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Bad defense at the most crucial point of the game doomed the Mavericks in Utah

Dallas looked like they were finally picking up a clutch win after Tim Hardaway Jr.’s three. Then the Mavs played their worst defensive possession of the game.

Dallas Mavericks v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

There are a thousand different things we could talk about during the final five minutes of the Mavericks loss to the Jazz in Utah on Saturday. The offense failed to produce yet again (although the process was better), the missed free throws were alarming and Rudy Gobert made maybe the best defensive play of the season with his final block.

Right now though, the thing I kept thinking about after the game was over, was how poorly the Mavericks defended what ended up being the game-winning shot by Royce O’Neale. It was poor defense throughout the final five minutes that truly spoiled the night for the Mavericks — the Jazz shot 5-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-5 from three to close out the game. We’re going to talk about that final made three.

To start, here’s the possession in its entirety. It doesn’t really take a rocket science to see what went wrong.

Right off the bat, you can tell what blows up the possession — Delon Wright fails to contain Donovan Mitchell in the pick and roll. Everything that happens after that is due to Wright’s failure in that moment.

To be fair, Mitchell is an exceptionally tough cover in the pick and roll. He’s really fast! However, on the post-game podcast yesterday I incorrectly remembered the play. I thought it was a Mitchell-Gobert pick and roll. The fact that it was Mitchell and Joe Ingles kind of makes it worse, because in theory the Mavs should have been able to quickly switch on this action and not suffer a bad mismatch. Hell, you would want Wright to guard Mitchell — he’s supposed to be the Mavs best perimeter defender, especially on guards.

Wright has one goal in this action: prevent Mitchell from getting into the middle of the paint. With how Utah spreads the floor, it was going to be an easy bucket if he could get near the free throw line.

In the first split-second, things look good. Wright has jumped out onto Mitchell, which is smart because Mitchell had canned a couple threes in the fourth quarter. Laying back on the help potentially opens up Mitchell walking into another rhythm three pointer, something that’s been a sore spot for the Mavs defense against smaller guards with quick triggers all season.

The problem is that Wright way overplays Mitchel’s right hand. I’m not entirely sure why — you’re always taught to force players away from the middle of the floor when you’re playing defense. Maybe he though Tim Hardaway Jr. was going to fight through the screen and trap. For whatever reason though, Wright gives up way too much space for Mitchell to split the pick and roll and waltz, unimpeded, to the middle of the floor. The possession was 100 percent toast at this point.

From there, the Mavericks defense is scrambled. When Mitchell meets Kristaps Porzingis at the rim, he has two options: Gobert for the dunk or O’Neale for the three.

Luka Doncic comes off O’Neale to help on Gobert. Porzingis’ length prevents the easy lob and Doncic covers the drop off option. Unfortunately, that leaves O’Neale, a 44.3 percent shooter from the corners this season, wide open.

There’s no way for Doncic to get back to O’Neale after crashing down. Hardaway is the one closing out, but he’s caught between Ingles and O’Neale. Hardaway probably should have been closer to O’Neale, because Mitchell’s pass back to Ingles would have been really tough. O’Neale could have always swung the ball to an open Ingles if Hardaway closed out and the possession still ends the same way, but that’s better than what happened. You’d rather a great corner shooter pass it up to an above-the-break three. Ingles is still a great shooter (43.5 percent on above-the-break threes) but that’s still a more difficult shot compared to O’Neale’s. Plus, forcing a pass always gives your teammates more chances to recover. You could make the argument that Doncic over-helps on this play, that Porzingis could have prevented Mitchell from making the play to Gobert with his length. There’s some merit to that, but I don’t blame Doncic for wanting to prevent the Mavs losing to a Gobert dunk. Helping the helper is a thing on defense.

In the end, as said before, the possession really never stood much of a chance after Wright’s blunder. The Mavericks are already short on stout perimeter defenders — if Wright can’t make a play here, then the Mavs are really behind the eight-ball. It hurts that Dorian Finney-Smith is off the floor but after missing two free throws and Utah leaving him wide open the previous few possessions, I don’t blame Rick Carlisle at all for going to Hardaway. After making a clutch three to go take the lead, it’s incredibly disappointing that the Mavericks gave up such an easy look on the very next possession. At no point did the Mavericks make anything difficult for the Jazz on that play.

It just goes to show the roster limitations of these current Mavericks. Too many players are all defense or all offense. That makes crunch time difficult, when you need guys to make plays at both ends to close out a game. It’s a frustrating way for the Mavericks to lose, but it’s another teaching moment for a team learning how to win. Now the question is do they learn this season or next? It might take another summer of roster changes and Doncic improvement for the Mavs to get to where they truly want to go. That doesn’t make the growing pains, like on Saturday, any easier to watch in the present.