These 2022 Western Conference Finals is a fun dynamic between two teams on opposite ends of the scale. One on side the Mavericks, who entered the 2022 playoffs with an 11 year playoff victory drought now four wins away from the franchise’s third NBA Finals berth. On the other side, the Warriors, a team very familiar with success, looking to reclaim their status as the league’s best after a humbling couple of seasons filled with rebuilding and injuries.
This could be another star-making series for Luka Doncic, looking to duplicate his idol LeBron James career by making the NBA Finals in his fourth season. It could also be a last gasp by the Warriors dynasty, coming back for a throne it vacated when Kevin Durant left in 2019. Both of these teams have so much to prove for different reasons and are filled with smart, talented basketball players. This should be a terrific series.
Here are the big questions that could determine the winner.
Can the Mavericks shut down another three point shooting team?
While Doncic is rightly grabbing all the headlines after a mighty Game 7 performance against the Suns, it’s the Mavericks defense that has been the difference maker compared to prior seasons. Where Dallas languished as a below-average defensive team in the first three years of the Luka Doncic-era, this season the Mavericks vaulted into the top 10 and they’ve sustained that in the postseason.
In round one it was taking the Utah Jazz, the team that led the league in regular season three point rate according to stats site Cleaning the Glass, and forcing them into awkward floaters and contested midrange looks. Against Phoenix, the Mavericks didn’t have to worry about running the Suns’ shooters off the line, as the Suns preferred the in-between looks the Mavericks are typically OK with allowing. Now the Mavericks are right back to another high-volume three point shooting team, the Warriors, who were just behind the Jazz in three point rate during the regular season.
Dallas did it against Utah, cutting the Jazz’s three point rate from 43.3 percent in the regular season all the way down to 35 percent in the playoffs. A big thing to watch for early on is if the Mavericks experience a little system shock after having played a grueling seven game series against a Suns team that doesn’t shoot many three pointers regardless of what defense they’re going against.
A big factor defensively for the Mavericks will be Reggie Bullock, the sturdy 3-and-D wing they didn’t have a season ago, leaving Dorian Finney-Smith on an island. Bullock and Finney-Smith have been superhuman on defense during these playoffs, racking up big minutes but still holding dangerous scorers like Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul in check. Bullock in particular will be key because he is the Mavericks best bet to stay attached to Steph Curry.
In the regular season, Bullock did about as good a job as any defender could against Curry, staying attached on ball screens and keeping Curry in front of him in 1-on-1 scenarios.
The Mavericks will need a lot more of that to win this series. A big x-factor will be Draymond Green, who wasn’t healthy much at all during the four regular season matchups. Curry struggled a lot without Green’s ability to set screens, pass, and act as an offensive hub. Green and Curry have amazing chemistry in the pick and roll and with dribble handoffs, so Bullock will be working overtime in this series to try and stop Curry this time.
Can anyone stop Luka Doncic?
Believe it or not, Doncic is somewhat slumping in these playoffs compared to his previous two playoff outings. Of course, “slump” is a relative term — Doncic is once again averaging an outrageous line in the playoffs, this time 31 points, 10 rebounds, and a little over six rebounds per game. The “slump” comes from his shooting, where he’s shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from three. Those are somehow his worst shooting percentages in the playoffs, if you can believe it.
Doncic’s Game 7 obliteration against the Suns was some regression to the mean on his shooting, going 6-of-10 from three. That could be bad news for a Warriors team that might not have an easy answer for guarding Doncic. Green immediately springs to mind, but it’s doubtful Golden State will want to risk Green getting in foul trouble and losing some of his fantastic off-ball defense and quarterbacking. Kevon Looney could be a deterrent at the rim for Doncic, but that means the Warriors will have to concede Doncic’s step backs, which buried the Suns in Game 7.
Klay Thompson before his injury was a dynamite perimeter defender, but post-Achilles surgery it might be best if the Warriors avoided that matchup if possible. That leaves two options: Andrew Wiggins and a returning Otto Porter Jr., who will return for Game 1. Wiggins by default will have to spend time on Doncic and his length certainly can come in handy, but the Mavericks could exploit Wiggins tendencies for turning into a space cadet off-the-ball to get the Mavericks offensive machine humming and the Warriors into frantic rotations. Porter is a wild card, past his athletic prime but still a valuable defensive presence. Just who knows how much he has left in the tank right now. The Warriors will greatly miss Gary Payton Jr., a defensive terror out with a fractured elbow suffered early in round two against Memphis.
The Warriors will likely mix up their coverages as best they can, but Doncic just dispatched a Suns team that had multiple, lengthy defenders to throw at him and a mobile big in DeAndre Ayton that has flummoxed him in the past. Doncic conquered that and the Warriors shockingly might be an easier matchup for him. What Golden State does defensively against Doncic could decide the series one way or another.
Which death lineup will win out?
Neither the Mavericks nor the Warriors have had extended minutes with their small-ball lineups this postseason, due to matchups with teams with considerable size. The Mavericks played five out, but still didn’t get super small very often against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz and DeAndre Ayton and the Suns. The Warriors faced similar challenges going against MVP Nikola Jokic then later Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr.
For the first time all playoffs, both teams can get away with small ball. Just as Powell won’t strike fear in the Warriors hearts, the same can be said for the Mavericks and Looney. We could see both teams employ their small ball units for decent stretches. The Mavericks will go with Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, and Dorian Finney-Smith. The Warriors can counter with Steph Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green. Either team can get away with these lineups for more minutes than they could in the previous rounds, so expect to see them more, especially so if we get to crunch time, which shockingly the Mavericks never did against the Suns.
However, Looney did just grab 11 offensive rebounds in the Warriors closeout win against the Grizzlies, so perhaps the Warriors will use that to try and punish the Mavericks five out approach. It’ll be interesting to see which team gets the smallest first and how the other will counter.
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