Have you ever heard NFL analyst, when talking about how to beat Tom Brady or Pat Mahomes, refer to the concept of “rushing four”? The idea being that you have to be so good playing conservatively that you don’t have to take risk–that the defensive line can get to the quarterback without blitzing. Quarterbacks like those mentioned above regularly destroy the blitz, but some teams have so much faith in their defensive principles that they want to win their way and stay aggressive.
When Luka looked as comfortable as ever against the Toronto Raptors, I thought of this concept. The Raptors are coached by a defensive guru who famously played a junior high basketball strategy against Steph Curry in the Finals (The Athletic’s Tim Cato called him a “sicko” after he employed multiple looks against the Mavs). They’ve been built by Masai Ujiri to have line-ups consisting entirely of 6-9 wings, with more long limbs than a national forest, and use them to rack up steals and offensive rebounds. They are top 5 in both of those categories. Why did Luka seem to find the matchup advantageous? The answer can give us insight to how the Mavs seem to often play well against teams like the Raptors which, on paper, seem faster, longer, and stronger. It turns out to be one part schematic, one part mathematical, and multiple parts Luka Doncic.
The Raptors didn’t always help aggressively; they started the game in a kind of soft drop, emphasizing a quick reaction from the dropping big towards. The idea was to impede his lane without playing so aggressively that they invited him to find shooters. Nick Nurse being Nick Nurse, as the game went on more traps and doubles were unleashed. Luka being Luka, he consistently found the open man, which created 4-on-3 situations for the other players. He also made those decisions quickly. Doubles, traps and aggressive defense are not expected to always end in a turnover, but rather to upset the natural flow of an offense–the good shot which the offensive set is meant to end in might not be there due to the forced improvisation. A funny thing about this Maverick’s team is that they are so limited beyond Luka in terms of playmaking that aggressive defense, counter-productively, heightens Luka’s gravity in the sense that other players have built in advantages by the time they get the ball. It’s no mistake that Spencer Dinwiddie led the team in assists in the game, the first time someone besides Luka has done so, and notable considering the Maverick’s league-low number of assisted buckets. Luka finished with his lowest assists total of the year as well, but it was the kind of game for which the term “hockey assist” was created.
I understand that when you are sixth in defensive rating and have multiple years of institutional success, you tend to stick to the idea that you can outplay the opponent on your own terms. I’m also a huge fan of Nick Nurse as a coach and the Raptor’s conceptual vision of roster building. Regardless, the Mavericks have looked their worst offensively when the team doesn’t get open shots from their role players and isolations are the only source of offense. It was a theme of their early struggles, as we noted on this site. I found that last year, the team was also at their best when the ball popped and the best shot was prioritized with endless meticulousness; if all it takes to create an advantage is for Luka to make the right read, that’s an easy scoring process. Luka’s precision also effected the Raptor’s offense; they are first in the league in fast break points. This reminds me of another team which the Mavericks have had a lot of success against and whose style illustrates how Luka’s brain overcomes other team’s force.
The Mavs are 6-2 against the Grizzlies in the Ja Morant era, and their statistical profile shows a team built around the same concepts as the Raptors. They’ve fallen back in these categories so far this season, but last year were first in turnovers forced, fast break points, and rebounds. They’re aggressive on defense as well, as much in attitude as schematics, and notably that game tied with the game against the Raptors for the highest assists total of the season. Those are arguably the two best performances the team has had so far, and I’m not sure it’s a mistake. As I said, the Mavs last in assisted buckets. Much like points from our role players, an extra five assists in a tight game (and they’ve all been tight) is the kind of narrow margin that keeps games from being coin flips. These narrow margins often make Maverick’s games feel like math problems, and against these aggressive teams who seek to leverage their athleticism to win math in their own way, I’ve found our approach is often superior.
In the Luka-era, the Mavericks’ pace and style has frustrated me to no end. I’m the person who runs every possession, even off makes, in NBA2K. But because Luka is Luka, a half court game favors us. By slowing the pace, we create a game of mano-e-mano shot generation against teams who need, not want, to run, while armed with one of the greatest shot generators of all time. The biggest takeaway is the obvious one that as long as Luka is upright, this offense will be good.
It’s an unfortunate truth that other teams might have more talented co-stars–it’s not a slight to Christian Wood and Spencer Dinwiddie that they aren’t All-NBA candidates–but in today’s NBA of spread pick-and-roll and spaced floors, primary creators have never had more of an impact. To bring it back to the football analogy, every Sunday we see teams struggle without a top quarterback, no matter how many great wide receivers and running backs are on the team. By slowing the game down and making it a contest of execution, we leverage having the best quarterback in basketball, and all the pressure in the world appears to make him stronger.