As Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard duked it out in the fourth quarter, it was a certainty that the outcome of the game would come down to the final seconds. It’s par for the course when the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers play one another.
Leading up to Sunday night, 16 of the last 18 games between the two teams were decided by single-digits or have gone into overtime. This game would be no different. Knowing their history of close games, the final moments carry so much more importance. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, the closing seconds unfolded in a confusing and frustrating manner.
With 37 seconds left to play, the Blazers had possession and the ball was in the hands of Lillard, naturally. After sizing up Dorian Finney-Smith and taking a few dribbles, it was Dame Time. Lillard made his move and hit a step back three from the top of the arc to give Portland a 119-116 advantage with 32 seconds remaining.
“I mean, I probably should have made him drive,” Finney-Smith said, “I pay attention to the clock a little more—I knew it was 33 [seconds]. I probably should have made him drive. He made a tough shot.”
It’s hard to fault Finney-Smith’s defensive decision-making on the play. He was on an island guarding one of the league’s premier closers. That Finney-Smith was alone is a problem, however. He wasn’t supposed to be.
“On that particular play, we were calling for a double team and our guys didn’t hear it,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said. “Our intention was to run and get the ball out of his hands. We’d gone through that in our prep. Part of it’s the mask and part of it’s the noise in the arena or whatever. The communication didn’t get there and he hit a difficult shot but it’s a shot he makes regularly. It’s a tough shot.”
The plan was to double team Lillard and force him to give up the ball. Yet, it never came. Jalen Brunson does come off his man, Robert Covington, briefly and hedges toward Lillard to feign a double team, but by the time he does it’s too late.
During the play you can see Mavericks assistant coach Jamahl Mosley kneeling on the sideline, barking out orders. Mosley heads up Dallas’ defensive play calling. As Carlisle notes, it appears that none of the players took notice. Not great.
What’s more damning is that the coaching staff discussed the situation and strategy they wanted to implement in their last timeout less than a minute before Lillard drained his shot. The players knew what to do and simply didn’t execute the plan.
After the play, Doncic looks to the bench and shrugs. His shrug encapsulates the team’s defensive effort and far too often their mentality.
Dallas’ defense was a disaster for much of Sunday’s game. In reality, the game had no business coming down to the wire after Portland scored 45 points in the third quarter. Still, if there was ever a play for the team to step up and get it right, it was Lillard’s final shot.
It’s clear that the Mavericks have issues on the defensive end. Yet, if the players are forgetting or ignoring strategy then the team’s problems run deeper than simply not being able to get stops consistently.