In the first three games of the series, the Golden State Warriors made life miserable for the Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors were handling Luka Doncic better than both the Jazz and Suns by making life difficult for him at the point of attack and using a hefty dose of zone defense.
In Game 4, the Warriors played a ton of zone defense, but Luka shined a light on how it can be exposed by doing something everyone’s been begging him to do all season long: cut off the ball.
The zone defense works relatively well when Luka passes the ball and remains stagnant outside the 3-point line. It’s too easy to defend the other guys that way. But when Luka puts the ball on the deck and attacks the rim, things get more difficult. Then, throw in some off-ball cuts when his teammates have the ball and he’s basically impossible to guard.
Check out how he got his first field goal in Game 4:
Luka gives up his dribble and passes the ball to Frank Ntilikina — something we are used to seeing. But what he does differently this time is instead of putting the pressure on Frank to create off the dribble, he simply cuts past his defender who had over-committed to the pump fake. Draymond Green is the guy who is supposed to be defending the rim on this play, but he turns his back on Luka assuming he wasn’t going to cut to the rim without the ball in his hands. Luka makes him pay by dashing to the rim and Frank gets an easy assist.
Later, in the fourth quarter, Jalen Brunson had the ball in the corner with the other four guys spaced out around the perimeter. Normally, this is a play that would result in Brunson having to create for himself and it’d be a toss-up whether it would work or not as the shot clock winds down. But check this one out:
In the play above, Luka takes advantage of a sleeping Jordan Poole at the top of the Warriors’ zone and cuts to the middle of the floor where Brunson gives him the ball and Luka pirouettes to the rim.
That right there is what the Mavs need Luka to do. When he’s moving off the ball, he opens up the entire offense and renders the Warriors’ zone defense useless.
Luka is one of the brightest basketball minds in the world, so it’s no surprise he figured this out. He just needs to be locked in enough (and in good enough shape) to cut consistently even if he’s not getting the ball. Cutting hard when the opponent is in a zone is always useful, whether you receive the pass or not.
Another way Luka was able to punish the zone defense was noticing when he had a mismatch at the top. Take a look:
In this play, Luka brings the ball up the floor and immediately notices Jordan Poole at the top of the zone. He immediately turns and starts to back down Poole. He angles his post-up to get away from the help defense and then easily overpowers Poole and gets a layup.
These are little things that turn into big things. Obviously, the big storyline from Game 4 is that the Mavericks are a better team when they make threes (shocker!), but little things like cutting off the ball and finding mismatches end up demoralizing the defense and get your team more open looks as the game progresses.
Is it too late for the Mavs to win this series? Maybe. Time will tell. But Luka’s off-ball movement is something he needs to keep working on as his career progresses. It’s the type of thing that will separate his play from the oft-compared prime James Harden.