On Friday night those in attendance at the American Airlines Center - along with Maverick fans watching at home - witnessed an incredibly mind-boggling loss. This was the latest in a line of Shakespearian-tragedy caliber losses that are no doubt taking a toll in the locker room as they search for answers. Dropping games comes with the territory but so many of these defeats do not feel like normal additions to the loss column. For a season that is just a bit past the one-quarter mark, the Mavericks have had a full year’s worth of strange, unlikely, and painful losses.
The Mavs are talented and played hard against the Bucks. Their defense throughout most of the game was laudable. The dunks by Spencer Dinwiddie, Josh Green, and Luka Doncic were amazing and conveyed just how much Dallas wanted this one. As Doncic said in his post-game interview, this game was “in their pocket” and it slipped away.
Much of the attention in the post-game interviews was on the obvious. Going a dreadful 10-for-24 at the line will cost you a win just about every time. Even still, something else thematically is pulsing through this team in clutch moments. Players make mistakes. They blow coverages, miss free throws, and come away from advantaged fast breaks with a missed layup going the other way. It happens. Yet when it happens at the most inopportune times and with stinging repetition, my mind starts to drift from player performance to player focus and preparation.
When asked after the game if the plan for the final play can’t possibly be to “get Luka a contested 30-something footer” - Doncic dropped his head exasperated and honestly replied in agreement “yeah, we’ve got work on that”.
As painful as that final sequence is to think about, it is worth it if only to think about what could have happened with a timeout called sooner. The Bucks inbounded with 9 seconds left, right to Lopez and he scores with 7 seconds remaining. Rather than call timeout and run a set play from the sidelines, the Mavericks push the ball up the court. Doncic nearly loses the ball and upon recovering it is trapped by defenders. Kidd then calls timeout to rescue the last 2 seconds on the clock.
The difference between 2 and 7 seconds on an out-of-bounds play is a chasm. With just 2 seconds, it is a catch-and-shoot or catch while already driving scenario. With 7 seconds, there is enough time to pass once, maybe twice. There’s time for an offensive rebound and put back off a miss.
The rationale to hold off on calling the timeout makes more sense with 12 to 15 seconds left but with 7 seconds left most of that time will be expended getting the ball up the court and breaking traps after the halfcourt line is crossed. The timeout not being called right after Lopez scored was a mistake from Kidd.
The quality of the Mavericks' offense out of timeouts has plummeted this year. That may seem unrelated to end-of-game scenarios but they are very much tethered as the function is mostly the same even though the drama is heightened. The Mavericks have exactly one player and one type of shot in do-or-die scenarios. Everyone in the AAC, including every Buck defender, knows the ball is coming into Doncic. With 7 seconds maybe there is time for a ball screen but with 2 seconds, it is just a step back prayer. As great as Doncic is and as many of those shots as he has hit in the past, this aspect of the Mavericks' offense is far too predictable.
On the final play, there appeared to be a miscommunication as to whether there was time for a screen to be set or not and this appeared to clog up the area and left Doncic with no choice but to heave and hope. So, far this season those last-second shots have been needed far too often and they are simply not going down.
When the missed free throws are combined with the blown coverage that freed up Lopez to put Milwaukee ahead and the miscommunication on the final shot, fans are left to wonder why this team seems overwhelmed by clutch moments.
Blown fourth-quarter leads, losses to inferior and shorthanded teams, and the lack of clear communication and creativity in clutch moments are quickly becoming the themes of the season. Jason Kidd’s common refrain is about putting players in a position to be successful. For that to be more than a mantra, the Mavericks need to perform much better in coin-flip games.