Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Warriors might’ve caught a small break drawing Mavericks, but the threat of Luka Doncic hangs over everything

The argument that the Warriors have caught a break by drawing the Mavericks, who upset the top-seeded Suns on Sunday, in the conference finals is pretty easy to make. The Suns were the best team in the league all season. The Mavericks were merely a good team during the regular season, though they did rank among the elite, at least in profile, after the turn of the calendar, and they were not particularly good in three of the four games in Phoenix. 

Ultimately, Luka Doncic went superhero in Game 7 and the Suns laid a total egg. That doesn’t mean the best team, or certainly the most dangerous team to the Warriors, won. At the very least, Golden State will now enjoy home-court advantage by virtue of Dallas, the No. 4 seed to Golden State’s No. 3, beating Phoenix. Again, throw out Game 7, and Dallas was an entirely different team on the road this past round. 

For what it’s worth (very little if you ask me), the Warriors lost three of their four matchups against Dallas in the regular season, but Draymond Green didn’t play in two of those losses. We know the Warriors were a significantly worse team during Green’s absence this season, so throw those two out the window. That leaves a split in games that included the major players, with the caveat that Golden State’s one victory over Dallas came before Kristaps Porzingis was traded. 

Dallas — as Golden State is with Green — is a better team with Spencer Dinwiddie

It’s not to say these teams don’t know each other or that the principle components can’t be forecasted. The Warriors have no answer for Doncic, who’s as inevitable a point creator as exists in the world today. His approach, and pace, are immune to coverage. Double team him, he’ll beat you with forceful, pinpoint passes to shooters. Don’t double him, and, well, good luck. How the Warriors choose to play this will likely be fluid, and most likely relatively futile. Whatever the plan, Andrew Wiggins will be heavily involved, and he isn’t helpless. 

It hurts that Klay Thompson isn’t near the defender he used to be, as he would be a main option on Doncic and will still see a lot of time on him either directly or indirectly. Hopefully Andre Iguodala will be active and he can eat up some Doncic minutes. Gary Payton II being out hurts; even with his size deficit there’s no doubt he would’ve been used to harass Doncic in spells. Green will switch onto Doncic plenty. Luka is going to get his. 

Still, there’s only one Doncic. This isn’t a knock on Jalen Brunson or Dinwiddie, but against the Suns there were two elite backcourt scorers to account for in Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Brunson is a real swing player. If he has a big series, which is surely in the cards, things tilt more toward Dallas. But if you asked the Warriors if they’d rather be trying to stop Brunson or Booker, my guess is they’d take their chances with Brunson. 

Another reason I believe Dallas is a more favorable matchup for the Warriors than the Suns would’ve been is because the Mavericks, though they’re obviously a good defensive unit, don’t have an individual defender like Mikal Bridges to make Stephen Curry’s life a living hell. Reggie Bullock is tough and will battle; he went at Paul full court. But he’s not Bridges. 

Besides that, the Suns don’t play anyone that can be truly picked on defensively. The Warriors can force Luka into pick-and-rolls if Steve Kerr wants to ride that action more than normal, particularly down the stretch of games. Paul had his way with Doncic early in the series, and Curry can too. 

Also, the Mavericks like to play small. Without a traditional big like Deandre Ayton to account for, the Warriors can lean more on their own smaller lineups without as much fear of losing the offensive-rebounding battle. In fact, the Warriors could well flip the offensive-rebounding numbers in their favor with Kevon Looney, who has shown his own kind of effectiveness in providing enough to deter Doncic off the dribble while also covering the backside roller. 

All of this said, there’s not a team in the world that wants any part of Doncic right now. With respect to Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler and Curry, Doncic is the best player remaining in these playoffs. He’s certainly a better player than anyone Phoenix had to offer. This man can single-handedly beat anyone, and that surely includes the Warriors, who are not the defensive team they used to be, either individually or collectively. 

Truth be told, the Warriors, though not quite the perimeter doormat Utah was against Dallas, are plenty vulnerable to penetration. To say Luka is going to be able to get into the paint pretty consistently would be a good bet. Ja Morant went through the Warriors’ first line of defense like be bribed them. 

It’s a good bet the Warriors will converge on Luka in the paint to the best of their abilities, and their off-ball switching could stunt some of what Dallas does, forcing pressure-release passes to, say, Maxi Kleber. Now, Kleber is hitting 48 percent of his 3s in this postseason, and if that continues, well, tip your cap. But again, I think that’s a bet the Warriors will be willing to make. 

Either way, by no means am I suggesting the Warriors have lucked into some kind of cakewalk here. Curry and Thompson are just about the definition of shooting wild cards at this point. If they’re not hitting, this isn’t a great team, and we know Golden State is going to hand out its share of turnovers; this team can look like the Washington Generals when they put their mind to it. 

And look, I fully understand that Doncic could simply take this series over and render moot every theoretical Warriors advantage I’ve tried to lay out. The guy has been the best player in every playoff series during his short career. I mean look at this madness:

Luka is a killer, and the Mavericks are for real. I picked the Warriors in seven, so I obviously think this is going to be a close call. I just think, in the end, that the Mavericks are a marginally easier matchup than the Suns would’ve been, even though I’ve heard plenty of smart people say the opposite. 

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