The Mavericks did something against the San Antonio Spurs in their season opening win that they rarely did last season — they won a clutch game.
Among the various list of issues for the Mavericks last season, clutch time was perhaps the most aggravating. Dallas played league-leading 55 clutch games last season, losing 29 of them. That’s a lot of clutch losses! For a team that just missed the play-in tournament, flipping just a handful of those 29 losses into wins would have changed the season.
So it was a sight for sore eyes on Tuesday night to see the Mavericks basically do everything they didn’t do in the clutch last season: they made shots and they got stops. Simple stuff right? How they did it was definitely encouraging.
Last season in the clutch, the Mavericks shot 42.1 percent overall and 28.4 percent from three. The team’s molasse of roster stagnation was in full effect, amplified after the Kyrie Irving trade. Doncic and Irving were tasked with doing everything, while standstill spot up shooters clanked their open looks.
On Tuesday the process wasn’t that much different, at least offensively — Doncic still did mostly everything — but the results were infinitely better. Defensively was the biggest difference. The Spurs only attempted six total shots in the near five minutes of clutch play, shooting only 2-of-6 and missing their only three pointer. Dallas had three steals in crunch time, digging down in the paint and holding strong, a far cry from the team that got pushed around near the basket a season ago.
Of those three steals, two came with about a minute and a half left in the game. The first came after the Mavericks clogged the paint with rookie Dereck Lively, who initially blocked a shot from the Spurs Keldon Johnson before Doncic then stripped Jeremy Sochan. That led to an easy Irving fast break bucket.
The very next time down the floor, the Mavericks got another steal and again it involved Lively and Doncic: Doncic stonewalls Johnson on the drive, Lively comes to help, and Johnson loses the ball in the double team.
This is perhaps the biggest potential difference between this Mavericks team and last season’s, with the defense mattering just enough for the elite offense to carry the team to victory. Dallas doesn’t need to be an elite defense this season, just something better than the 23rd ranked defense from a season ago. Just get some timely stops and the turbo charged offense will do the rest. Doncic stepping up his individual defensive effort will be huge for this, and Lively’s presence was felt instantly. It’s hard not to think about last season and what would have happened in the two above scenarios if it was either Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber in Lively’s place. No offense to either of those two players, but you can’t teach 7’1 height with a 7’8 wingspan. It’s just such a difference maker when the game is on the line.
Offensively down the stretch, the Mavericks just followed the formula that has always led to success: Doncic plus shooting plus rim running. Dallas went 5-of-11 during crunch time and here were the five buckets:
- Grant Williams spot up three after Doncic was doubled in the post
- Doncic with an and-one floater in the paint out of a Lively high screen and roll
- Irving making a spot up three out of a Doncic-Lively pick and roll
- Irving making a fast break layup off a steal
- Doncic making a step-back three
That’s it, right? Dallas spaced the floor well in the final five minutes, just look at the floor balance when Doncic scored his and-one with just over two minutes left in the game and the Mavericks trailing by two.
Dallas has three shooters spaced around the Doncic-Lively pick and roll and San Antonio respects all three, while Spurs center Zach Collins is caught in no man’s land near Lively and Doncic. Also notice how the Mavericks set up the pick and roll so Lively rolled into the side that Victor Wembanyama was on, so he was unable to help on the Doncic drive.
The Spurs want to play Wembanyama at the four so he won’t endure the wear and tear most centers do while also using his outrageous wingspan to be a terrifying help defender. It was smart of the Mavericks down the stretch to orient the Doncic-Lively pick and rolls so Doncic wasn’t driving into Wembanyama’s path. This is what set up the clutch Irving three pointer, when the Spurs decided to help on Doncic, leaving one of the best shooters in the league wide open.
I mean, just look at the space here for Irving. This is Kyrie Irving! And the Spurs treated him like Josh Green or Maxi Kleber.
Good offense down the stretch (and really all game), is all about forcing the defense to make difficult decisions. The more pressure points you put on a defense, the tougher it is for the defense to cover over all the threats. With Doncic, Irving, Williams, Green, and Lively, all five players pose some sort of threat — Doncic with his step back three or bulldozing rim presence, Lively’s vertical spacing as a lob threat, Williams and Green as deadly corner shooters, and Irving as the most overqualified second option.
It’s only one game, and a game against a team that won 22 games last season, but it’s still a promising start. The Mavericks will need to be a much improved clutch team this season if they want to return to the playoffs, and the plays made down the stretch against the Spurs show some hope that this season things might be different. If Doncic’s attention to defense is real, if Lively can maintain, the Mavericks will be a difficult team to take down in fourth quarters. Time will tell.
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