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The NBA play-in race is making the Mavericks better

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Every game is a must-win and the Mavericks are responding to the pressure

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

“You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. So I don’t see the point of that.” — Luka Dončić on the NBA play-in tournament

Luka Dončić hates the idea of the play-in tournament. Mark Cuban thinks the play-in tournament was an enormous mistake. Jalen Brunson described play-in as “Meh” on the recent Lowe Post podcast. Most Mavericks fans didn’t like it when the team was struggling and hovering around the eight spot in the Western Conference. When the Lakers, Mavericks rivals in the play-in race, started their free-fall in the standings Lebron James voiced his displeasure with the play-in tournament.

“Whoever came up with that s**t needs to be fired.” - Lebron James

But as much as Lebron and the Lakers hate it know, and as much as the Mavericks fans will hate it again if Dallas drops to the 7th or 8th spot in the standings, the irony of the play-in race is, that it’s actually good for the Mavericks. Because of the new format, most of the teams are either competing for a playoff spot or trying to improve their position to avoid the play-in tournament. Since April 1st the Mavericks played twenty-two games, and only three of their opponents, Detroit, Houston, and Cleveland were not competing for the playoff spot.

Playoff-like pressure and defenses

During the stretch of the last ten games of the season, it seems that every game is a must-win for the Mavericks. And the Mavericks are not the only ones. Their opponents play with a much higher intensity than they would usually this time of the year.

“Everybody knows what time it is. It’s post-season energy, post-season atmosphere and that post-season grit that you have to be willing to have. Everybody knows it’s crunch time, everybody is trying building up that post-season edge.” - Tim Hardaway Jr. describing the intensity in the recent games.

The intensity and the must-win pressure are not the only things that have been playoff-like in the recent games. Over the stretch of the last 15 games, the Mavericks have seen a higher level of defenses and scheming. The schemes the Mavericks are facing are designed to take the ball out of Dončić’s hands. Mavericks opponents are doubling, trapping, even playing the full-court press against Dončić on a regular basis now. These are tactics usually saved for the playoffs. Per NBA Court Optix Dončić is the most double-teamed player in the league. Opponents double team Dončić on 44.8% of all possessions, and this number increased in April.

Dončić is on top of the list of players who are double-teamed on the highest number of possessions across the league (Source: nbacourtoptix)

In a recent game against Miami, the Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tried almost every trick in his book to pressure Dončić and make other Mavericks beat them. Dončić saw switching, double teams, trapping, full-court press that turned into zone defenses, all within one single game.

Dončić struggled to adjust to aggressive Heat defense early on, with some untimely turnovers. But as the game went on, he adjusted and the Mavericks pulled out an important win. More importantly, Dončić and the Mavericks got a lesson on what will be more to come down the line in the playoffs.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle talked about the different defenses Dončić faces and the progress he’s made in a recent pre-game interview:

“Each year it comes more knowledgeable about the NBA game. Each year he sees more and more different kinds of defenses to try to throw him off. He adjusted beautifully to all kinds of things. From trapping, to box and one, to triangle and two, to different kinds of other zone defenses, physical play to putting quicker guys on him. It’s been the whole gambit.”

The play-in race is giving Mavericks a crash-course in adjusting to playoff defenses on the fly. Earlier in April, the Mavericks played a playoff-like two-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers. Lakers double-teamed or trapped Dončić from the start on almost all ball-screen actions. Dončić was visibly frustrated by the Lakers' length and their aggressive defense.

“First half was a struggle. As expected, they came out with a lot more physicality, a lot more attention to detail defensively and at lot of trapping on Luka [Dončić]. We had some good looks that weren’t going down. At halftime, we talked about a couple of adjustments.” - Rick Carlisle talking about adjustments against the Lakers

During the course of the game both Carlisle and Dončić adjusted and figured out proper counters.

“We weren’t spaced well enough in the first half. In the second half, our spacing was better. Our angles were better. He was just really on point in the second half. The things that we changed made the game a lot easier for him and Dwight [Powell] and Willie [Cauley-Stein] and all of the guys rolling. That was big. He makes his own adjustments out there too. He’s always been great against trapping defenses. I never mind seeing trapping defenses on him because he’s so great at delivering the ball and a lot of times he delivers it for a layup or a dunk. We did a better job in the second half.

The NBA game, as big as the court is, it’s a game of fractional inches with the athleticism, quickness and ability to cover ground NBA players have. We just simply had to do a better job and we had to make more shots. Both of those things happened.”

As Carlisle explained NBA game is about inches, and small tweaks can make a big difference. But these are exactly the kind of adjustments Carlisle and Dončić will need to make in a playoff series. They did against the Lakers and the Mavericks won both games.

Another lesson learned.

Growth and evolution of the key role players

There is another reason why the play-in race is a blessing in disguise for the Mavericks. High-pressure situations, defenses focusing on Dončić, and Kristaps Porzingis's absence made other role players step up. In the playoffs, the game will be much faster, even if possessions are down. Defenses rotate quicker, close-outs are more aggressive. Teams will take away the things players are most comfortable with. Your go-to move is gone. Even the role players will need to have counters. The good news for the Mavericks is, that we are seeing players like Dorian Finney-Smith evolve their game.

Finney-Smith used to be a spot-up shooter, comfortable only in predictable situations. His only role on offense was to fill the corners, make the open three-point shots and crash the offensive glass. Whenever Finney-Smith would dribble most Mavericks fans would get “Stanley from the office dribbling” vibes. Lately, Finney-Smith showed signs of developing into a true two-way player. He is more comfortable at attacking close-outs and driving to the basket. He has shown flashes of playmaking and making simple reads as a ball-handler. Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell developed nice chemistry, where Powell is often a recipient of pass on a cut after Finney-Smith attacks the close-outs on his drives. Heck, Finney-Smith is even pulling up for off-the-dribble threes in transition now.

Finney-Smith is thriving in an increased role, making teams pay when they focus on Dončić. He is averaging 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds over the last 15 games. He is shooting 53 percent from the floor and 46 percent from beyond the arc. The current Mavericks team lacked a true two-way wing player. If Finney-Smith can keep the current level of his play in the playoffs, this changes the long-term make-up of this team.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is another player who thrives when teams zero in on Dončić. With Porzingis sidelined, Hardaway Jr. is the highest variance player on the Mavericks roster. He is the guy that can swing a playoff game with his hot shooting. Hardaway Jr. scored a career-high 42 points against the Detroit Pistons when both Dončić and Porzingis were out and the Mavericks desperately needed a win in the play-in race. He swung another game in the Mavericks' favor when he hit 10 threes against the Miami Heat. Most of his 36 points against the Heat came by attacking the gaps out of Dončić double teams and traps. Hardaway Jr. is averaging 22.4 points and shooting 45 percent from three over the last ten games. It feels like Hardaway Jr. and Finney-Smith are the two players with the best on-court chemistry with Dončić. It’s their third season playing together and it shows on the court.

But probably the most important emergence in this stretch of the play-in race games was that of Dwight Powell. Powell struggled at the beginning of the season after trying to come back from the Achilles injury. He didn’t look explosive and had trouble finishing on lob passes on his signature rim runs. Lack of explosiveness meant he was a step slow, and a lot of his lobs would end with a miss or him getting fouled, instead of finishing. During the last month, Powell looks much more springy and almost as explosive as he was last season. He is back to his usual elite efficiency as a scorer, scoring 137.6 points per 100 shot attempts, which is even better than last season. Powell is scoring 1.358 points per possession as a roll-man in a pick and roll, ranking in the top 88 percentile in the NBA. These are absurd numbers for a player coming back from the most difficult injury in basketball.

Getting Powell back to his old level is a big boost to Carlisle’s offense. With the way, teams are pressuring Dončić, having a great vertical threat back in the arsenal makes life easier for Dončić. Not only is Powell great at attacking the rim, but he can also make the right reads on the short roll. Against traps, the short, quick pass is the best solution, and Powell is the most competent Maverick big man, as a decision-maker and passer on the short roll. The Dallas offense is based on making the most out of advantage in numbers created when teams pressure Dončić. Powell is a system player who knows what to do in those situations.

Powell also helps Dončić against switching, with his early slips and hard rolls to the basket.

“He does a great job at against switching. He does a great job attacking the basket, converting.” - Rick Carlisle on Dwight Powell

Willie Cauley-Stein is the most versatile defensive big on the Mavericks roster, but Powell is a much better player on offense. The two-headed offense-defense center combo gives Carlisle wiggle room to use the best option on any given night based on matchups.

Are Mavericks better prepared for the playoffs compared to last season?

The play-in race where every game matters definitely made the Mavericks step up their game. With Porzingis out it is great to see key role players making the most out of the opportunities and expanded roles. Last season the Mavericks missed Brunson, Powell, and Cauley-Stein going into the playoffs. All three are back and playing well, which gives Carlisle more options. The key question of course is, the state of Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis missed the last six games because of knee soreness. The hope is that Mavericks are sitting him so he can be fully healthy and fresh for the playoffs. Carlisle said the plan for Porzingis is to play in some of the remaining regular-season games. Mavericks played eleven different starting lineups in twenty-one games since April 1st. With Porzingis out, the Mavericks tried different coverages and styles on defense as well. The key role players were up to the challenge and the team looks very comfortable and is peaking at the key time of the season.

We’ll see how the Mavericks will be able to incorporate Porzingis, so he and the team can find some rhythm together going into the playoffs. The challenge for Carlisle is how to do that and not mess up the rhythm of the key role players that stepped up big time during the recent stretch. Hopefully, the different lineups and styles Carlisle tried will add to more versatility in the playoffs. There are four more games remaining in the regular season. At least for now, every game is a must-win to avoid play-in and get a week of rest before the playoffs. Hate it or love it, the play-in race will keep the Mavericks sharp until the last game.