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Luka Dončić trusts his teammates in the clutch

Doničić is making the right plays as the Mavericks learn how to win close games together

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Luka Dončić made some incredible shots when he scored 42 points against the Golden State Warriors, yet it was a simple pass to his teammate that won the game for Dallas.

Dončić hit the 42 point-mark with a clutch three-pointer that put the Mavericks ahead by seven points with 43 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But Steph Curry just wouldn’t let it go. Curry first made a contested three over Maxi Kleber. On the next possession, after a Mavericks turnover, Curry drove to the basket, made a layup, and was fouled by Kleber who struggled to stay in front of Curry all night long. Seven point lead shrank to one point in 30 seconds. With ten seconds left in the game and five-second remaining on the shot clock, the Mavericks found themselves in familiar territory. Based on their clutch reputation and Curry’s incredible performance, most Mavericks fans thought that Dallas is going to lose another game in the clutch. They saw the same script unfold just four days ago when Devin Booker hit a last-second dagger three.

On the final Mavericks’ possession, the ball was in Dončić’s hands. The Warriors decided to double-team Dončić early to get the ball out of his hands. Dončić, who scored most of his 42 points on hot 7/12 three-point shooting, didn’t revert to hero ball. As soon as Dončić recognized the double-team he found his open teammate Maxi Kleber with a quick bounce pass. Kleber hit the shot and the Mavericks got a much-needed clutch win.

Dončić made the right play, a play that speaks a lot about his leadership which has been openly criticized recently. Dallas lost seven of its previous eight games, and Dončić was under the heat of national media for the first time in his NBA career.

This kind of play didn’t happen for the first time this season. Dončić and Kleber were in a similar situation earlier in the season when Dallas played the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets doubled Dončić and he made the right pass and Kleber made his first big clutch shot of the season.

Teams will dare Maverick’s role players to beat them

We hope that Kleber’s shot is a sign that Maverick’s shooting is finally trending upwards. If Dallas wants to get out of the hole they built for themselves, they can not be the worst three-point shooting team in the NBA. As currently constructed the Mavericks don’t have any other option to play a different style. They need to keep shooting to take advantage of the opportunities Dončić is creating on of his paint attacks and in pick and roll situations.

Opposing defenses still haven’t found a better solution for Dončić’s attacks than to dare his teammates to make open shots. Even without the spacing the Maverick’s offense had last season, and without a good rim rolling option, Dončić is still one of the best pick and roll players in the league. Per Synergy Dončić is very good or excellent in almost any pick and roll scenario.

Source: Synergy data

The only exception is his passes to spot-up shooters, because of Dallas’s poor three-point shooting this season. The Mavericks are currently ranked as “poor” on spot-up shooting, generating 0.975 points per possession. For comparison, last season their 1.061 points per possession on spot-ups were ranked as “excellent”.

Dončić will make the right decision 9 out of 10 times

What makes Dončić so difficult to stop in pick and roll are his decision making and passing ability. Dončić’s ability to pass and his willingness to make the right play is what makes him such a difficult cover for the opposing team. When defenses collapse around him he will make the right pass almost every time.

Here is Synergy data when defenses commit to Dončić in the pick and roll.

Source: Synergy data

What about those traps?

The last option opposing defenses usually resort to when defending Dončić are traps. The idea is to get the ball out of his hands and let other Mavericks beat them. Teams like Toronto and Indiana went to extremes and even tried the ‘box and one’ defense earlier in the season.

But traps are a double-edged sword with Dončić. If they are not aggressive and perfectly executed they enable Dallas to play four on three in the half-court. Synergy data shows teams trapped Dončić 30 times this season with no real success. Dallas scores on above-average clip out when teams trap Dončić.

Source: Synergy data

Dallas implemented traps successfully in their recent game against the Hawks and Trae Young. The Hawks tried to apply the same tactic on Dončić down the stretch in the same game. But their traps were not aggressive enough and the Mavericks made them pay.

Dallas is learning to win as a team in the clutch

Trap situations are another area where Dončić is showing growth in his third season. His decisions are much faster and he is willing to make a simple hockey assist in situations where he would usually try a highlight pass in the past. Dončić willingness to give up the ball, trusting his teammates definitely bodes well for the future.

Mavs are 4-6 in the clutch this season. It’s not optimal, but it’s an upgrade over their last season's poor clutch performance. Dallas has a 115.1 offensive rating (OFFRTG), a huge improvement over 99.2 from last season. Dončić is currently among scoring leaders with 40 points scored in the clutch. His 4.4 clutch points per game put him at the eighth place in the league, one spot above Kevin Durant and three spots above Lebron James.

But Dončić’s most important clutch plays are not the step-back threes or his newly found mid-range mastery. Maverick’s best clutch plays happen when Dončić trusts his teammates and makes the right play.