Something everyone has to remember while watching Luka Doncic is that none of this is terribly new to him.
He’s been a pro since he was 13-years-old. A majority of that pro career has been playing point guard and for the last couple of years he’s run the show for some highly regarded European teams, both at the club and national level. Doncic being a point guard isn’t some neat party tick to throw off defenses — it’s his natural position.
So seeing Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks go this direction and keep J.J. Barea and Jalen Brunson in their more comfortable bench roles was a welcome delight against the Celtics. It gave the Mavericks something they haven’t done in years, which is start a game with the shortest player on the court being the 6’5 Wesley Matthews.
That’s been the key to the NBA for the last half decade or so. The Warriors changed the game with their death lineup, a small-ball group with Draymond Green at the five. The thing is, that group wasn’t really small. Stephen Curry is a long 6’4 and shared the backcourt with a 6’7 Klay Thompson. Since Golden State blitzed the league with this type of length and size on the outside, teams have been chasing that standard ever since. It’s evident in almost every contender in the league right now. Look at the lineups the Raptors, Celtics, Bucks and 76ers are throwing out there every night.
Dallas has never really approached that strategy, although they’ve definitely dabbled in small-ball before. Except when the Mavs have used small-ball this decade it’s been really small-ball, featuring three point guards and some being sub six-footers like Barea. It felt more like a crutch than anything sustainable, a way to goose the offense if the Mavs’ shooting were bone-dry.
With Doncic running point surrounded by three wings and a big, however, this feels real. It feels like something that can last.
The combination of passing and shooting that Doncic brings at his height is rare for any player, let alone a 19-year-old. Playing a 6’8 Doncic at point on Saturday, the Mavs were able to exploit a physical and skill advantage unlike anything they’ve done since Dirk Nowitzki exited his prime. The Celtics really didn’t have an answer for the lineup in the first quarter, as the Mavs exploited Kyrie Irving and the Celtics normally stout defense by giving Irving no where to hide.
This is obviously a high-difficulty shot by Doncic, but it helps that the Mavs were able to pick out the shorter Irving and give Doncic a chance. It was more obvious when Doncic posted up Irving later in the next quarter. The Celtics couldn’t double, because Doncic’s passing is such a threat. It’s also harder to send doubles when you play three shooters and a lob threat around your playmaker.
With Doncic at point, that allowed him more opportunities with the ball in playmaking situations. He started the offense instead of perhaps taking turns with Dennis Smith Jr. and Doncic used those more valuable possessions by creating high-quality looks. He picked out Barnes three times for three-pointers in the first quarter, including this beautiful find going corner-to-corner.
This is just what Doncic does. He’s been doing it for most of his career!
Funny enough, after a great first half, the lineup that started the game cooled considerably in the second frame. Doncic didn’t make a bucket in the second half and only had three assists after the first quarter. Dallas instead relied on its older small ball — Devin Harris and Barea. The starting lineup from that game actually ended up posting a net-negative net rating against the Celtics, small sample size of single game lineup data be damned.
Dorian Finney-Smith had a rough night from the outside (0-for-5 from three) and the Celtics stuck closer to Barnes after the early barrage. The defense wasn’t too great either and that’s the main drawback of the Doncic-at-point lineup. Doncic has the smarts to be a quality defender, but he’s too slow and too inexperienced to be that right now. That’s OK! Almost every rookie struggles with defense. As the Mavericks move forward, and if this is the direction they want to go, it’ll be paramount to make sure whoever is starting next to Doncic can guard the other team’s point guard because Doncic will never be that guy, even as his defense improves. Matthews did an admirable job on Saturday, but the Mavs can’t expect him to chase point guards around if he still ends up with the Mavs after this season.
That leads to the other big question — what does this mean for Smith? While it was tantalizing to see the Mavs embrace a big backcourt and four perimeter players, Smith is still here for the next two seasons at least and has shown strides as a shooter this season, even if other parts of his game haven’t progressed as much as many hoped. Smith isn’t a big 6’2, but he’s quick enough to perhaps become that guard that could take the point guard assignment from Doncic as the two develop and grow. Ideally, Smith provides a really nice release valve for Doncic, driving downhill against the scattered defenses Doncic could create as the primary option.
So really, Smith and Doncic can work, it just might be more of a shifting of roles instead of personnel. The two can work off each other, it just might have to move toward Doncic being the initiator most of the time. There’s no reason why Doncic and Smith can’t play well with that mindset, although that’s a tough ask of Smith after he spent a rookie season being talked about as the future of the point guard position for Dallas.
Either way, that’s a long ways down the road. Dallas doesn’t have to make any decisions on Smith anytime soon and now that the Mavs have had a taste of Doncic as the primary point guard, they can now work Smith back in and experiment with different looks. The Mavs are winning right now and have lineup flexibility — two things they’ve experienced very little of during the last handful of seasons and Doncic is the key.