In the regular season, the lineup of Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, and Dorian Finney-Smith played 15 total minutes. This lineup was always thought to be their experimental ace-in-the-hole lineup, going ultra small with their five best players. Teams don’t usually deploy these types of lineups in the regular season, whether it’s to hide them from potential playoff film study or just because regular seasons are long and arduous and it makes sense to stick with a more balanced rotation.
Think of it as a break glass in case of emergency lineup.
In Game 6 Thursday night in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz, the lineup of Doncic, Brunson, Dinwiddie, Bullock, and Finney-Smith played 14 minutes. The Mavericks had an emergency, down 12 points at halftime in a hostile road environment. Coming out of halftime coach Jason Kidd and the Mavericks coaching staff almost immediately pivoted to this lineup, as Dwight Powell exited the game at the 9:16 mark in the third quarter, not even a full three minutes into the second half.
Dallas had nothing in the tank offensively at that point, with a sluggish 41 point showing in the first half. Behind this newfound small ball lineup though, the Mavericks thrived. While that five-man unit was on the floor for those 14 second half minutes, the Mavericks outscored the Jazz by eight. That lineup shot 12-of-22 from the floor (54.5 percent) and 10-of-18 on threes (55.6 percent). The Mavericks outscored the Jazz 36-19 in that third quarter to turn a 12 point halftime deficit into a five point fourth quarter lead. That ended up being the deciding factor in the game, as it was the only quarter the Mavericks won. Dallas spread Utah out as far as possible and cashed in wide open kick out threes.
There are two major reasons why this small ball lineup had so much success: First, with Spencer Dinwiddie and Luka Doncic, the Mavericks went small without going too small. It helps to have two point guards in Dinwiddie at 6’5 and Doncic at 6’7 that are the size of perimeter wings. Brunson’s 6’1 doesn’t hurt, because everyone else on the floor is between 6’5 and 6’7. Ever since the Warriors deployed their “death lineup” back in 2015, the key has always been to go small but still play big. Having big, lengthy players on the perimeter can help make up for a size advantage down low. Combine that with Jazz center Rudy Gobert not being the type of big to punish a mismatch, the Mavericks never really felt all that small anyway, but reaped the rewards of a much better spaced floor.
The second thing that made it work — the Mavericks finally have two reliable three-and-D wings to absorb big minutes. The Mavericks have tried small ball in the past, but the problem has been with Finney-Smith the only playable wing on previous Mavericks rosters, it meant the Mavericks best defender would have to check the opposing team’s center to help with the size disadvantage. That would leave the Mavericks trying to fill the gaps with sub-par wing defenders or risk having a small guard on a bigger scoring wing. With Reggie Bullock, the Mavericks defensive game plan never really shifted: Finney-Smith played Gobert but Bullock was able to chase around Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who Finney-Smith gave fits to all series. Utah only scored 19 points in the third quarter despite the Mavericks small ball run, which could only happen with Bullock giving the Mavericks a second legitimate defensive wing to pair with Finney-Smith. Mitchell shot 1-of-4 in the third quarter, scoring only three points.
No rim defender made things a little tricky and the Jazz did get a couple of buckets in the paint. Despite that, Utah couldn’t consistently score against the unit and Finney-Smith did his best Gobert impressions at times. Again, it really helps that Gobert cannot create offense for himself, as many of these Jazz offensive possessions against the Mavericks small ball don’t even feature any Jazz guards really looking toward Gobert’s way, which negates part of the disadvantage the Mavericks should have going that small.
Watch the clip above again — it showcases how dependent the Mavericks are on both Bullock and Finney-Smith playing outstanding defense. Bullock cuts off Mitchell’s penetration early in the possession and then Finney-Smith successfully helps at the rim after the Jazz manage to get the ball in the paint.
Playing the small ball lineup 14 minutes was a calculated gamble by Kidd that paid off in a big way. It might be harder to do this against Phoenix in the second round, since Suns center DeAndre Ayton is much more capable of punishing smaller defenders. That’s for the future, and right now, the Mavericks have finally won a playoff series. Hopefully for Dallas, that small ball lineup can save a few more playoff emergencies.
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