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The Mavericks’ offense is adjusting to life without Luka

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The changes aren’t wholesale, but they highlight how much Doncic means to the team, especially in late-game situations.

Boston Celtics v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Losing Luka Doncic to a right ankle sprain was a blow to the Dallas Mavericks. Their offense was humming along with the 20-year-old MVP candidate holding the reins. In the three games that he has missed, the wheels haven’t fallen off, though, and Dallas is actually weathering his absence well. On the fly, they’re adjusting to life without Luka. The changes don’t equate to a complete overhaul of the Mavs’ league-best offense, but they are apparent.

“If you watched our games after Luka went out, the second half of Miami and the Milwaukee game, we’ve adjusted our style significantly,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’re really playing a much more free-flowing style for the most part—play-calls we try to avoid. We’re going to play with pace, momentum, and a lot of ball movement.”

With Doncic sidelined, the ball does seem to find its way into multiple hands per possession. That’s not to say that Doncic is a ball hog. He’s certainly not as he leads the team in assists, but he does command the ball’s presence more than others do. Now, the ball is whipped and zipped around the perimeter and along the baseline—on a good possession—until the defense is caught scrambling and out of place. Open shots are the point and they aren’t hard to come by when the ball is moving around like that.

This isn’t a new winkle in the offense, it’s just more emphasized. Dallas’ offense is still very much what it was. They space the floor, run the pick and roll, set screens, hand the ball off, and run the plays that we have come to expect from a Carlisle coached team. It’s something that Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens noted Wednesday night.

“They don’t play much different without Luka,” Stevens said. “They run some of their catch and shoot stuff a little bit more. I think Jalen [Brunson] is really playing well. So, just being able to plug him in and play a lot of Luka’s actions that they run—some of the side picks, some of the high picks, the cuts, the picks—with him and [Seth] Curry and [Delon] Wright. They’ve just got a number of really good players. They really don’t look structurally much different other than maybe again playing through those shooters a little bit more.”

The biggest difference is that Jalen Brunson is at the helm now. Statistically, he is playing well filling in for Doncic. In the last two games, against the Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, he posted consecutive double-doubles for the first time in his career. He has also been a key reason why the ball is making its way into the hands of so many of his teammates. It’s something he does better than his peers. Seth Curry is more of a scoring option who can occasionally facilitate. Meanwhile, Delon Wright doesn’t seem as confident running the offense yet, often getting caught in the teeth of the defense.

Still, it’s clear that the team is missing Doncic’s leadership. Late game situations are when the team needs him most. His poise, ability to settle things down, and get good looks are some of his most valuable assets. They have been the reason why the Mavericks have been able to withstand an opponent’s run and methodically put the game out of reach possession by possession in fourth quarters. That didn’t happen against Miami or Boston.

“Because we went down, we tried to get back in the game with one shot,” Kristaps Porzingis said after the loss to the Celtics. “It takes multiple possessions in a row. And sometimes when you want to get back into a game so much, we tend to rush things and hit a big shot here or there and make a big play or whatever. And sometimes it leads to missed shots or turnovers and so on.”

The turnovers are the most glaring issue for the Mavericks in their two recent losses. In both games, Dallas had the opportunity to ether hold on to win or comeback and tie the game late. Both times, they couldn’t do it thanks to unfortunate decision making that led to turnovers. For his part, Brunson takes full responsibility for those mistakes and what he has to do going forward.

“I think, most importantly, I got to stop turning the ball over so late in the game,” Brunson said. “I mean, just two straight home games turning the ball over late just kills our team. That’s just on me. I got to do a better job with that. But I think we’re doing a good job. We’re hanging with some of the best teams in the league. We got a do a better job at home and got to do a better job of just securing the ball.”

Dallas is surviving without its superstar. The offense is changing, but not dramatically from a system standpoint. It’s still the best in the league. However, the Mavs needs to clean some things up while Doncic sits if they want to continue capitalizing on their offensive dominance.