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Diagnosing the Mavericks’ problems in clutch time

Dallas hasn’t been able to finish games this season and some things might need to be tweaked.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s cut to the chase — the Mavericks have too many crap losses.

Saturday’s disappointing finish against Charlotte. The meltdown in Toronto. Blowing a lead in Oklahoma City. The two *shivers* Knicks losses.

It’s OK for a team learning how to win to have bad losses. The Mavericks only won 33 games last season, so there were obvious warts the team had to work through. Also, their best player is still only 20-years-old, no matter how great he’s been. Things happen.

But the things are happening perhaps a bit too often. Here’s what I’m seeing from Dallas in clutch time and what they could potentially do to solve it.

First things first, it’s a small sample

This seems backward when writing about how to fix the Mavericks’ clutch problems, but the Mavs haven’t really played in the clutch all that much. It just seems like a lot since the problems are so glaring.

Dallas has played just 75 clutch minutes this season, 14th most in the league. It’s an extremely small sample which means in a month, we could be talking about a completely different story. But it’s still worth talking about now because we’re starting to see some trends.

Here are the key numbers for the team:

  • 75 clutch minutes
  • Outscored 163-156 (minus-7)
  • Scoring 92.3 points per 100 possessions (28th in the league)
  • 48.9 true shooting percentage (26th in the leauge)

So with the qualifiers out of the way and the table set, we can drill down what we’re seeing.

It starts at the top with Luka

This is, by far, the biggest thing going on with the Mavericks clutch time performance. Luka just hasn’t been playing up to his already lofty standards when the game is on the line this season.

It’s a weird drop from last season, where Luka was generally productive in the clutch during his Rookie of the Year campaign.

Luka Doncic Shooting in Clutch Time

Season Minutes Field Goals FG% Three Pointers 3PT% Free Throws FT%
Season Minutes Field Goals FG% Three Pointers 3PT% Free Throws FT%
2018-2019 135 41-of-92 44.6% 12-of-40 30% 26-of-39 66.7%
2019-2020 59 16-of-44 36.4% 5-of-23 21.7% 9-of-14 64.3%

Luka is shooting worse on twos and threes, shooting fewer free throws and shooting more three pointers compared to a season ago. Not included in the table, but Luka had 10 turnovers in his 135 clutch minutes last season. He already has 10 this season. It’s also the three-pointers that have been a big stink for most people watch, as Luka has been launching more and more step-back threes with the game on the line. And both last season and this season, Luka is shooting above 50 percent on twos in the clutch, which is pretty hard to do.

It breaks a little bit of the math the Mavs have been relying on this season when Luka goes deep. Luka is shooting 32.5 percent from three, which isn’t great but it’s also enough when you consider the volume. Eventually the math just works out in his favor when you look at the percentages of what Luka and the rest of the league shoots in the mid-range. Luka’s long range bombs might not be deadly accurate, but they open up his paths to the rim and they’re better shots, for him, than contested looks near the free throw line.

Now, having said all that, when the clock is ticking and your team has zero offensive movement and you launch a shot that has a 32 percent chance of going in, that’s not a good shot. In that one possession, it’s all about getting the most likely made shot in that possession, not over the course of 10 possessions. This is where Luka and the Mavericks have to do better.

These final two possessions for the Mavs on Saturday against the Hornets are practically the same, with Seth Curry setting a screen (sort of) and Luka then going to work and launching a step-back. This has happened a lot this season, as Luka’s rate of threes in the clutch has gone up compared to last season.

Isolated, you can see both sides. Shooting a relatively low-percentage shot when Luka is so good at the rim seems like a bail-out. On the other side, dribbling closer to the rim in clutch situations isn’t a given like it is throughout the rest of a game. Referees tighten the game up, defenses are more aggressive to help. Perhaps if Luka tries to get to the basket, he’s stonewalled into an awkward 10-footer. Is that really that much better than the relatively in rhythm threes against one defender?

At this point though, with the Mavericks and Luka struggling to score in these late-game situations, there should be tweaks. The lack of free throws is a real issue right now, as Luka had 25 drives according to against the Hornets, but zero free throw attempts. In both plays above, you can see two Hornets defenders standing in the paint. That can be a deterrent.

Take a look at the first play and then this one below. Both have Dwight Powell in the game and both have Dwight Powell in the dunker’s spot. Check out what his defender is doing.

Before the play above started, Dwight set a screen that Luka didn’t fully utilize. He then went to that spot and you can see Cody Zeller put both feet in the paint, watching Luka’s every move.

Luka and the Mavs need to develop a counter to this. If Luka isn’t driving late because of the extra attention, the Mavs need to drum up some more movement. There’s a lot of standing by Luka’s teammates in these situations, which makes it easier to double Luka or wall off the paint. Luka needs to be more aggressive and the Mavericks, both coaches and his teammates, need to give him better outlets.

The Mavericks might need another playmaker

Part of the reason the Mavericks get so stagnant in clutch time, I think, is because the Mavericks have constructed a roster of mostly low-usage spot up guys around a fulcrum in Luka. Luka is the Alpha and Omega and it’s by design.

It also means Luka’s teammates might not be best equipped to relieve some of the pressure in these late game situations. Kristaps Porzingis is hurt right now, but he’s been horrible when healthy in isolations and post-ups.

Luka has a wild 36 percent usage percentage this season. The only other two regular rotation players above 20 are Porzingis and Tim Hardway Jr. In clutch, Luka’s usage shoots up to 40!

This isn’t alarming, you want the ball in your best player’s hands as often as possible in high-leverage situations. And while the Mavericks offense isn’t completely like the Rockets one-man show, it’s not like the Mavs have another guy consistently creating off the dribble throughout a game. That means late in games if Luka drives and kicks and the player who catches it is Dorian Finney-Smith without an open look, what happens? What if it’s Dwight Powell? The Mavericks just don’t have a ton of guys that can improvise in these situations or guys that have proven they can in these clutch moments when the defense is more intense.

There are some interesting numbers from some complimentary Mavericks — Jalen Brunson is 6-of-12 from the floor and 6-of-7 from the free throw line in 28 clutch minutes. Seth Curry is 5-of-10 (but 0-for-4 from three) in 32 clutch minutes. The problem is that sample is terrifyingly small and a lot of Brunson’s numbers came when Luka was out with an ankle injury, but if the Mavericks want to give Luka some help down the stretch, maybe utilizing those guys to be a bit more than bystanders might help.

The bigger question I wonder, one for another article, is will Luka’s style of play allow an additional playmaker in these situations. That’s not a knock on Luka, but if this is how he likes to play and the NBA is a player’s league, that might be something to think about going forward.

At the very least, the Mavericks made some progress Monday night against the Bulls. With the caveat that it’s the Bulls, Dallas didn’t even allow the game to qualify for clutch time, leading by more than five points throughout the entire fourth quarter. But in the final five minutes of the frame, Luka made two shots driving toward the rim and three other Mavericks (Delon Wright, Maxi Kleber and Finney-Smith) all made shots, with Luka assisting on two of them.

It’s a good reminder that the Mavericks are still building something, even if the team has already reset its expectations. Dallas is still learning how to win and on an NBA level, so is Luka. My bet is this gets figured out sooner rather than later.