On Wednesday, the Mavericks face what is probably their toughest test all season. The Golden State Warriors are a monster of mythological proportions. They're the final boss in your favorite video game on the hardest mode. They're the Death Star without a fatal flaw. In non-rhetoric terms, they're 29-1 while having the best offense and second-best defense, easily remaining the NBA's best team while still being, yanno, reigning champions.
Curry's potential absence -- it's possible he rests with nagging injuries and is officially listed as a game-time decision -- clearly changes just how challenging Dallas' mission is. But there's no doubt the Warriors are deadly either way.
"We talked about both scenarios this morning," head coach Rick Carlisle said. "The one where he does play, where you have massive problems, and the one where he doesn't, where you have a group of guys on their team that have a ton of pride and are going to be very eager to prove they can win on the road without him. Whatever the scenario is, we have to be ready to play a great team, because even if Curry is not out there, they are a great basketball team."
Let's assume he plays, even if it sounds more likely he won't. From the opening tip, Dallas is immediately presented with major challenges trying to guard the versatile and hyper-athletic Warriors. But this behemoth task can be accomplished. The Bucks did it, after all, and Dallas beat Milwaukee at the AAC two days ago. Here's the keys for the Mavericks.
1. J.J. Barea can't guard Steph. Dirk can't guard Draymond Green.
A possession here or there, OK, you can survive that. But extended time for either of those players on Golden State's two best players simply cannot, cannot happen. Curry will shoot right over Barea like he's a Puerto Rican traffic cone. Green's quick enough that Dirk will simply have to concede jumpers, but that means a 41-percent 3-point shooter will be hoisting uncontested shots all night. Both matchups are death.
It sounds great to say no Barea on Curry and no Dirk on Green, but executing that is quite a bit more difficult. With Deron Williams ruled out for the game, Barea has entered the starting lineup over the past couple games. Dallas will need to crossmatch players from the opening tip and that's easiest to do if you ...
2. Start Raymond Felton
I'm not bullish on this actually happening. Rick Carlisle values consistency, as seen when he stuck with a Barea-Felton backcourt against the Chicago Bulls despite Barea starting the game on Mirotic. If Carlisle's willing to put Barea on Mirotic to start a game (only to pull him less than two minutes later when that strategy proved to be as foolish as we all could have predicted), then why not start Barea on Curry.
Felton makes more sense, though. With Felton, you have a more physical, bigger defender on Curry. We saw in the 2015 Finals how Matthews Dellavedova bothered him basically by being an asshole, bumping and grinding at every opportunity. If Curry plays banged up, Felton seems more equipped to do that than the flyweight Barea.
Felton guards Curry. Wesley Matthews guards Klay Thompson. (You could even flip those two, putting Matthews on Curry, but that might be too much crossmatching too early in the game.) Chandler Parsons moves up to guard Draymond Green while you hide Dirk on Brandon Rush. The game hasn't even tipped off yet and you're already scrambling on defense, but you have to realize: this is what the Warriors do to you. This is why they've played 30 games with only one loss. Dallas' one-dimensional players doesn't help the cause, but honestly, this is probably the Mavericks' most balanced team since the championship squad. Golden State is just that dangerous.
2.5 If there's no Curry
I'd still recommend starting Felton, because Curry's replacement will be Shaun Livingston, a 6'7 guard with an excellent post game who will take Barea to the low block every trip down the floor if you let him. Alternatively, you could hide Barea on Rush, but that leaves Dirk or Zaza Pachulia guarding Green, which is barely any better. Look, the jist is that there's no clear, clean solution. The Warriors are stupid talented.
3. Dwight Powell is essential
He's the only big man on the roster who resembles a smart, versatile defender who can keep up with the plethora mismatches presented by Golden State. Dallas Basketball's Jonny Auping suggests him as a potential counter to Golden State's "death ball" lineup that puts Green at center, putting Powell on him while Dirk hides on Andre Iguodala or another shooter. While it would be tempting to surround Dirk with Parsons, Matthews and two guards, I think Jonny's right. You can't try to out-Warriors the Warriors.
4. Be ready for the Warriors' big runs
This probably means Dallas needs a quick start that gives them somewhat of a cushion for an inevitable Golden State hailstorm. Of course, if they do end up starting Barea, how they get that quick start is a mystery.
"There is more than a laundry list of problems that we'll face," Carlisle said. "We have to be ready to be poised when they have their big runs. They're going to have their big runs whether Curry plays or not. Great teams are going to go on big runs. Being poised and staying the course during these difficult periods is going to define how it goes."
5. Score a lot
Dallas is an average defensive team. Slowing the game down, pounding the rock every possession and just trying to drag Golden State out of their usual rhythm only means that the Warriors will beat them slowly.
If Dallas competes in this game, if they come even close to winning, it'll be by lighting up Golden State's defense, which, while excellent, isn't always as focused as it needs to be. And even if the Warriors are locked in defensively, Dallas is one of the league's very top offenses at their apex. The offense needs to be playing at peak performances to keep up.
"The way they're moving the ball from side to side, never sticking, it's the way we like to play, too," Warriors interim coach Luke Walton said. "It kinda reminds me of the way they were playing when they won the championship here. The ball just never stops. If you defend the first action, they're swinging it to the weak side and they're right into another action. They're fun to watch and it's going to be a tough one to get here."
With that offense showing up, the one that Walton praised, and some vulnerability from Golden State, Dallas can win. If Curry doesn't play, the Mavericks definitely can win. It won't be easy either way. I'm not sure I wouldn't still pick the Warriors even without Curry -- they're that good. But save "impossible" for some other challenge, because the Mavericks can beat Golden State by following these steps.