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Finney-Smith providing value beyond his experience

The rookie from Florida locked up Kawhi Leonard for most of the night as he continues to learn his place in the league.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS – There was one play that stuck out in Dorian Finney-Smith’s head.

The rookie was tasked with guarding the Spurs’ All-NBA talent Kawhi Leonard and did a more than admirable job – except for one play. It was a post-up for Leonard late in the third quarter, with Finney-Smith playing behind.

Instead of denying the entry pass floorbound, Finney-Smith attempted to leap out in front and swipe the pass. He missed. With Finney-Smith out of position, Leonard got to the rim and scored one of his easiest baskets of the night.

“When I gambled in the second half, that got him going,” Finney-Smith said. “Little stuff like that, easy points get All-NBA players going. Next time, just try to be more disciplined.”

After that shot, Leonard awoke. Before the shot, he was 1-for-9 from the field. After, he canned two triples, finished with 21 points and led the Spurs to a 92-87 win to deny the Mavericks in that column yet again.

Overall, Leonard’s stat-line doesn’t look great. He was 5-of-16 from the field overall and midway through the third quarter was still scoring in single-digits. Leonard’s averaging 24.6 points on over 45 percent shooting from the field this season, but Finney-Smith made him seem mortal for most of Wednesday night.

“Just try to make every time he touches the ball, make it tough for him,” he said. “Try to change his rhythm, that’s what I tried to do.”

Finney-Smith did some of those things because of a few factors – for one, despite being a rookie, he’s looks nothing like one on the defensive end of the floor. He’s a four-year player from Florida, so perhaps the extra college time has him more seasoned on that end compared to his fellow rookies.

Besides the smarts, there’s just his huge wingspan. At 6’8 with a 6’11 wingspan, Finney-Smith stayed on his feet most of the night against Leonard (except for that one play) and remained balanced and used his long reach to bother Leonard all night.

“I’m trying to ride him off the screen, fight off the screens,” he said.

When Finney-Smith goes under a screen, his wingspan allows him to stay close to the ball-handler and recover quickly. He’s always an arms reach away because of his length and balance on defense. He helps smother pick and rolls like this one regularly.

There was no need for him to swat or bite on pump fakes when he was positioned so well and could use those go-go-gadget arms to hamper Leonard’s space.

“He’s doing a lot of good things,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after the game. “Defensively he’s advanced for a young player.”

Against Finney-Smith, Leonard was 2-for-5 from the floor and that doesn’t even tell the full story since Leonard passed out of a couple more possessions with Finney-Smith covering him and fouling just twice. The Mavs rode that defensive energy to a double-digit lead in the third quarter. It was one of the best efforts from a short-handed Dallas team all year. Hell for a couple minutes, you could see the vision of this team from people like me who thought they were a playoff contender over the summer.

Being younger, longer and more athletic makes the Mavs defense scary at times. Harrison Barnes and Finney-Smith are interchangeable at the forward spots and have developed a good defensive chemistry. Combined with Justin Anderson and there’s a lot of potential for the Mavs to wield a modern NBA defense.

“With HB at the four we can switch two through four and we try to use that as an advantage,” Finney-Smith said.

Despite the switches sometimes leaving LaMarcus Aldridge on one of Barnes or Finney-Smith, both those players are so long and athletic, they were still able to force misses. Aldridge finished 2-of-9 from the floor with five points and didn’t have nearly the room he’d like to have at his pet mid-range spots on the floor with help from Andrew Bogut.

There are still trouble spots defensively – the league-worst three-point defense continues to serve up wide-open looks every night, despite the switching ability Finney-Smith, Barnes and Anderson provide. These are still young players, after all, and good three-point defense is a result of trusting your teammates and making the right rotation. There are growing pains still to sort through.

At least the younger players seem to have level-heads about it. Mark Cuban recently talked about not wanting to tank and keep trying to win games to provide an example for the younger players and to keep the Mavs winning culture in place. You could see that in the Mavs locker room after the game – Finney-Smith said having great vets around keeps him focused and Devin Harris said that’s a constant thing him and the other veterans are doing during one of the toughest stretches in Mavs history.

To give you an idea of where these younger guys mindsets are, Finney-Smith didn’t even expect to get talked to after the game. He lamented his “donut” – going 0-for-3 from the field and zero points in a game decided by five.

I told him he played good defense though and was a plus-nine on the night.

“Doesn’t matter without the win,” he replied.