The Dallas Mavericks beat the Denver Nuggets 116-103 on Saturday night in a fun matchup between two offensive-minded teams.
The Mavericks and Nuggets are similar in many ways. Both teams think offense first, second and third, and see defense as optional. Both teams run offenses that are led by a brilliant and unconventional player. Luka Dončić is a 6’7, 230-pound point guard. Nikola Jokić is a 6’11”, 284-pound center, who brings the ball up the court and runs your offense.
Mavericks read and react offense
If you listen to coaches about the modern NBA offense, you’ll hear them talk about the ‘read and react’ offense. Coaches like Rick Carlisle often talk about how the modern offense is less about running complex sets, and more about a set of principles that enable players to react based on how the defense is set. Teams start an offense with a simple early offense set, a pick and roll, or a dribble hand-off. The goal is to get an advantage and get the opposing defense in early rotation. For example, make the defense defend three players with two defenders after a pick and roll rotation.
Now, read and react offense is much easier if you have a player like Dončić or Jokić to do the reads, make decisions and shred defense apart with their passes.
Let’s how both of them did that in their head-to-head matchup on Saturday.
Dončić picking Denver apart out of stack pick and rolls
A great example of a ‘read and react’ offense was at an end of the second quarter yesterday. Dallas ran the same simple play (the stack pick and roll) three consecutive times. Dončić made the Nuggets pay every single time, by reading the defense and reacting based on that.
In a stack pick and roll, the screen is set for the ball handler, then a third player (typically a guard) sets a screen on the player defending the man rolling to the rim. Carlisle and Dončić like running stack pick and rolls as they add confusion and complicate coverages for the defense. Dončić thrives in complex situations and sees plays developing before the opponents do.
Here is the first play that happened yesterday in the second quarter. Denver’s strategy in past matchups was to prevent Dončić attacking the paint. This is why they play less ‘drop coverage’ and have Jokić show high or hedge in the pick and roll. In this play, you can see Jokić hedge, and then Dončić manipulate Will Barton with his eyes as if he’ll pass to Tim Hardaway Jr. Once Barton makes the decision and guards Hardaway (instead of guarding Kristaps Porizingis on a roll to the basket), Dončić finds Porzingis with a great bounce pass.
On the next possession, Dončić runs the same play. Dwight Powell is in for Porzingis, who got the third foul on a previous defensive possession. This time Jokić drops because Powell is not a threat on a pick and pop. Hardaway slips out beyond the three-point line, P.J. Dozier and Jamal Murray scramble to rotate and switch, and Dončić hits a wide-open three. See the second sequence of this play from a different angle. One moment of hesitation is enough for Dončić to make the read, and get an open shot.
Next possession, Dončić calls for the same play for the third time in a row. Jokić tries to hedge again, but Dončić reads and recognizes the coverage early. He rejects the screen and drives right. Dozier rotates off Hardaway, however, and it’s too late as Dončić is already downhill and makes the floater.
Ball movement and zero second offense
Dončić is great in pick and roll, but the Mavericks offense is at its best when the whole team is involved and the ball is moving. It seems that the Mavericks offense is starting to click and went to another level during the last month. After a terrible stretch where Mavericks lineups were a mess because of Covid, Dallas found consistency and much-needed practice time in the two prolonged breaks over the last month. The starting lineup of Dončić, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Porzingis started its twelfth game against Denver and has now played almost 150 minutes together. This lineup is currently the most effective lineup on offense in the league. The Mavericks score 131.6 points per 100 possessions when this lineup is on the floor, which is the most for any lineup that played more than 200 possessions, according to NBA.com.
They seem very comfortable together and we see possessions where the ball is moving on a regular basis.
Here is Dončić putting pressure on the defense with a drive against Dozier. As soon as Paul Millsap reacts and helps in the paint, Dončić makes the read, and it’s a catch-up game for Denver from thereon.
Pay attention to the last Dončić pass in the above clip. The crucial part to keep the defenses in the rotation is to make fast, what some coaches call zero-second decisions.
Here is another example of good Mavericks’ ball-movement and quick decisions. Dončić gets a favorable switch after a pick and roll and isolation on Jokić. Dončić drives and finds Finney-Smith in the corner after the defense collapse around him, then Finney-Smith makes the fast, zero-second pass to Richardson.
Finney-Smith and Richardson have been low-key really good as quick passers. They are both very unselfish players, willing to make the extra pass.
Here is another example where both Richardson and Finney-Smith share the ball. Jokić shows high on a Dončić-Porzingis pick and roll. Murray is caught in no-mans land, not trapping Dončić, nor rotating. Dončić makes the reads and finds Richardson with a quick pass, then both Richardson and Finney-Smith make the quick pass for a good Porzinigs look.
Glimpses of an improved Maverick’s defense
The Nuggets and Jokić run a similar read and react offense. It usually starts with either a Jokić-Murray handoff or a Jokić post-up. At the start of this game, Jokić scored easily when single covered by Porzingis in the post. This forced Dallas to double, and Jokić picked them apart by making the correct reads and passes. Here are a series of Jokič’s read and react possessions against the Mavericks.
The turning point for the Mavericks came late in the second quarter, when Porzingis was able to get a few stops defending Jokić one-on-one in the post. Porzingis and Richardson also made some other good rotations and plays as help defenders. They are both good weakside defenders and it’s a good sign to see them getting better on the defensive and make the defensive plays we expect them to do.
Jokić is really good and he still managed to score in the paint. But the defense was not completely collapsing around him and allowing open threes.
When the offense is clicking and the ball is moving like it was on Saturday, a few stops on defense is all these Mavericks need.