For Mavericks Game 2 v Warriors, recall roster building still underway

SAN FRANCISCO — Because Luka Dončić is ahead of schedule, so are the Mavericks. They drafted their generational superstar just four years ago and, months into his rookie season, dumped all four starters to build around him.

They abandoned their first attempt to find a running mate, Kristaps Porziņģis, at this year’s trade deadline. When that sparked what he did — the league’s second-best record after the All-Star Game and that run to the Western Conference Finals — Mavericks decision-makers said they expected the trade improves them.

And, hey, it did. But maybe not enough, not yet, not against the championship-proven Golden State Warriors, who have been the hegemony of this conference and aren’t so simply giving up that eminence.

Friday’s 126-117 loss in Game 2 was a stark reminder that the Mavericks’ roster building isn’t over. The Warriors’ methodical wipeout of Dallas’ 19-point lead felt like the horror movie villain’s reappearance after he was allegedly defeated. These storylines aren’t written with the classic hero’s journey, and these protagonists don’t usually get happy endings.

To win titles in this league, you better be the antagonist: bulletproof to invulnerability, without weakness or frailty. Dallas wasn’t like that on Friday, and now that team is down 2-0 for the second straight series.

After being blown out in Game 1, it was clear the Mavericks couldn’t make this series competitive without reaching the open 3. With small, impactful tweaks – which we’ll come to – they created open plans and, this time, flipped them. Dončić, still struggling with persistent shoulder pain, also entered recovery on Friday. “Last night I was a little sick,” he admitted afterwards. But there’s a reason Dallas has twice dismantled its team to build around it; his 42 points on 12 of 23 shooting, along with eight assists and two turnovers, demonstrated that. Dallas took a 26-10 lead in the opening minutes of the game. This is where the reminders about the progress of this list began.

Deep in the playoffs, Jason Kidd only really trusts six players, not enough even for his shortened playoff rotations. Frank Ntilikina’s spell lasted four minutes as he missed all three jumpers. In the second half, Kidd reached lower off the bench for Josh Green, who missed his only shot, an open corner 3, in the five minutes he played. Spencer Dinwiddie, even being one of those trusted sixes, didn’t show why in the 22 minutes he received. His play was mercurial throughout the playoffs, but his four points on Friday matched the number of turnovers he committed. Golden State edged Dallas by 11 points in Ntilikina and Green’s stints, which is hard to recover from in a nine-point game.

After another offseason and a trade deadline, Dallas could have another two-way wing who can close that gap or, perhaps, Tim Hardaway Jr. healthy again. But this series is not played in the future, but right now.

Kidd said his team lost that game defensively and didn’t play well on that side when shots weren’t coming in. Dončić agreed: “Offensively we were fine. It’s just the defensive end that we need to improve a lot. Still, it’s hard not to notice when Golden State playmaker off the bench Jordan Poole scores 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Or when Andrew Wiggins dribbles past defenders who close in to find teammates under the rim. . Or when the teammate most often opens under, Kevon Looney, makes dynamic passes away from the rim and still ends up with two points. (His 21 points were a career high.)

They are Golden State’s direct counterparts to the Dallas bench. The Warriors even survived their own depth issues – Damion Lee played an excruciating five-minute streak – by plugging Moses Moody into the rotation in the second half; Moody contributed with a lay-up and an assist.

Dallas’ starters finished with 104 points to Golden State’s 90. It’s a simplistic reading of Friday’s result, which isn’t nuanced or descriptive enough about the ebbs and play adjustments. The Mavericks aren’t wrong to blame their defense for their loss, but this game could have been won in a shootout, one where the second half had just enough shots to carry the first half blast. Against the Warriors, on the road, wins must be forced any way they can.

Dončić made his rise easy, which, in turn, made it difficult for the Mavericks’ team-building approach to follow him. It’s not his fault, not completely that of the team, certainly not that of this reformed front office, which only took charge last summer. And while that trip to the conference finals may have been ahead of Dallas’ schedule, there’s no sympathy for the overs. Want to be the best team in the West? This series, in two games, exposed exactly the reasons why the Mavericks are not.

Both teams wanted to prevent this series from turning into repeated one-on-one attacks on their star players. It’s understandable: Stephen Curry has become a great team defender over his career, and Dončić has made similar progress this regular season, but it’s a wasteful use of their finite energy levels to get them defending constantly 25 feet from the basket. Although Dallas preferred Dončić to be aggressively framed when Curry dragged him into scouting actions, Golden State opted for Curry to show up quicker and get their man back. He’s only supposed to delay and spoil Dončić’s attacks, not force the ball out of his hands. Wiggins, who mostly matched Dončić, should have time to recover by then.

To start Game 2, Dallas threw away most of its stack pick-and-roll sets — the ones where two players set screens for the ballhandler — and spammed the Dončić pick-and-roll with Reggie Bullock, the mission of Curry. He placed 29 screens on Friday, the most of any game this season; the second-highest was the 22 he put up in Game 1. (Four of the eight games he put up the most screens came against Utah; another came in the regular season against Golden State. ) With his quick exit, Bullock is the ideal player to move quickly and bomb before Curry can recover. These actions caused him to spring for 3 seconds, allow Dončić to attack Wiggins before resetting, or force Golden State to assist Bullock, creating jamming situations which Dallas duly exploited. Dallas averaged 1.7 points per possession each time Bullock threw Dončić, an astronomically high number for any half-court action. It was a smart adjustment to the defensive strategy that Golden State had effectively established in the opener of this series.

Golden State responded in the third quarter by moving Curry to Dorian Finney-Smith, a slower-release shooter who doesn’t cause such panic when moving off the ball. That’s probably why Dončić switched from attacking Wiggins to looking for Looney switches. Without Bullock’s disruptive gravity, Wiggins more often reestablished proper defensive positioning against Dončić. Dallas also suffered from a shot reversal in the third, hitting just 2 of 13 from behind the arc.

Dončić, with all his ills, admitted after the game that he came in exhausted at half-time. Although trapping Curry on the other end kept Dončić from constant exposure, Wiggins sometimes drove straight at Dončić himself, interrupting the main actions to call his own number. While Wiggins shot 3v6 with Dončić as his closest defender – not enough volume to sustain an attack – it helps to get Dončić to expend energy in a number of ways.

Defensively, the Warriors sometimes let Dallas players cut straight into the lane, covering them on either side, using zone principles and trusting that it’s nearly impossible to laser through the middle of the floor for layups. Here’s an example below, at the end of the third trimester, although you can find half a dozen more if you scroll through the pictures. Dončić is a bright enough passer that he can trust himself throwing this over the top, but Otto Porter Jr. is well placed to disrupt anything but a perfect pass. The screenshot below ends with a kick violation, which Golden State surely counts as a defensive win.

On the other end, Dallas has too often fallen victim to the gravity of shots from Curry and Klay Thompson. It’s hard not to react to them on the perimeter, knowing that any space could drag the basketball into the net, but that’s how Looney often seemed to reside right on the edge for dunks. “We play defense when we play attack,” Kidd said afterwards, “and we don’t play defense when we can’t score.” Like I said, I’m sure Kidd meant that as a critical assessment of his players. He asks them to be more precise no matter how hard they play on the other side.

But you can also read this pragmatically: if the Mavericks defense is hurting when the ball doesn’t go in, then they better make sure that third-quarter-like meltdowns don’t happen again. If Dallas has a chance to win any games in this series, it could be the shootout approaching. Game 2 was a painful missed opportunity to steal one in this exact way.

When the Mavericks lost 2-0 in the last series to the Phoenix Suns, they looked no more likely to win four of the next five games than they do now. That’s the hint of hope this team should still feel about this series. But the Warriors are not the Suns, and what worked to knock out Phoenix in the last round is not repeatable. Dallas erased Chris Paul’s impact on this series and then blocked Devin Booker from accessing his favorite spots. He dared role players like Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges to make dribbling and passing plays while limiting catch-and-shoot 3s.

Golden State has already proven that its supporting cast can do just that, and Curry’s brilliance stems from the fact that he has no favorite spots. He will shoot wherever he has space. The Mavericks recognized how they could make their old opponents static; the Warriors’ roster-wide momentum has so far caused their defensive slump.

Dallas’ approach could still have won this game. It was no different to Wednesday’s blowout loss, but making open 3s and relying on Dončić’s burst naturally made him more effective. But even then, only those upgrades were guaranteed to make this series competitive. Who won always depended on the details and lower competitive margins.

Dallas lost Game 2 because of those things. And down 2-0, it’s hard to see another path against a tougher opponent leading to four more wins.

(Photo of Jalen Brunson and Jordan Poole: Kyle Terada/USA Today)

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