This isn’t breaking news or some secret, insider information — in the NBA, you’re only as good as your star player. If your star is on it, your team will typically perform well. If he doesn’t? Well, things become difficult.
That was never more pronounced than the Mavericks season opening loss to the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night. Luka Doncic had a horrific start — missed his first six shots, finishing the first half 5-of-15 with 10 points and three assists. Ask Doncic himself, that is not the standard he’s set after his first two miraculous seasons in the NBA.
It wasn’t just that Luka was bad and missing shots, that happens. It was the way it happened and the body language that followed. Luka just didn’t look like himself for the first 24 minutes of this game and the Mavericks, like most NBA teams, are not built to withstand their star player not showing up.
I mean, some of these plays were just — woof.
There was more bad stuff — aloof off-ball defense, more barking at officials and a total lack of effort to get back on defense after a poor play. The Mavericks are built with Luka as the alpha and omega of the team. If he isn’t setting the tone early, that trickles down to the rest of the roster. It wasn’t a shock to watch how poorly Luka started and notice the entire Mavericks team was in a weird malaise. Even Mavericks TV analyst Derek Harper said the team looked like they were in the mud during the first half.
This isn’t a specific knock on Luka, by the way. If LeBron James starts 0-of-6 and then 5-of-15, the Lakers are likely down at halftime. If 2006 Dirk Nowitzki has a piss poor start, then the 2006 Mavericks likely had a piss poor start as well. That’s just how the NBA is, when there are only five guys on the court, it’s really easy for one super-duper player to influence the game — and it goes both ways.
Thankfully for the Mavericks and Luka, this isn’t how the entire game went. Dallas never trailed by more than 12 and kept things tight. After starting 0-for-6, Luka made eight of his next 14 shots. Unsurprisingly, the Mavericks looked much better and with a chance to win the game late.
The see-saw swung the other way, unfortunately.
Chris Paul hit a jumper to put the Suns up 103-100 with 1:20 left in the game. After attacking the rim for most of the fourth quarter and the Mavericks clutch offense looking more stable than before, Luka settled for another three. He was 0-for-5 at the time, so maybe he was due. He wasn’t. Luka missed, the Mavericks lose. Luka makes, the Mavericks probably win.
That’s the life of an NBA star. Luka is in his third year now and the expectations continue to sky rocket. If the Mavericks want to go to where they think they can, Luka obviously will take them there. It was one disappointing game, but nothing to fret over. Just a cold reminder of how the NBA brutally works.
- Aside from Luka’s hot-and-cold game, the biggest thing to me was how the Mavericks finished this game defensively. The biggest defensive possession of the game, down three with less than a minute remaining and...Jalen Brunson is guarding one of the best scorers in the league? Here’s the play before I dig in:
- When the Mavericks made the trade for Josh Richardson, swapping Seth Curry to bring in a bigger, longer, more defensive-minded wing, it signaled the Mavericks knowing their biggest weakness and trying to address it. Dallas was the 18th best defense in the NBA last season and that’s not good enough. To start this game against the Suns, the Mavericks had Dorian Finney-Smith on Chris Paul and Richardson on Booker and boy, was that a sight for sore eyes — the Mavericks have two capable perimeter defenders to start games! So when you then proceed to lose a game in the final minute because you have a small guard getting roasted by an All-Star wing scorer, that’s a total breakdown. The entire point of bringing in Richardson was to precisely avoid the situation above — it was so you could finish the game with four bigger perimeter players. Take one of those four out of that lineup, and it topples like a house of cards.
- The reason the Mavericks didn’t go to that starting lineup to close the game was because Tim Hardaway Jr. was bad. Not great defense, shot 3-of-10 from the floor, 3-of-8 from three and had some puzzling heat check jumpers on possessions where Luka stood and watched. Meanwhile Brunson had a fantastic fourth quarter, scoring all 12 of his points on 5-of-6 shooting. So Brunson had to stay on the floor, since the Mavericks offense needed him. However, that meant Brunson was on the floor to get picked on and did the Suns ever pick on him. With Hardaway in the game, the Mavericks can feel comfortable with him on Cam Johnson or Mikal Bridges and keep Finney-Smith and Richardson on the Suns’ two perimeter stars. With Brunson in and Hardaway out, that meant Brunson was either on Paul, or mismatched on one of the bigger wings. It’s preferable to have Brunson on one of those wings if given the choice, but it’s the best of two bad scenarios — If Brunson was on either Bridges or Johnson, the Suns would have likely had Brunson’s man screen for either Paul or Booker and force the switch. Judging from how easily the Mavericks gave up the switch with Booker, that’s not a far-fetched scenario either. Bottom line: the Mavericks acquired Richardson so they could close games with Luka, Richardson, Hardaway, Finney-Smith and [insert big man here]. That’s a lineup without a glaring defensive hole (Hardaway is at least not small). Hardaway has to play better to stay on the floor. He just has to. There’s no two ways around it.
- Let’s just get it out of way — Dwight Powell was bad. There’s no sweet talking two points, two rebounds and two turnovers in 18 minutes from your starting five. Of course some of this isn’t Powell’s fault, since he’s coming back from an Achilles injury and Kristaps Porzingis would be starting if healthy. I hate digging into the Powell discourse, because it feels like a lot of time wasted on a small issue that will eventually solve itself when Porzingis returns. I just can’t deny his harmfulness tonight. The Suns packed the paint on Powell’s rim runs, making him ineffective to say the least. The pick and roll stuff is a two-way street, though. Powell didn’t look good, yes, but neither did Luka — If Luka isn’t driving hard to the rim around a Powell screen, that makes it much harder for Powell to be as effective. The Suns didn’t seem too concerned with Luka taking his time early in the game, coming off those screens. That meant it was much easier for them to tag Powell in the lane, without giving up too much on the weakside corner or at the basket. In the second half, when Luka was better, the Powell pick and roll opened up a few more good three point attempts. So hopefully that trends in a better direction.
- I don’t want to get too far into Willie Cauley-Stein, because the dude literally played just six minutes, but here’s an undeniable stat: In those six minutes, Cauley-Stein grabbed two rebounds. In 45 combined minutes, Powell and Maxi Kleber grabbed five rebounds.
- The move to start Finney-Smith on Paul and Richardson on Booker was a really smart and creative idea from the Mavericks coaching staff. Historically, Booker has absolutely cooked Finney-Smith, who can struggle 1-on-1 against bigger perimeter scorers. It might not make sense to put Finney-Smith on a point guard, but Paul is obviously not as quick as he used to be and more methodical than ever. So having Finney-Smith’s 6’11 wingspan on 6’1 tall Paul was a great idea to bottle up Paul’s vision and take away his pet mid-range shots, while Richardson can better bother Booker. It worked! Paul had a mostly pedestrian game, scoring eight points on 3-of-9 shooting with only five assists and three turnovers. Booker was solid, going 8-of-15 with 22 points, but it felt like a victory he only had 22, with only six free throw attempts and a ghastly eight turnovers. I know it was expected that Richardson would defend more point guards and quicker scorers, but kudos to the Mavericks for turning that idea on its head when it made sense. If only it could have applied to the end of the game.
- Phoenix should have won this game by 20-plus, but they were at times just as ragged and sloppy as the Mavericks. The Mavericks defense did some good things, as mentioned above, but the Suns still shot 48 percent from the floor and 36 percent from three — the 18 turnovers are what kept the Mavericks in the game. Before you get too excited about a new and improved Mavericks defense forcing more turnovers, Dallas still only had six steals. The Mavericks are definitely more annoying on defense than before, but the Suns just threw the ball away to no one a lot.
- My only other big takeaway from this game was how putrid the Trey Burke/Brunson lineups looked for most of the game. Through three quarters, those bench lineups got their doors knocked off, with Brunson and Burke doing a sort of “my turn, ok now your turn” offense that was just as ineffective as it was bad to watch. Luckily Brunson turned it on in the fourth, but he mostly did it without Burke on the floor. those two guys are too similar of players, both being small, score first guards. The duo combined for four assists and four turnovers, with all four assists coming from Brunson. The Mavericks bench has always been a plus under Rick Carlisle, and it was usually fueled by crisp ball movement behind veteran stalwarts like J.J. Barea and Devin Harris. You also always had a Brandan Wright or Dwight Powell coming off the bench as well, leading to more movement and the ball pinging around. With Burke, Brunson and no effective rim runner, things just got way too stagnant at times. What’s worse, it’s not certain Powell moving back to the bench helps things, since those two just look to score so much when they have the ball. Maybe Powell back with the reserves at least gives Burke and Brunson a more capable screener to open things up. It was only one game, but it’ll be something to watch over the next handful of weeks.