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How the Mavericks made the comeback against the Warriors

Dallas looked dead in the water for multiple stretches, but woke up in the fourth quarter in a stunning victory

SFChronicleSports Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Whenever a team makes a massive comeback, certain plays stick out when it’s over as you try to uncover the moment the tides started to shift. Was it a harmless turnover in the third quarter? A missed wide open three in the fourth? Little plays that you brush off in the moment but seem bigger once the game is finally over.

For me, in the Mavericks stunning 21-point comeback against the Golden State Warriors Sunday evening, that moment was less than five minutes left in the third quarter. The Mavericks trailed the Warriors 79-64. Warriors talented rookie forward Jonathan Kuminga had a wide open dunk after a nice backdoor cut against the Mavericks scattered defense. It would be the easiest attempt he’d have all game. This happened:

A missed dunk when a team is down 15 doesn’t always signal a comeback is brewing, and the Mavericks still trailed by 14 at the end of the frame, but it just felt like the break the team needed, on a night where it seemed like they would get none. Perhaps just as surprising as the Mavericks 21-point comeback was that it was only a 21-point comeback — the Warriors looked primed to make this game a laugher after a disastrous Mavericks first quarter. Yet the team hung in and this missed dunk sort of felt emblematic for the entire game — Golden State outplaying the Mavericks but not shutting the door completely.

The Mavericks were more than happy to walk through that opening. So, besides a missed dunk, how exactly did that happen? Let’s get into it, expanding on some excellent points Ben Zajdel made in his recap.

Spencer Dinwiddie saved the day in more ways than one

Lots of words should and will be typed and spoken about Dinwiddie’s massive fourth quarter, where he scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting and helped the Mavericks complete their comeback and secure the win. All the words will be valid and Dinwiddie deserves every heap of praise he gets — he truly did save the Mavericks. While that praise is worthy, for myself, I keep thinking about Dinwiddie’s first half, not his second.

While the Mavericks appeared on the verge of getting run off the floor in the first half, Dinwiddie was there to keep the Mavericks within reach. The Dallas roster outside of Dinwiddie offered almost nothing — Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, and Dorian Finney-Smith combined for three first half points on a combined 1-of-8 shooting. Doncic had 12 points, but did so on 3-of-10 shooting and a ghastly six first half turnovers. The Warriors only led by 12 at halftime instead of potentially 20 or more due to Dinwiddie’s calming presence whenever he was on the floor.

This steal and score was a nice display of Dinwiddie’s length, which is a crucial differentiator for him compared to other non-Luka Mavericks point guards over the past handful of seasons:

His and-one near the end of the half also displayed his ability to finish contested looks. It’s not ideal for a player to be shooting a contested shot, but no one else on the Mavericks roster can consistently do something like this except for Doncic.

Dinwiddie continued his stellar play into the second half, which we’ll cover a bit later. Again, impressive stuff all around, but I’m still amazed at how Dinwiddie was able to keep things somewhat close in the first half. Coming off the bench in the NBA sounds hard enough — you have to get off your chair cold and check into a game that already has an established flow. To do so when your team is already down double-digits has to make that even harder to mentally get into the game, so all the more kudos to Dinwiddie for doing what he was able to do.

The Mavericks stopped giving the ball away

This one is fairly self-explanatory — the Mavericks had 11 turnovers in the first half. They only had seven in the second, including just three in the fourth quarter. Once the Mavericks made this a half-court game down the stretch, the Warriors couldn’t adjust.

Dallas got some lucky misses for sure, as the Warriors clanked open threes and even Steph Curry joined Kuminga in blowing an easy opportunity at the rim. But the Mavericks defense was much steadier in the second half since they were able to just set up and not have the Warriors charging at them.

Dallas played their five best players at the same time and went super small

Throughout the first half and parts of the third quarter, it became abundantly clear that both Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber just did not have it against the Warriors. The duo struggled to defend the Warriors off-ball movement and their offensive games were a complete wet blanket — Powell had little room near the rim as the Warriors forced him to make plays in 4-on-3 situations, which while he did OK, is not the best use of his skill-set. Kleber followed up a horrid shooting night in Utah with another frigid showing against Golden State.

Conventionally, those two playing poorly just felt like something that Mavericks had to deal with. Either the two would play better in the second half and the Mavericks would win or they’d keep playing bad and the Mavericks would lose. I mean, Dallas has to play at least one big for the entire game, right?

Well, suppose not!

Huge props to Jason Kidd and the Mavericks coaching staff for just abandoning the idea entirely of the Mavericks playing a center. It’s something that makes sense as a bystander watching hundreds of miles away, but doesn’t always translate to games, as coaches have their biases and conventions they hold on to. What a wild feeling it was to see Kidd address his lousy center rotation by just saying “screw it” and play his five best players, regardless of position.

Kleber and Powell played a combined 7.9 seconds in the game, the final 7.9 seconds after the Mavericks had basically sealed the win. That left Kidd playing Davis Bertans and Finney-Smith as the Mavericks centers for the entirety of the fourth quarter and it worked wonderfully.

Our own Matthew Phillips noted in our Slack that the small-ball switch helped neutralize Golden State’s trapping attack against Doncic. The Warriors were fine with Powell or Kleber having to make decisions in space after a Doncic double-team, but with more ball handlers on the floor, trapping Doncic became a dicey proposition. The Warriors relaxed the traps, which made it easier for the Mavericks to hold onto the ball and in addition slow down the Warriors defense. The Mavericks outscored the Warriors 33-13 in the fourth quarter and Dinwiddie in particular took full advantage of the small lineup.

In a complete reversal of how the Mavericks offense closed the game against Utah, Dallas smartly attacked the Warriors weakest links. Instead of Doncic plowing ahead against Rudy Gobert, the Mavericks had whoever was guarding Josh Green screen for the ball handler, leaving the Warriors worst perimeter defender in a bad matchup against Dinwiddie.

Just look at the Warriors defense after Green receives a pass from Dinwiddie — with both Brunson and Bertans in each corner, the Warriors help defenders stay put, fearful of leaving either of those two open.

When Doncic subbed in for Green at the 5:37 mark of the fourth quarter, the small spacing lineup just continued to thrive. Finney-Smith came through with the extra attention as the primary screener and after scoring just three points in the first half he finished the game with 14, including back-to-back buckets (a three pointer and a finish at the rim, both assisted thanks to the wide open spacing) that gave the Mavericks their first lead of the game.

The clutch three raised my eyebrow more than usual, if only because it’s the exact type of shot Finney-Smith will be counted on in the playoffs. The Warriors tried to hide center Kevon Looney and Finney-Smith made them pay.

Who knows how much of what the Mavericks did Sunday night carries on throughout the season, but it was a massive win nonetheless. The Mavericks second half schedule is a bear trap and starting it out 0-2 would have been deflating after how the Mavericks entered the All-Star break.

Perhaps we’ll see even more of Dinwiddie than we expected. Maybe the coaching staff will take a good, long look at the no-center lineups and sprinkle some more time in before the regular season ends. Regardless, the Mavericks got their first win after the All-Star break and it couldn’t have been a more exciting ride.

Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.