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Warriors' Game Plan To Contain Mavs’ Luka Doncic: Will It Work Again?

The Golden State Warriors contained Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Golden State Warriors got creative with their defensive game-planning efforts to contain Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in their 112-87 victory in Game 1. Doncic finished with just 20 points while shooting 6-18 from the floor and 3-10 on 3s with seven turnovers.

“Yeah, they were doing a great job on me, especially in the second half," Doncic said. "But I think I've got to be better. That's on me. As a leader I've got to be better for the whole group, so that's on me.”

Andrew Wiggins, a 6-foot-7 wing with a powerful frame and explosive athleticism as the primary on-ball defender, presents different challenges than the porous Utah Jazz on-ball defenders or even the lighter framed Mikal Bridges.

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It takes a full unit approach to contain Doncic, regardless of who is the on-ball defender. The primary objectives for the Warriors include: 1) Minimize situations Doncic gets to attack a mismatch. 2) Take away chances using a screen or handoff allow him to turn the corner into space. 3) Mix up coverages to delay Doncic's real-time processing just enough.

Full-Court Pressure

With the Mavericks being a team that favors playing with a methodical pace so they can pick apart the defense within the half-court, breaking up their rhythm is a must. The Warriors attempted to do so by having Wiggins pick up full-court at times. 

It can be risky for a defense to pick up full-court against a player of Doncic's caliber unless the unit as a whole is all on a thread. The Warriors came prepared. 

In the play below, Doncic ends up rejecting a potential screen from Spencer Dinwiddie with how much congestion he would have dribble had he used one. Instead, he attacks the open gap to his left, but the Warriors rotate off the strong-side corner to be in a position to pressure a left-hand finish deep on the drive. 

Draymond Green made it a priority to favor being in position to help in the paint early in possessions — even if it meant leaving a shooter. If Doncic tries to get downhill to counter the full-court pressure, he encounters Green high in the paint. Making the spray-out pass to a non-shot creator in the weak-side corner results in a lot of time wasted on the shot clock. 

"I mean, he's (Draymond Green) a great defender," Doncic said." He won the Defensive Player of the Year (2016-17). He organized the whole Warriors' defense. He's the one that talks a lot, moves the people around. So it's always tough to play against him offensively. 

"But like I say, we got a couple great looks in the first half. We couldn't convert them, so I think we've got to be better and play better."

Having multiple reliable initiators of the offense is important for a team facing this Warriors defense. They will load up on the "head of the snake" heavily and if another initiator can find a weak point and attack it, the offense as a whole benefit. Doncic wasn't receiving that production from the supporting cast.

Keeping Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole Off Luka Doncic

The main weak points in the Warriors' defense the Mavericks want to attack are Stephen Curry and Jordan Poole. When having to guard Doncic, Curry and Poole are at a size disadvantage — leaving them vulnerable to backdown dribbles and getting knocked on aggressive drives to the rim. The best option is to do what it takes to keep them out of those situations, which can be easier said than done. 

The Warriors have deployed a hedge-and-recover technique in guard-guard ball screen situations involving Curry — the same base strategy that was used against the Mavericks in the regular season. As with any strategy, there are limitations, but the results more often than not outweigh Curry handling Doncic on an island. 

Doncic is going to find ways to score against any coverage. His perimeter shot-making, in particular, enables him to combat just about any defender or any approach. Having to rely on off-the-dribble shots like the one in the play below is not necessarily a fantastic strategy against an elite defense.

Among the successful counters from Doncic against such a coverage has been to take the on-ball defender wide and get to open space to attack. In the early going, the Warriors' weak-side defenders stayed home — resulting in a play where Doncic got to the rim for an and-one finish. 

The Warriors quickly realized it would not be viable to allow Doncic to see open space in the lane. With Dwight Powell in the dunker spot, Kevon Looney is in a prime position to help Wiggins on the drive. With Green helping the helper by engaging Powell, the weak-side corner is left wide open and dared to shoot. 

If Doncic does manage to turn the corner after the Warriors attempt to hedge, there was a clear emphasis from the defense to make an aggressive low-man rotation in help to prevent a finish at the rim. They also sought to take away the pass to the weak-side corner — maximizing the degree of difficulty to make a pass. The end result? A heavily ran down shot clock without an advantage.

Even when an off-the-dribble threat like Brunson was deployed as a ball screener for Doncic, there are limitations to what can be achieved. Green was in position to blow up the play — using length to deter a shot near the nail on the short-roll and resulting in the ball finding a 

The low-man rotations the Warriors made in Game 1 were fully emboldened by the Mavericks' inability to convert on 3s at a respectable clip. Even if a defender like Poole makes the rotation, all they need to do is slow up Doncic just enough deep on his drive to allow the initial on-ball defender to recover. 

Such a sequence of events unfolded on a possession that ended with Wiggins being enabled to recover on the trail and block Doncic's finish off the glass. The focus was clear: Have Curry stay attached to the screener while Wiggins commits to pursuing the ball after Doncic turns the corner.

Another technique the Warriors deployed to keep Curry away from the action on the ball was to pre-switch. When his man is coming out of the corner to set a ball screen, he can signal to the nearest wing defender to switch before the screen arrives — keeping him from having to engage in ball screen coverage altogether. 

Doncic ended up facing the opportunity to send away Green's new assignment after making the pre-switch. Doncic directed Brunson to come set a ball screen with Curry now as his defender. Green made sure to be in a position on the catch after Brunson executed the short-roll to counter the Warriors' hedge-and-recover.

With the Mavericks being a team that likes to deploy "Stack" pick-and-roll sets at times during the typical game, Curry's man is naturally going to be the back-screener to involve him in the action. Curry displayed an intriguing counter by denying the back-screen by essentially using a top-lock. 

Warriors Choosing to Load Up Heavily

The Warriors entrust Kevon Looney to hold his own when he makes switches, but they are not leaving him on an island. Golden State knows defensively they must give something up and they are choosing to leave weak-side shooters to make life harder on Doncic to handle the scoring load directly. 

A significant part of the Mavericks' process has been to generate open jump shots and knock them down at a high enough clip to where it makes the opposition have to re-think how they load up on Doncic. When those shots aren't falling, the floor shrank for the main creators trying to make something happen off the dribble, and the results get ugly at times. 

The tone was set for the Mavericks' offense early by shooting just 3-19 from beyond the arc. The Warriors' defensive strategy primarily was to load up on drives already, which becomes fully emboldened when open shooters are not converting on their looks. Dallas went 8-28 (28.6 percent) on wide-open 3s and 11-44 (25.0 percent) on attempts that were at least considered open. 

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"There were a lot of great looks that just didn't go down," Kidd said. "It happens. It's basketball. Hopefully, we get those same looks in Game 2, and we believe we'll make them."

Think back to Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, particularly the third quarter. The Mavericks' offense had become bottled up badly. They were unable to get to the rim, shots weren't falling, and the Suns forced many turnovers, resulting in easy transition scores. The result was a blowout loss, but a significant bounce-back occurred in Game 6 that carried into Game 7.

Many analysts have seemingly attributed the credit to Kevon Looney for "staying in front" of Doncic in this play, even though Looney gets almost entirely behind Doncic's back at one point. However, the gamble to leave Brunson open in the weak-side corner as Draymond Green makes a stunt is what makes the play below. 

Green makes his stunt a step above the charge circle to force Doncic to pick up his dribble — allowing Looney to recover and get back in front of Doncic.. There isn't a clean initial shot since Looney got a hand up early to contest, so Doncic is left pivoting without at the top of the paint — allowing Curry to stab at the ball. 

Green made it a real point of emphasis to be in a position to protect the paint against Doncic's early attacks — prompting a spray-out pass to be made. With the Warriors quickly getting out to the recipient of the pass, the end result was a significant ran down shot clock, which tends to end in a tough Doncic jumper. 

Green also was ready to make a play on the ball when he was defending one pass away from Doncic on a drive. There was a possession that featured Green stunting against the drive, but instead of just flailing his arm to swipe, he got a hand on the ball and ripped it loose.

When Doncic looked to attack in the post, the Warriors made it a point to load up on the strong side. Sagging off a shooting threat one pass away was the gamble in order to offer middle help at the disposal of the on-ball defender.

A significant reason the Warriors' defense is such a challenging unit to attack is their deep array of big wings that can switch. There is no advantage created by the screen contact and when Powell is on the floor, Golden State has a big lurking in the dunker spot to help if a drop step or baseline move is made. A tough shot is the final result. 

Some of the Mavericks' challenges they face is an outright limitation in personnel with underwhelming lineup combinations from an offensive firepower standpoint. If the secondary creator has nothing, the rest of the unit is almost surely going to get the ball to Doncic and he will have to take a tough shot. 

In the play below, Dinwiddie received a ball screen and decided he didn't like what he had even though Poole made the switch. With Kleber receiving the ball and only Frank Ntilikina to get into a quick two-man action with, the circumstances were practically hopeless.

Warriors Deployed Some Zone Coverages

A player like Doncic who has a high-level ability to process what the defense is doing in real-time better than most is going to figure out a defense sooner rather than later. He's seen every coverage imaginable throughout his professional basketball career.

However, the Warriors did an effective job of mixing up their coverages at times, so Doncic had to diagnose what was being deployed — delaying him just enough to create an advantage.

"I don't think so. I've faced those -- I've faced different kind of defenses a lot of times," Doncic said when asked if he was surprised by the Warriors' different looks. 

Preventing the opposition from getting off to a strong start can go a long way for a defense throughout the course of a game. Most of the time, a team plays their superstar for the duration of the opening period. If that doesn't go well, the first half as a whole is put in jeopardy unless the bench unit steps up. 

The Warriors threw off the Mavericks' rhythm in the first quarter at times by deploying different defensive schemes. Golden State likes to deploy a 1-2-2 zone at times with the clear emphasis being to prevent the opposition from getting into the paint. Dallas failed to counter by attacking the weak-points of the zone. 

One of the strategies the Warriors deployed to give Doncic a different look was a box-and-one zone. Wiggins face-guarded Doncic early in these possessions while the rest of the unit zoned up. These are situations someone else has to step up and create.

The Warriors deserve a lot of credit for their Game 1 success. They constructed a game-plan to contain Doncic and found real success in doing so. It will be fascinating to see if they continue to utilize it if Dallas manages to get 3s to drop early. 

Soft Switching Ball Screens

The Warriors clearly trust their frontcourt to execute switches when handling ball screens. Not allowing Doncic to have a gap to work with where he can dictate the sequence with his pace is the top priority. Instead, he has to break down a defender out in space. 

With the heavy usage Doncic shoulders, in general, and being the target of the opposition's offensive game-planning efforts, it can wear down to have to break down a switch out in space over and over again. Especially when the offense as a whole is underachieving and the alternatives aren't there. 

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors

The Warriors don't leave Looney on an island like some teams would leave a switching defender to fend for himself. They make it a point to send a help defender on the drive in order to help pressure the deep finish if one is taken. 

Golden State likes to use a stunt near the nail to force Doncic to pick up the ball and be challenged by the longer on-ball defender. Throwing off the rhythm of a scoring threat like Doncic is almost a necessity to keep him in check. 

Another option the Warriors displayed was to send the weak-side wing to pressure a late shot clock drive from Doncic. By not sending the low-man, there is an added degree of difficulty since a spray-out pass isn't a viable option. 

If Doncic doesn't look to drive to the rim after a soft switch involving Looney, he tends to take a step-back 3. When shots are falling at a high clip, these are looks that can demoralize a defense. However, they are attempts the defense will live for on off nights. 

Where Doncic has been most effective after drawing a soft switch has been creating shots for teammates. Powell was the recipient of a few interior passes while Kleber managed to shake up the 3-point line to break free for a quick trigger look from deep. 

With how significant the Warriors' rebounding edge proved to be, it's important Doncic and the Mavericks are executing well enough offensively to prompt Golden State into playing Green at the five. That becomes a challenging lineup to defend, but at least the boards become easier to contain.