After losing 105-100 to the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, the Dallas Mavericks have now lost three consecutive games. They dropped to 9-9 on Sunday with a matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, marking what will be the second night of a back-to-back.
There was a clear focus from the Raptors to pick up Doncic full-court and to send traps early in possessions — forcing him to give the ball up and trust his teammates to make a positive play. He finished with 24 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists, but had to play 43 minutes to keep the Mavs competitive.
"I thought Luka did a great job of playing four-on-three," Mavs coach Jason Kidd said of Doncic's handling of the Raptors' frequent traps. "With the 42 minutes, he played 39 of them four-on-three. ... He accepted the double-team and played in the pocket with the playmakers. ... We just didn't capitalize."
The Mavs' final possession against the Raptors was a microcosm of the team's struggles against what the Raptors had done for much of the game: trap Doncic. Doncic is supposed to pass to the screener on the short-roll, creating a four-on-three situation for the rest of the offense. He did that, but the ensuing sequence didn't even result in a shot attempt, facing a three-point deficit.
"We tried to get the ball to our playmakers to make a quick play," Kidd said when describing the breakdown on the last play. "Maxi, for that split second thought the corner was open but threw it back out to the slot... Unfortunately, we passed it around and turned it over."
The Mavs often deploy a screener that isn't even thinking about looking at the rim on the catch and is instead focused on getting rid of the ball to the weak-side floor spacers. The potential problem that arises? Those wings aren't sharpshooters or threats to make plays off the dribble against a tight contest. There is a risk for a breakdown to occur and that occurred against the Raptors.
Maxi Kleber was deployed as the short-roll playmaker with Dorian Finney-Smith in the weak-side corner and Reggie Bullock in the slot. Kleber has the left side of the lane open and doesn't even look at the rim on the catch. He first thought to pass to the corner, but instead passed to the slot, without seemingly ever considering driving to the rim.
Bullock drew two defenders and gave it to Finney-Smith. Kleber decides to hop away from the rim as Finney-Smith makes a touch pass to set him up for a finish attempt, resulting in a turnover. First of all, the Mavs trailed by three-points so why throw that back to Kleber? Secondly, why is Kleber hopping away from the basketball when this pass is made? The lack of confident, tough shot makers on the weak-side remains apparent.
"It's not difficult at all," Doncic said of handling four-on-three situations after traps. "It's the defense we want. We got to keep shooting, trusting the shots. One more thing, we have to be way more aggressive getting to the rim. Basically, four-on-three, we just got to be more aggressive.
"They put two or three on the ball, we got to be aggressive. go to the rim, dunk it, or pass it out and keep trusting the shots."
Evaluating the process of a play goes beyond just seeing the outcome. When the Mavs had a similar play against a trap in a pivotal play late against the LA Clippers, the end result was a discombobulated outcome where the ball happened to find Doncic late in the clock. Doncic bailed the team out by throwing up a deep, tough look and converting. This wasn't a good play.
In general, there have been numerous final possession losses for the Mavs this season that Doncic has taken a tough, low percentage 3-pointer. Without another scoring threat on the court, the options are very limited for what they can rely on with the game on the line without Christian Wood playing. He can be a threat to score on the catch with his jumper, or using an aggressive drive.
"No, look at Maxi, and his first game back was great," Kidd said when asked if not closing the game with Wood on the floor was a defensive decision. "As we talked about earlier, we have a lot of bigs that can play. This isn't a bigs' game. You can only play one a lot of times..."
There have been quite a few instances this season when Doncic has thrown a pass on-point to Kleber with a chance to score in the paint, but he immediately looks to pass — commanding a visibly frustrated reaction from Doncic. The same happened on the final possession of Saturday's loss. There isn't reasonable rationale to not have Wood on the floor over Kleber in such instances.
Not only is Wood shooting 45.1 percent from 3-point range on the season, he is a threat to attack the rim and executive a tough finish if needed. Perhaps the defense makes a more aggressive low-man rotation if Wood is the short-roller — opening up a clean look on the weka-side for a 3-pointer. Also, why is Spencer Dinwiddie often spacing from the strong side in these instances just to be face-guarded? He's shooting very well from 3-point range and is the only threat to create outside of Doncic.
Last season, the Mavs had the option of relying on Jalen Brunson to make big plays in key moments if the defense loaded up on Doncic. After the trade deadline, they could even choose to run a three guard lineup with Spencer Dinwiddie — offering two threats to get into the paint off the catch on both sides of Doncic. Now, they lack those options and rely on short-roll execution in lineups with two limited 3-and-D wings.
"This is our team. ... (Luka) plays four-on-three, he takes the shots when he has to, but I thought he played an incredible game of being unselfish. ... We just didn't make (3s) at the right time," Kidd said when asked about the impact of not having Brunson.
It appears overdue for the Mavs to be open to trying different lineup combination in closing situations. Right now, the lack of talent on the floor offensively is glaring and Wood is the only fix in that regard. However, Kidd remains unwilling to try it much.
Now, the Mavs must gear up for their matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks to complete the second part of a back-to-back. Dallas is now seeking to win multiple road games and is now .500 on the season.