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The Mavericks made a great leap, now it’s time to take another

Dallas exceeded all expectations, but some familiar questions remain unanswered.

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

There was a possession in the fourth quarter, as time was dwindling and the Warriors lead would not budge from the 10 to 12 point range it had stuck to for the majority of the period. The Mavericks were scrambling, like they’ve done so many times before, doing their best to get a good shot.

Spencer Dinwiddie brought the ball up the floor, before running a pick and roll with Dorian Finney-Smith. Finney-Smith rolled to the rim and Dinwiddie found him in the paint, with Kevon Looney rotating to meet Finney-Smith at the rim. The ball skipped to the corner, where Jalen Brunson caught it and passed it to Luka Doncic, with the shot clock now teetering below five seconds. Doncic did what he could, driving into a crowded paint before finding Reggie Bullock on the wing. The Warriors frantic defense kept rotating, so Bullock shuffled it to Finney-Smith in the corner. The Mavericks did what they do best, generating a corner three. It’s what they’ve done all playoffs, beating teams from behind the line and with a smart, aggressive defensive game plan. Only this time when Finney-Smith launched, Step Curry had caught up. The result was a blocked shot for Curry and the Warriors maintaining a double-digit lead, one which they’d hold the rest of the way.

That play was emblematic of the series. The Mavericks did what they’ve done all playoffs, but it wasn’t enough. Dallas lost to Golden State 120-110 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, and the Mavericks surprising, at times euphoric season, is over.

It’s a disappointing way to end the season, as once again the Mavericks failed to play a clutch game in a loss, but Dallas went out swinging anyway, doing what they do best. The Mavericks shot 42 three pointers to the Warriors 36. They made 17, although this time the Warriors made 14. The advantages against the Suns and Jazz were still there somewhat, but the Warriors were just too talented, too good to be beaten by it. Whereas the Mavericks prayed on weak links to expose Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Ayton, the Warriors had the horses behind Looney to let Looney rampage the Mavericks front court. Hiding Doncic defensively was much easier against Royce O’Neil and Jae Crowder, but where do you hide on this Warriors team? For as much grief as Andrew Wiggins has gotten in his career, he’s still the talent that made him the first overall pick back in 2014. Except now he’s at times the fourth best player on the floor. Jordan Poole would have been the Mavericks second best player this series, and he came off the Warriors bench. The Warriors 2021 draft pick, Moses Moody, scored seven points in Game 5. The Mavericks 2020 first round pick, Josh Green, scored five points total in the second and third rounds. Dallas stretched the limits of this rotation, of this roster, and ran into a buzz saw that couldn’t be as easily exploited. There’s no shame in that.

However that’s not to say it isn’t a bittersweet pill to swallow. The Mavericks made it to the conference finals for only the fifth time in franchise history, winning a playoff series for the first time since 2011. Yet the box score from this elimination game is eerily similar to those of the previous playoff defeats against the Clippers in 2021 and 2020. Doncic scored 28 points Thursday night — the other four starters combined for 32. Perhaps the biggest difference between this game and Game 7 last season and Game 6 in 2020 is that for the first time in Doncic’s NBA career, he finished a season without having all the answers. The Mavericks took the leap they needed, but now they have to take another to get to where they want to go.

This always happens with Doncic, but it’s a little bizarre to see his 28-point, nine-rebound, six-assist night and consider it one of the worst playoff games he’s ever played, but that’s the bar Doncic has set for himself.

The bleakest it’s ever felt for Doncic in a playoff game happened in the third quarter of this game. Doncic just finished one of his worst halves in the playoffs, a meager 2-for-12 shooting and just six points. Opening the third strong, with the game already on the precipice of disaster, was mandatory for the Mavericks to get back into the game. Instead, less than two minutes into the quarter, Doncic missed a layup he’s probably made over a 1,000 times in his career. He visibly slumped his head, then half-heartedly jogged back as Klay Thompson, the player guarding Doncic, made a wide open three in transition.

Doncic doesn’t even make it back into the television broadcast until right before the ball leaves Thompson’s hand. It was the most demoralizing moment I can remember from a Doncic play in such a high-stakes game. This is the same Doncic who dropped 35 on the Suns in Phoenix in Game 7 earlier in the month. The same Doncic that tortured the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George Clippers for a 46-7-14 line in a Game 7 in 2021. “Giving up” is perhaps too strong a phrase to use, but it was definitely the first time I felt Doncic had let go of the rope in such a massive, important game.

Of course, Luka being Luka, that moment appeared to wake him up. Doncic finished the quarter with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, as he personally engineered a 15-2 run to end the quarter and keep the game within striking distance. Even still, it was a moment that was a reminder that Doncic is still 23-years-old and there are still moments for him to mature and grow. It was also a reminder of the work the Mavericks roster has to do.

Those 32 points from the other four starters stick out like a sore thumb. Doncic finished this postseason with a 39.6 usage rate, an outrageous number that is unsustainable. For context, LeBron James’ highest usage in the playoffs was 37.6, back in 2015 when Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving battled injuries that postseason. What makes it seem crazier is that Doncic put up this high usage while having something he has never had in Dallas — two capable ball handlers. Brunson took a leap this season and Dinwiddie was a revelation. Yet Doncic still shouldered the load to a ridiculous degree. How? Because the Mavericks built a roster to play a certain way, taking spot up threes. Even with Brunson and Dinwiddie, the Mavericks roster is still full of stand still, spot up shooters that can’t attack. It was in stark contrast to the Warriors, who have five guys that can comfortably drive and kick against a closeout. The Mavericks have three.

It’s deceptive when looking at the team stats — the Mavericks finished second among all 16 playoff teams in drives per game. Look a little deeper and you’ll see the cracks: only two players, Doncic and Brunson, averaged 10 or more drives per game. Next was Dinwiddie at 9.7 and then it falls off a cliff — after Dinwiddie’s 9.7, the next highest drives per game is Finney-Smith at 2.7. Then among the top six rotation players, Reggie Bullock is at 0.8 drives per game, Maxi Kleber at 0.5. The Mavericks three point guards do a great job attacking, but what typically happens is Doncic attacks the paint, then either scores or kicks out. Then the ball lands in the hands of one of the three shooters in Bullock, Finney-Smith, or Kleber. If any of those three players don’t have a clean shot, there’s only one option: pass the ball along the perimeter. This usually ends up with Doncic receiving the ball again, this time at the end of the shot clock and having to make something out of nothing. That’s how Doncic’s workload gets as staggeringly high as it currently is. Dallas tried occasionally playing their three point guards together to alleviate this problem, but the defense couldn’t hold without both Finney-Smith and Bullock on the floor and the Mavericks coaching staff seemingly decided it did not want to play extended minutes with Finney-Smith at the five.

Mavericks drives per game in the playoffs

Dallas doesn’t necessarily need another All-Star level offensive creator (although it wouldn’t hurt), but the team really just needs a few more guys that can put the ball on the floor against a closeout and make simple reads, whether that’s scoring or passing the ball out. Otherwise Doncic will always face high usage rates, regardless of how much he gives up the ball.

Defense is a trickier proposition, as most potential improvement falls on Doncic and Brunson continuing to improve. As Brunson nears a big payday with the Mavericks, it does bring up a question perhaps best answered another time: Can your two highest paid players be the level of defenders Doncic and Brunson currently are? Likely not, and it’ll make building around those two a bit harder if there isn’t major improvement, as it’ll require more Bullock and Finney-Smith types, which again leads to the problem of lack of offensive diversity. Dallas also has to find a way to alleviate the defensive pressure on the trio of Bullock, Finney-Smith, and Maxi Kleber.

Either way, those are problems for the Mavericks to solve over the course of the next few months, and even few years. For now, the Mavericks at least have a better idea of what they need to be than at any point in the previous two playoff exits. The Mavericks crossed some needed items off their list — winning a series, taking a championship team’s best shot — a welcome reprieve from the doom and gloom that typically befalls any team that exits the playoffs. The Mavericks no longer feel behind schedule, but that doesn’t mean the work should slow down anytime soon.

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.