After sending the Phoenix Suns home in their second-round series, the Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic seemed to have all the answers. The Golden State Warriors quickly let them know in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals that was not the case.
Golden State tormented the Mavs all night long, holding them to 87 points, their second-lowest output in the playoffs. They applied pressure on Dallas all night long, using several different defensive looks, including a box-and-one zone defense, to keep Doncic and company off balance. The key to slowing down Doncic, though, was Andrew Wiggins.
For much of his postseason career, Doncic has made a living of absolutely crushing his opposition. It doesn’t always lead to wins, but you can generally count on Doncic to turn in a fantastic outing as a Mavericks fan. Wiggins, however, stuck to Doncic like glue in Game 1, and his teammates took notice of his performance.
“He was moving them puppies tonight. That’s why he was the No. 1 pick. You can’t teach that athleticism. You can’t teach that length. You can’t teach his timing. I’m just happy the world is getting to see who he really is, and that’s an incredible wing player, and he will be like this for the next 10 years.” - Klay Thompson, ESPN.
Wiggins’ defensive success against Doncic is a big concern for the Mavs
It’s no secret that Doncic is a unique point guard in the NBA today. His combination of speed and strength ensures that there isn’t one area of the game he struggles with. His defensive effort lacks from time to time, but other than that, there isn’t anything Doncic is particularly bad at.
Opposing guards typically can’t match Doncic’s 6’7 frame, but Wiggins can. Wiggins was typically full-court pressing Doncic, ensuring that he had to work for every inch of space he got against him. Wiggins’ length and speed helped him stay in front of Doncic at the perimeter, which was a huge first step for Golden State.
Wiggins isn’t as strong as Doncic, so the Warriors implemented a zone at times to help protect the paint. When Doncic muscled his way into the paint, he would often run into Draymond Green, forcing Doncic to either take a contested shot or kick back out to the perimeter, which is where Wiggins would rotate to. Dallas had no answer for this, which is why Game 1 was largely uncompetitive.
Once again, Doncic is going to have to evolve the way he plays
Against the Suns, Phoenix seemed content to allow Doncic to get his points while they focused on limiting his teammates. It worked for the opening two games, and it seemed like Dallas was in trouble. It was clear Doncic needed to focus more on getting his teammates involved earlier in the game rather than just scoring when he could.
While the defensive change made by Jason Kidd to put Randy Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith on Chris Paul and Devin Booker on defense was ultimately more important, Doncic fine-tuned his offensive game to take down the Suns. His scoring dropped, but guys like Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie got more involved, and Phoenix had no answers for them.
Doncic will have to make similar adjustments to his game moving forward against Golden State. They are doing whatever they can to slow him down, and in Game 1, the results were compelling. Doncic had limited room to operate, but the bigger problem was that his teammates faced the same problem.
Against a zone defense, there are typically shots for the taking in the midrange area, which is where Doncic will need to go to get his best looks if Wiggins and Green continue to harass him. There will typically be a pocket of space from both elbows of the paint in a box-and-one defense that are left unattended, and that’s where Doncic will need to get his buckets from.
If Doncic can establish his midrange game early, it will force Golden State to adjust and give him more attention, opening up looks for his teammates. But once again, the offensive burden for Dallas is almost solely on Luka’s shoulders. If he can adapt, Dallas will be able to climb right back into this series.