As we advance to the conference finals, we have a rarity: There isn’t an odds-on favorite to win the NBA championship.
The Warriors hold the best odds of the four remaining teams, perhaps because their track record of recent success with this core is so much more extensive than that of the other clubs. But even with that in mind, Golden State has its flaws—certainly enough to where I think there’s a good chance Luka Dončić and the Mavericks continue to shake things up by winning the Western Conference.
So I’ll lay out my five reasons why I think Dallas makes it out of the West.
The Mavs will win the turnover battle
One thing the Warriors have never excelled at—even dating back to their title years—is taking care of the basketball. They throw the ball around like a canine owner playing fetch with a dog: winging it around as if it’s always going to return, then acting dumbfounded when the dog doesn’t actually want to hand it back over.
Dallas, on other hand, plays off Dončić, who oftentimes utilizes a deliberate, methodical style. By breaking down so many plays into isolations, the Mavericks commit fewer turnovers from night to night than most teams, having the third-fewest miscues in the association and possessing the eighth-lowest turnover percentage in basketball.
The Dubs are nowhere near as careful with the ball—Kerr repeatedly encourages his clubs to hit singles and doubles as opposed to swinging for the fence with ambitious passes—and take part in a movement-heavy offense, where wires get crossed more often. They had the second-highest turnover total in the NBA, as well as the second-highest turnover percentage.
For the playoffs, the Mavericks have scored 224 points off their opponents’ turnovers, 75 more than Dallas’s opponents have scored off the Mavs’ miscues. That differential is by far the highest of the remaining clubs in the dance. (Miami is next, at +49.) Golden State stands at a -15 points off turnovers thus far.
Dallas has defended Steph Curry better than just about anyone this season
It never feels like a safe prediction to say that a team will shut someone like Curry down. And I don’t necessarily think that will happen in this series.
But there are indications that the Mavs can at least contain the two-time MVP to some extent. They limited him to 29.4% shooting from the arc, on 34 attempts, during the regular season, the worst mark Curry had against any club he played more than twice. He shot 1-for-9, 2-for-10 and 3-for-10 in the first three meetings, then caught a rhythm in the fourth meeting, hitting 4-of-5 from deep in that contest.
It’s certainly worth noting that Draymond Green, who frees up Curry best by utilizing handoff screens and catch-and-shoot relocations with the superstar, didn’t play in three of the four matchups. Still: Wings Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith limited Curry to 26.6% shooting (4-for-15) from the field in just over 31 minutes of work defending him this season, according to NBA.com’s matchup data.
Some would likely suggest those numbers are nothing more than a fluke or mere happenstance. (Many did and said the same thing a few years back, when Fred VanVleet had elite defensive numbers against Curry heading into the 2019 Finals. The metrics were validated after the Raptors found ways to neutralize the lethal Curry.) But Dallas has shown to be legitimately good on that end of the floor, not only tying the Warriors for sixth in the league in defensive efficiency, but also locking down Chris Paul and Devin Booker toward the end of the conference semifinal series in impressive fashion.
There’s no clear sense of who can stop Luka
In Green, the Warriors have arguably the best defender in basketball, someone who was, prior to getting injured, on a clear path to win Defensive Player of the Year and have Golden State on track to lead the league in defense.
But it’s highly unlikely he starts out guarding Dončić. Golden State relies on Green too much in the post, along their backline, to regularly utilize him on someone who does so much damage along the perimeter. It would make more sense to see someone like Andrew Wiggins take a stab at defending Dončić first.
But that may not work. While Wiggins is quicker and more athletic than Dončić, he isn’t as bulky. Dončić shot 6-for-8 against him during the season during the nine minutes or so Wiggins sought to defend him, only slightly better than Gary Payton II (4-for-5, but injured at the moment) managed to do, and worse than Steph Curry, who surrendered 5-of-12 shooting to him. (Some may suggest using Jonathan Kuminga, but that seems almost cruel to throw a rookie into the mix for such a difficult assignment.) Also of note: The one time Wiggins fouled out all season, back in late February, came against the Mavericks.
Golden State could seek to force the ball out of his hands by trapping, of course. But Dončić is too good a passer and will almost certainly find open teammates if and when he sees such opportunities. And ask any Jazz or Suns defender, and they’ll tell you: It’s not the safest idea to yield open threes to Dončić’s teammates. Letting Dončić do what he wants coming around screens isn’t ideal. And neither is letting him go one-on-one, especially against the Warriors, who were tied for second-worst in the NBA in terms of how often their isolation possessions resulted in an opponent’s trip to the free-throw line due to a shooting foul, per Synergy.
We may see Green take on the challenge, much like he did against two-time MVP Nikola Jokić. But that should likely be used as a last resort for a number of reasons, potential foul trouble among them. The Warriors don’t appear to have a lot of good answers to this problem, as was the case for the first couple games against Ja Morant in the last round.
The Mavs seem more likely to win the three-point battle
One of the biggest story lines of the entire season has been Golden State uncovering a third Splash Brother in Jordan Poole, something that makes the Warriors an even tougher cover than before. There’s usually just too much space to cover and too many assignments and back cuts to keep straight for defenses to hold it all together.
But the Dallas defense neutralized opponents’ threes better than just about anyone this past season, surrendering just under 11 triples per contest—the fewest in the NBA—and allowing just a 32.3% mark from outside, good for the third-lowest rate.
Of the four times the Warriors matched up with the Mavs, Dallas hit more triples in three of those games. (The Mavericks won three of the four contests during the regular season.) Over the course of the year, Dallas ranked 10th in triples as a team and can sport lineups that play five out, with Davis Bertans and Maxi Kleber.
The notion that Dallas might outscore Golden State from outside makes it even more imperative that the Warriors take care of the ball better in this series. Phoenix, a team that feasts on the midrange at times more so than the three ball, found out the hard way last series that three is always more than two.
Jason Kidd illustrated he can make adjustments if need be
In the midst of Booker torching the Mavericks during the last series, Kidd made a change. With the All-Star guard hunting Dončić repeatedly, Kidd had Dallas send traps at Booker as a way to speed him up and make him uncomfortable. The strategy also seemed to light a defensive fire under Dončić, who took it as a challenge to step up and play his part on D.
Bullock and Finney-Smith are certainly the best defenders of a group that, on paper, looks relatively average. Bertans. Spencer Dinwiddie. Jalen Brunson. But the Mavs have usually been more than the sum of their parts, partly because Kidd isn’t asking too much of them, and partly because they’re so engaged. As a result, they looked like a terror in Game 7, with Phoenix having nowhere to go much of the time.
The question of who will guard Dončić will take on added importance, too, if Dallas attempts to wear players like Curry and Poole down the way they did Paul in the last series, by putting him in ball screen after ball screen. It strategically left Paul with a nearly unprecedented workload as he turned 37 years old.
Taken together, these explanations lay out why, at the least, Dallas figures to be the Warriors’ best test yet. And it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the Mavericks take advantage of a handful of things to make their way past Golden State when it’s all said and done.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI this past week
- The NBA draft lottery—the annual beacon of hope for the league’s most lowly clubs—takes place tonight before Celtics-Heat on ESPN. Jeremy Woo, SI’s draft expert, has write-ups on what’s at stake for each lotto club. He also has plenty of detail on which under-the-radar prospects possess the biggest sleeper potential and earlier in the month compiled his latest Top 100 big board. You can follow his stuff as we move closer to the draft itself at @JeremyWoo.
- Rohan Nadkarni was in Phoenix for the Suns’ historically bad Game 7 showing and wrote on how the league’s best regular-season club, by far, got Luka’d. He also wrote on the dazzling play of Jimmy Butler throughout this postseason, asking whether it’s sustainable.
- Michael Pina wrote late last week on the young Grizzlies being here to stay. He and I podcasted on Open Floor, breaking down why we both believe in the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals, while also giving postmortems on the Bucks and Suns.
- Chris Mannix was in Boston for Game 7, which Celtics role player Grant Williams turned upside down with seven triples. In the aftermath of that game, I tackled where Milwaukee’s playoff elimination leaves the defending-champion Bucks, who would be wise to seek more playmaking help aside from the mere return of Khris Middleton.
- Howard Beck, wrote a fun Daily Cover piece on all the f****** swearing in the NBA, and why the league is cracking down by fining the vulgarity in historic fashion lately.
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