mavericks have the maturity to remain level-headed if the series goes awry, I know that Oklahoma City has players who can keep their heads together when things get complicated.