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Mavericks-Warriors: Three Big Questions for the Western Conference Finals

As superstars collide in this conference finals matchup, here are some key things to look out for the matchup between Golden State and Dallas.

The West finals begin Wednesday with a fresh face and some less fresh ones. After a two-year hiatus from the playoffs, the Warriors are looking to make their sixth Finals appearance with the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green group leading the charge. Meanwhile, after not winning a playoff series since the 2011 Finals, the Mavericks are the Cinderella story of the postseason, looking for a championship berth through the prowess of Luka Dončić. Here are three big questions heading into the series.

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Who guards Luka Dončić?

Luka ended the Suns’ season with a serial killer-like efficiency and joyousness, and he’s arguably the toughest cover in the NBA right now. You can’t guard him with one person because of how he hunts switches and yet, at the same time, Golden State needs someone to throw at Dončić. I’m not sure you can afford Draymond picking up fouls. Andrew Wiggins seems too slight after Luka was posting up Deandre Ayton in the last series. Klay Thompson isn’t the same guy from three years ago. And Jonathan Kuminga may be too young for such a high-stakes assignment.

Of course, we’ll still see a combo of these options, plus Otto Porter Jr. and maybe even Kevon Looney in some weird alignments. Ultimately, who guards Luka alone is going to matter less than lineup constructions. Phoenix had a great defense during the regular season. And guys like Ayton even held up well on some switches. But in many instances, Luka toyed with Mikal Bridges (a DPOY finalist) or hunted lesser defenders like Chris Paul and Devin Booker. It’s going to take a team effort from the Warriors, and figuring out how to limit Dallas’s three-point shooters will be just as important as making Luka take tough shots.

For what it’s worth, if one team should be comfortable when things shift small, it’s Golden State, which perfected the art form in the middle of the last decade. Phoenix had ups and many downs when Dallas played five out. The Warriors seem better equipped to handle such a style of play, and at least should have more options to make Dallas pay on the other end. Which brings me to my next question …

Can the Warriors play their three-guard lineup?

After a scorching start to the playoffs, the Steph-Klay-Jordan Poole trio now has a minus-2.1 net rating in 11 games. It’s shocking after how well that group dismantled the Nuggets’ overmatched defense. The Grizzlies presented a tougher challenge against that group, and the Mavs may be even more difficult. The Curry-Thompson-Green-Poole-Wiggins lineup still has an 11.0 net rating in nine games, though it was actually a minus-0.8 in the second round. The Dubs performed better with Porter on the floor over Thompson or Poole. (The Curry-Thompson-Poole-Porter-Green lineup has played only five minutes together.)

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Against Memphis, Looney helped a lot to match the Grizzlies’ bulk in the frontcourt and aid with rebounding. Playing smaller will likely help Golden State when Dallas puts Maxi Kleber at the five, but I’m curious to see who makes the floor. Curry and Poole will both be hunted ruthlessly by Dončić on switches, making life tougher for off-ball players who want to stick close to shooters. Porter played very well against Memphis, but putting him off the floor gives you one less shooter to run around the floor and pretzel-twist the Dallas defense. And it’s not just Luka who the Dubs have to be worried about. Jalen Brunson can also get into the paint and collapse the defense. Spencer Dinwiddie has perked up after a slow start to the playoffs. The Mavs have multiple players who can either drive-and-kick or finish near the hoop. It won’t be as simple as only holding up in isolations against Luka.

If there’s an issue Golden State had heading into this postseason, it was not having had enough time to figure out what its best lineups were with most of the team healthy. Once again Steve Kerr is going to have to answer some questions on the fly.

Will the Warriors target Luka, and if so, how?

Phoenix had success early in the second round putting Luka in switches and letting Paul and Booker attack him. Dallas countered as the series went on by either pre-switching or having Luka hedge and recover to his original man. The Warriors, however, have a much more destructive offensive force on the team than Phoenix did in Curry. Off-ball alone he, Thomson and Poole will make Luka operate in ways he didn’t have to against the Suns. Even if he’s guarding a non-shooter, the number of screens Dončić will have to navigate will be a whole new beast compared to the Suns series. And if Dallas tries to hide Luka on Draymond, Golden State theoretically could put him in pick-and-rolls with Steph, and the Curry-Green pick-and-roll remains one of the deadliest actions in modern professional hoops.

The thing is, Kerr doesn’t really like to go hunting. He’s said before it’s not his style of basketball. It’s not that the Warriors won’t try to intentionally involve Luka. But they won’t be as relentless with it as the Suns. I do think if Kerr were to ever start to deviate from his preferences, now is the best time possible. Forcing Luka to expend constant energy on defense may be the only way to slow him down offensively at this point in his career. Even if Kerr doesn’t want to play postseason switchball and have Steph go one-on-one, making it a point to force Dončić to navigate space or work through screens is imperative, in my opinion. Letting him stand stationary is a win for Dallas, which has now proven it can at least execute its hedge-and-recover scheme. For as much of a one-man wrecking ball Dončić is offensively, Curry has proven he can have a similar impact even when he’s not holding the basketball. Leveraging that talent to its fullest potential is going to be incredibly important if the Warriors want to move on to the next round. 

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