The Golden State Warriors caught the Dallas Mavericks by surprise in their 112-87 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Their strategy to defend Luka Doncic proved effective (for now), but their offense deserves plenty of focus, too.
“I think for us, it starts on the defensive end,” Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson said. “We’ve got to play better defensively. We’ve got to be more connected, talking, just be on the same page. I think that’s the beginning of it."
When it comes to playoff matchups, the Warriors are as formidable as it gets to handle. Not only do they push the ball quickly when they get the opportunities to do so, they make reads and unselfish passes just as quickly when operating in the half-court.
When a team turns it over and misses long jump shots at the rate the Mavericks did in Game 1, it plays directly into the Warriors' identity. Those mistakes or shortcomings give the Warriors more chances to push the ball and make spray-ahead passes or quickly get into a semi-transition action.
Teams have no choice but to send a lot of defensive attention at Stephen Curry, and early when he crosses into half-court. The risk is leaving the rest of the unit vulnerable to having to make quick reads and communicate, or potentially get made to pay.
Green initiates transition offense in grab-and-go situations at a high level. He is going to quickly get the ball on a spray-ahead if there's an option for it, draw the defense enough before getting the ball to a sharpshooter, or take it to the rack himself. The defense has to get back in a hurry and be ready to execute.
To add further complexity to containing the Warriors' early offense, they can use weak-side actions to distract the defense. As Curry's shooting gravity draws Dwight Powell to the perimeter, Luka Doncic is having to account for Klay Thompson in a decoy screening action instead of being fully focused on making a help rotation. As a result, Kevon Looney gets an easy dunk.
The Mavericks simply fell asleep in off-ball defense at times — resulting in some easy-cutting chances for finishes at the rim when guarding secondary half-court actions. Whether it was Klay Thompson, Otto Porter Jr., or Draymond Green, the Warriors made it look easy countering even a split second of ball watching or a lack of communication.
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The Warriors have almost a unique ability to get to secondary weak-side actions in their half-court offense. If there's ball-watching when engaging tightly off-the-ball, there is a real chance Golden State will use a cut to make you pay.
When guarding Curry, it may sound like a cliche, but it's not to say that giving him letting your guard down for even a split second is enough to give up a clean look. He doesn't need to pound the air out of the basketball to make a big play, all he needs is the defender to let their guard down for even just a second.
There is no room for letting up as a defender. Dorian Finney-Smith found this out hard after he trapped Curry with Luka Doncic in the corner. After giving the ball up out of the trap, Curry immediately worked his way back toward the ball and received an off-ball screen.
Now, Curry is more than capable of breaking a defender down off the bounce before creating an impossible shot. He just needs a sliver of daylight to make that happen from deep, too. However, he can use his quickness out in space to get to the rim, as he did to hunt Doncic in a screening action in Game 1.
A risk with sending multiple defenders at anyone in the Warriors' offense is it compromises the defense's ability to finish the play. They are principled in cutting into the gap, and if the initial shot attempt doesn't fall, they tend to gain positioning for a putback.
The Mavericks' earlier playoff matchups did not face nearly as potent perimeter shooting threats that forced them to send two at the ball so early. Against Devin Booker, his inability to handle traps was an asset instead of a need for pressure. With the Warriors, they make quick work of double teams.
Another critical contrast from the Warriors compared to the Mavericks' prior matchups is the ability of multiple threats to put the ball on the floor and create a jumper inside the 3-point line. While deterring 3s is a plus, Golden State can make a defense pay. They can do this out of handoffs, pin downs, or just off the catch out in space.
For the Mavericks to handle the Warriors' offense effectively, there will naturally be some 'pick your poison' decisions that need to be made. They are more versatile than the typical top team and can find counters — making it clear why they are in the Western Conference Finals.
The adjustments the Mavericks attempt to make in Game 2 could be telling for the series as a whole. If they can tighten up guarding off-ball activity with legitimate success and just be efficient on the other end, there becomes a manageable outlook.