Last season, it was accountability. Trust seems to be this season’s focal point for the Dallas Mavericks.
It’s been the glue, helping the team get stops in clutch time, and a word both Luka Dončić, Derrick Jones Jr. and Tim Hardaway Jr. have used over the last week. And it may help explain why they’re up 4-0 to start the season.
Trusting your teammates in clutch is a game changer.
We’re only a couple weeks into the season, so a lot can and will change, but as of now the experience of watching the Mavericks in clutch time has been very different than last year, where they had a whopping 29 clutch losses.
The Dallas Mavericks are 4-0, and all four games have been clutch games on paper. Here, I will focus on the first two games for simplicity’s sake.
In the season opener against the San Antonio Spurs, the team seemed to play together in an encouraging fashion during the last minutes, something that they’ve clearly been working on after the numerous no-plan clutch losses last season.
Three different players made threes during clutch time (Kyrie Irving, Grant Williams and Luka Dončić), for once not leaving Luka to make up something ingenious on the fly to get the win. They even ran a play that included both Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić:
Like this action from Dallas to use Luka and Kyrie together. Takes a little bit but hit Lively and split, Kyrie screens for Luka, curls into a screen for Kyrie. Want to see them mix that more. pic.twitter.com/V3VK0AFkRj— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 26, 2023
In their second game against the Brooklyn Nets, the Mavericks and coaching staff unfortunately reverted back to their old ways of letting Luka figure it out while the rest of the players watch and hand him the ball again and again, hot potato style.
The game in general, and especially the last minutes, were reminiscent of last season’s many clutch losses. The only difference being that Luka actually made all his contested step back threes in clutch this time, where he usually would miss last year.
It was a great display of Luka’s greatness and dominance as he starts the season, but it is in no way a winning recipe for a team that wants to get to the playoffs.
But what changed from last year, making the team better in clutch?
In all honesty, some of this stuff is luck. You win some, the small things go your way, and you lose some when they don’t. Other small things that can make a big difference are the vibes on the floor and having that never-give-up attitude.
There is no doubt that there’s been a clear shift in Luka. After the win against the Memphis Grizzlies (3-0), Luka Dončić gave us some insight into where some of the change may have come from. He talked about trusting Grant Williams as a leader and how that’s made a big difference for him and the team:
“I think the best improvement is having Grant on the team. He says he wants to be All-NBA, and honestly, I think he deserves a spot. His communication of course is a big thing for us and he can guard one through five. He’s our leader on defense, we all follow him on defense.”
Luka Dončić says Grant Williams’ defense and communication is the difference maker for the team after 3-0 start.— Landon Thomas (@sixfivelando) October 31, 2023
“I think the best improvement is having Grant on the team… he can guard one through five, anybody, so he’s our leader on defense and we follow him on defense.” pic.twitter.com/9pFCkvIYjL
Not only has Luka’s attitude clearly improved from last season, the long summer seemed to do him good, both mentally and physically. He had some decisions to make and it seems like he made them. He entered training camp in great shape, in more than one way.
The mental aspect of basketball becomes extremely important in clutch, and tiny details can make or break a game. We may be seeing the result of connection after a long international trip, as well as the benefits of a clear and vocal leader on defense that Luka trusts.
And no matter how good a player is, in these essential moments trust plays a large role. If the guy you count on to bail you out feels sure about getting the support he needs on defense, and mentally, he is free to take care of what he does best - in this instance, be Luka Dončić.
On the Dallas Mavericks, clutch time success has a lot to do with Luka. And when he feels good, plays well, and - I believe - have support around him that he trusts, he is able to carry the load of a superhuman and perform like one. But if that is not in order, it won’t work - as we saw last season.
And at this point, right now during the start of the season, things seem to be in order for Luka. His house is in order, his mental shape, as well as his physical shape, is back to his younger years.
When things are in order, Luka is the best clutch player in the league.
Let’s go back to why clutch time is a different beast. In clutch time, when the scoring margin is within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining in a game, every little detail matters.
Coaching decisions are pivotal at this stage, because the players need more guidance when the pressure is high. They need to know exactly what to do, what play to run or where to go, because most players are hyper aware at this point. It is the fewest, most savant, high IQ players who can freestyle at those moments, making it imperative that the coach takes the lead in this situation.
Everything is at stake at this moment, and when that’s the case, clear guidance and leadership is needed.
In clutch, it is also of the utmost importance that the players on the floor have a lot of experience, particularly having been in the situation before, and preferably playing together.
This is not a time for streaky or nervous players. In clutch, you need experience, high IQ and firm leadership.
On the Mavericks, Maxi Kleber is a player, who often closes out games, and that is exactly why. He knows what to do on defense when it matters, he doesn’t panic and he has played with Luka for a long time. Despite being a step behind to start the season, he has been the best option for the Mavs. This is not a time for players who are known to have issues with decision-making.
It really comes down to who you trust to not screw it up. Who can stay calm and collected.
Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving, Josh Green (assuming that he will stop over helping), Grant Williams and Maxi Kleber (Dereck Lively has proven to be a good option, as well, which is not something you see often in a rookie) is my best clutch time lineup for the Dallas Mavericks at the moment, and it’s more or less who the coaching staff has played too.
If you would like to know why not to go with a streaky player, known to make bad decisions on occasion, here’s a clip of Tim Hardaway Jr. showing why he should never play in clutch.
Just watch THJ... what the hell is he doing?! Can't make mistakes like that in crunch time and win. pic.twitter.com/ySfcP62Nlw— Matej Sportinfo (@MatejSportinfo) October 28, 2023
Something that makes these particular minutes so incredibly important, but also both telling, exposing and extremely interesting, is that it’s a study in how people act under pressure. When everything else is taken away, no fancy layer of protection in the sense of minutes to spare, what’s left? It’s a person and a player in the most vulnerable state possible, where every single thing they may or may not do can cost the whole team the game.
This is a time where wannabes are exposed and often fold. Players can have 50 point games and be considered MVP material, but if you fold or get invisible in clutch, you are not it. We’ve seen it many times.
You can be a superstar when your team is ahead, but taking charge when they’re trailing in clutch is a different beast.
Luka’s clutch time talent and fearlessness under pressure is what made me follow him very early on. What I saw in that teenager was something I had never seen before. I saw someone, who stepped up and became more, as the lights got brighter.
That is not normal. It’s not normal for a 16 or 18 year old to take over in clutch when you’re surrounded by players you look up to. And then to do it time and time again.
It may just be basketball, but at that moment it’s life or death. It’s sink or swim, die or survive. It’s honor or disgrace, pride or humiliation. This is a time when heroes are made, and the biggest one right now plays for the Dallas Mavericks.