Entering Thursday's matchup against the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks faced a real test to gauge where they stand against a top Western Conference force while having Kristaps Porzingis healthy and in the lineup.
In the early stages of the fourth quarter, things were going well for the Mavericks, as they held a 95-87 lead with 6:56 remaining in the game. It all unraveled quickly down the stretch, though, as Dallas was outscored by Phoenix 22-6 for the remainder of the game.
What separates elite teams from just a run-of-the-mill playoff squad is the ability to execute down the stretch. There are often close games in a playoff series that come down to a couple of defining moments. Entering this particular game, the Suns had, by far, the NBA's top net rating (38.3) in clutch situations while the Mavericks held a league-worst -28.6 net rating in such moments.
During the Suns' run to close the game, the Mavericks recorded more turnovers (four) than made field goals (three). Dallas struggled to get much going offensively while Phoenix picked apart their half-court defense by singling out Luka Doncic. Let's go over how the Mavericks can overcome these clutch shortcomings going forwards in DallasBasketball.com's latest 'Mavs Film Room' session.
Supporting Cast Shortcomings
It's vital to keep turnovers at a minimum when facing a top team. This is especially true when it gets to pivotal late-game moments. For the Mavericks, their failures to take care of the basketball proved to be quite costly along with poor shooting execution.
The Mavericks finished with 19 turnovers — resulting in a staggering negative 24-point differential in points off turnovers. During the 22-6 Suns run to close out the game, Phoenix put more points off the board directly from turnovers (ten) than Dallas had overall.
Trusting some of the non-Doncic players in the game's late stages did not lead to favorable results, but it was a necessity with how the Suns tried to get the ball out of his hands. A key difference between a contender like the Suns and the Mavericks is that complementary players can step up and routinely make positive plays. It was quite shaky for Dallas' top supporting cast players.
Early in the Suns' run, the Mavericks had a possession where a failure to even get the ball to Doncic resulted in a turnover. Bridges deterred the initial pass then Booker switched to further deny him the ball. Meanwhile, Biyombo gets aggressive with Kleber to rip the ball loose.
There was a chance in the early going of this Suns run for Brunson to make a 'star' play. On a broken play where Phoenix got the ball out of Doncic's hands, Brunson had a chance to convert on a pull-up 3-pointer against Paul on an isolation but couldn't knock it down.
Porzingis, who is signed to a max contract, had a mismatch in the post that ended with him shooting a fadeaway that missed off the glass. No, not close to the square, the top corner of the glass. Keep in mind, there's a 15-inch differential in height between Porizngis and Paul but the shot didn't come close on the fallaway jumper.
Brunson tried to get downhill against Crowder with Paul swiping at the ball to force an early pick-up instead of giving the ball back to Doncic in a dribble handoff. That's a play that must end in a make if the superstar isn't getting it back. Instead, Brunson airballs the pull-up and is called for a travel.
Perhaps the most truly head-scratching plays came nearly the beginning of this Suns run when Doncic made a routine pass out of a drive to Powell all for him to just blatantly fumble it away on the catch. Booker immediately gets a finish on the other end to give Phoenix the lead.
The Suns' efforts to get Doncic to become a passer and make other Mavericks players attempt to beat them continued. This time, Phoenix is having Booker ICE to prevent Doncic from using the ball screen. Porzingis now has to make a play on the pop and Bridges barely not coming up with the steal leaves Hardaway Jr. wide open in the corner.
Hardaway Jr. ended up missing another catch-and-shoot look from the corner after the Suns loaded up on Doncic in a ball screen to get him to pass it out. Had Hardaway Jr. converted on his last look, the Mavericks still would have trailed by two-points with 1:19 left to play in the game.
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With just one last possession to make something happen to keep it a real game, the Mavericks' supporting cast came up empty once again. Doncic receives a DHO from Brunson to get Bridges switched off him once again. This time, Suns send two to the ball when Porzingis sets the ball screen.
Doncic ultimately passes it to Hardaway Jr. to get it back with Crowder guarding him out on an island at the top of the key. The Suns allowed Doncic to get deep on his drive before sending help and rotate off Porzingis from the dunker's spot. Finney-Smith has to get downhill and faces a loaded lane. Booker is then able to blow up Finney-Smith's finish attempt.
Again, it was clear the Suns' top priority was to get the ball out of Doncic's hands down the stretch. It was mostly up to his teammates to make plays off the catch or to salvage a broken play, but they were simply unable to come up when needed the most.
Suns Hunting Doncic on Defense
While Doncic shoulders such a heavy load on offense as the initiator, it's understandable that he may not be in a position to offer All-Defensive First-Team caliber effort on every play. However, it's clear the Suns took full-advantage of his lack of attentiveness in very avoidable ways on Thursday night.
The Suns do a great job of deploying decoy actions in their half-court offense to keep the low-man from rotating and making an impact against the rim-roller when running ball screens. With a point guard like Chris Paul, he's going to take full advantage often if there's no help.
The greatest example came when the Mavericks still held a 97-96 lead in the fourth quarter. Using a decoy corner pin-in screen, Doncic is left standing and watching the play instead of making a low-man rotation. Biyombo slipped the ball screen with precision reading Kleber playing close to the level and pinned Finney-Smith behind him to setup a wide open roll.
The Suns know in that situation that Doncic is not necessarily a Draymond Green type of threat as a low-man who is going to fully commit to blowing up the finish on the roll. Involving him in a decoy action instead will freeze up the potential for a threat from a help rotation.
The Suns relied on Bridges to take full advantage of having Doncic as his matchup down the stretch. With the game tied 99-99 around the three-minute mark, Bridges made a heads-up play to give the Suns a two-point edge. While it wasn't from a flashy play, it was a pivotal one, nevertheless.
Doncic begins the possession looking around the unit as Bridges is coming up toward the ball. Doncic attempts to recover after recognizing Bridges making the catch. However, Bridges' decision to immediately turn downhill and maximize his advantage by pushing the ball out front creates the blow-by and results in an easy floater in the lane.
In need of getting a stop with just under two minutes left to play and facing a three-point deficit, Doncic ball watches and gives up a long rebound to Bridges. Not only that, he gets beaten on the recovery and forced Finney-Smith to help off the dunker's spot — giving up a wide open dunk to Biyombo.
To Doncic's credit, there has been quite a few stretches this season when he's played with high energy on defense and has made some impressive plays. However, there were costly blunders from him defensively in this game, when the Suns operated within the half-court, that were happening even in the first quarter.
To be clear, there was plenty of room for improvement for the Mavericks' defense as a whole in this game. Regardless, Doncic needs to consistently bring a high level of attentiveness and assertiveness on that end of the floor if Dallas wants to perform better in clutch moments, especially when the opposition is taking the ball out of his hands as a closer.
As good as the Dallas Mavericks have been lately, they still struggle a good bit when put in late-game situations. With 34 games remaining, perhaps Doncic and the Mavericks can learn from these shortcomings to be better equipped for the upcoming postseason.
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