The Dallas Mavericks defeated the Orlando Magic 114-105, but one particular sequence at the tail end of the first quarter stood out. With 48 seconds on the clock and his team down 42-38, Luka Doncic can clearly be heard imploring his team to move quicker. In that moment, he wanted them to get in position to inbound the ball quicker. The look on his face, however, told us that moment was just a microcosm for the game up to that point, and in a way, the season as a whole. The lack of movement on both ends allowed the Magic to start the game strong and eventually build a double-digit lead. Luka’s brilliance kept Dallas in the game but it was far from the type of performance we would like to see from this team.
The Magic’s defensive game plan was evident from the tip-off. They would allow Luka to play 1-on-1 in the post and stay home on the shooters. Sure, Luka was able to dominate, but it kept his teammates from finding their rhythm and getting into the game. Luka had the ball in the post about a dozen times and not once did a Maverick attempt to cut to the rim or relocate on the perimeter and give Luka an opportunity to hit them with a pass for a wide-open shot. Then, at the end of two possessions, Josh Green and Tim Hardaway Jr. found themselves with the ball in the corner. Not a single teammate moved. You can imagine what came next, two off rhythm three point attempts that never had a chance of falling. The Magic were dictating the pace and style of play and everyone other than Luka was happy to let them do so. The Magic eventually cooled off and it allowed the Mavericks to eventually tie the game. All things considered, the Mavs were lucky to enter halftime tied at 60-60.
The defensive intensity in the third quarter picked up slightly. The Mavericks were able to capitalize on some rookie mistakes by Paulo Banchero and overall inexperience by the Magic. Orlando committed some careless turnovers and the uptick in energy allowed us to beat them to a number of 50-50 balls that resulted in some extra possessions. The points off turnovers resulted in a five point lead at the end of the third.
To start the fourth quarter, the team was shot out of a cannon. A timely rotation by Green turned a wide-open layup for the Magic into a turnover that resulted in a Hardaway three to put Dallas up 93-83. His hot hand helped us navigate a bumpy start to the fourth before Luka and a clutch Dorian Finney-Smith three sealed the deal. It was a result the team badly needed but it’s hard to feel like the team has put its early season struggles behind them.
Western Conference Finals hangover?
Defensively, the principles that allowed the Mavericks to have a top five defense are still there. What isn't there is the effort and hustle needed to execute. The Magic don't have an NBA-caliber point guard at their disposal but were somehow able to create a number of wide-open looks from three and at the rim early in the game. The effort is simply not there. Rotations are a half step too slow. Defenders aren’t fighting through screens the way they were last year.
Dallas is going through the motions when the team attempts to show and then rotate out to the perimeter. The Mavericks are playing like a team that expects to be in the Western Conference Finals again on talent alone. In truth, they are a team that needs to win on the margins. Our overall talent isn’t going to be enough on most nights. A better team would have beaten Dallas tonight.
Dallas needs to improve ball movement
Standing on the perimeter and lazily passing the ball around the perimeter is NOT ball movement. For one, the quality of passes needs to improve. Dallas isn’t hitting shooters in the pocket with paced and accurate passes. Secondly, the Mavericks need to do a better job of relocating before and after passes. Sometimes a step in either direction is enough to turn a decent look into a good look.
Forcing the defense to cover an additional foot can sometimes be the difference between Maxi Kleber feeling comfortable enough to launch a three and playing hot potato with the ball. The Warriors are a great example of players who are constantly repositioning themselves in order to create better looks. For a team that makes up for its lack of talent with execution, it's something the Mavericks need to focus on moving forward.
Energy, energy, energy
Josh Green and Dwight Powell look like they are moving at three times the speed as everyone else. On one play, Powell was able to get to a ball that was going out of bounds and saving a possession for us. On more than one occasion, Green’s energy either led to a turnover or allowed us to capitalize on sloppy play by the Magic. The effort and energy the Mavericks displayed to start the fourth quarter were visibly better than what we saw from the team in the first three quarters.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, our margin of error is not great. Even on a night when Luka went nuclear, the game was still very much in doubt in the fourth quarter. Against the Magic, the Mavericks can escape with a nine point victory. Against the elite, Dallas is probably down double digits at the half and the game gets away during that sloppy third quarter. It’s very on-brand for me to sound down after a victory but the process is sometimes more important than the result. The Mavericks collapsed against the Suns and Thunder for very specific reasons. We saw some of the same flaws tonight and those flaws could determine far we go as a team.
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