The Dallas Mavericks opened the season restart in a familiar fashion. The Houston Rockets trailed the game by seven points with just 45 seconds left in the game. A James Harden pull-up three, missed free throw by Seth Curry, and colossal failure to block out Robert Covington sent the game into overtime. It’s a tale as old as time: The Dallas Mavericks had handed their opponent a win on a silver platter.
The Mavericks have the most efficient offense in NBA history, owning an incredible offensive rating of 115.8 (you’ll see the NBA and Basketball Reference have slightly different numbers but Dallas leads in either metric). Yet in clutch situations (within five points in the final five minutes), their offensive rating falls to 93.9, the second worst in the league this season.
What the hell is going on here? How does an offense writing itself into the history books have a record of 10-21 in clutch situation? How does a team that shoots 36.9 percent from three overall only make 21.8 percent of their deep shots when it matters most? How does an MVP candidate’s field goal percentage fall 13 percent and in those final minutes? There are a multitude of questions, perhaps the most interesting is how the Mavericks plan on fixing this.
The Mavericks offense is truly a thing of beauty. The five-man out approach with lots of motions and bump screens gets shooters open and creates lanes to the basket. But for some reason, that offense disappears in the clutch. Instead, the Mavericks shift to an offense that puts Luka Doncic in an isolation situation. But it doesn’t work. Despite Doncic having a higher usage percentage in the clutch, his offensive rating skydives by 22 points.
Already shooting below 32 percent from three, his three-point percentage falls to 15.8 percent in those clutch situations. It may seem like I’m blaming this entirely on Doncic, but I truly don’t think it’s solely his fault. The offense that enables Doncic to post MVP like numbers the other 43 minutes of the game needs to be there for those critical last five if the Mavericks want to lose this stigma.
The isolation is called in these critical moments because all eyes will be on Luka Doncic, obviously. But this puts far too much pressure on a 21 year old, regardless of how skilled they are, to always make the right read. Sometimes it works. Toward the end of the fourth quarter, Doncic drove to the basket, drew the defense's attention and freed Maxi Kleber up for a wide open three in one his favorite spots.
But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes Doncic just gets stuck and is dribbling the ball at the top of the key until the shot clock is under 5 seconds. The Mavericks run a lot of “brush” pick and roll. This sometimes forces a switch or gives the primary ball handler just enough space to operate. The downside of these is that it creates no opportunities for the roll man. When you’re playing the Rockets, any way you can get a seven foot three inches tall Porzingis into the paint is a good thing.
An offense this good having the worst field goal percentage and three-point percentage in the clutch isn’t doing this team justice. Trust me, I know I’m spoiled to even be writing this. Luka Doncic is just 21 years old and is in his first season playing along side his co-star Kristaps Porzingis. If the Mavericks finished nowhere near the playoffs it would’ve been understandable. But here we are.
The Mavericks, despite their massive crutch, are exceeding expectations. If this team wants to avoid getting folded in the first round of the playoffs, run the offense that works. There is no secret spell on the Mavericks (that I know of) preventing them to function well in these moments. It is simply a matter of movement, fluidity, and trusting your system. Last night, Trey Burke had an incredible night. Why was he on the bench when he was red-hot? Why was Boban Marjanovic not subbed into the game when all the Mavericks needed to do to win was get a rebound?
There will always be plenty of questions that will never be answered, but one thing has to be the new normal for this team. Trust your historically good offense for 48 minutes and avoid situations like this as much as possible.
Here’s the postgame podcast if you missed it. Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you can’t see the embed below “More from Mavs Moneyball”, click here. And if you haven’t yet, subscribe by searching “Mavs Moneyball podcast” into your favorite podcast app.