The Dallas Mavericks were not expected to be here. They were 15-17 at Christmas, then sitting as the eighth seed at the trade deadline when they shipped Kristaps Porzingis out in a move meant to provide financial flexibility this summer. Even after beating the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, they were not favorites against the 64-win Suns in the second round. Yet here they are.
The Golden State Warriors expected to be here. A full season (mostly) of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, the return of Klay Thompson, plus the emergence of Jordan Poole gave the Warriors the sheen of their championship teams. However, in getting here past the Nuggets and Grizzlies in the playoffs, the Warriors have alternated between a team that looks like it could win a title and one that is sloppy and out of sync. If the Warriors are inconsistent against the Mavericks, then Golden State’s season ends before June.
The Dallas Mavericks vs. the Golden State Warriors have reached the Western Conference Finals in what should be a fascinating chess match. Here are three keys that could decide the series.
1) How do Warriors defend Luka Doncic?
It’s easy to say the Warriors don’t have a good option to defend Doncic, but name a team that does. Doncic is close to unstoppable the way he has played this postseason. However, the Warriors’ best playoff lineup — with Poole, Curry and Thompson in a three-guard set — is undersized and Doncic will hunt those smaller players and feast. This is a rough matchup for the Warriors, especially with Gary Payton II and Andre Iguodala out, at least to start the series.
The Warriors’ historical pattern — dating back to dealing with Rockets’ era James Harden through matchup their playoff matchup with Jokic last month — is to switch everything on pick-and-rolls. That presents challenges. Andrew Wiggins will start with the assignment, but Doncic is patient and will hunt the weakest link, which could make Poole nearly unplayable in crucial moments (expect Doncic and the Mavs to hunt Poole mercilessly).
The Warriors generally will let a star go off and put up a big point total but work to shut down everyone else — Jokic had amazing games in the first round, but no other Nuggets player found their footing. That’s a challenging tactic to pull off against Doncic, and it puts pressure on Jalen Brunson, Maxi Kleber, Spencer Dinwiddie and others to step up and make plays for Dallas.
If Doncic is racking up assists and points, and if the Mavericks role players are going off, Dallas becomes very difficult to beat. Whatever happens, expect Doncic to put up big numbers in this series.
2) Is Dallas’ defense ready for Stephen Curry and the Warriors’ motion?
Dallas’ defense was like a boa constrictor against the Suns, growing tighter and tighter each game until by Game 7 it just strangled Phoenix, cutting off every avenue they trusted to score.
However, the Suns — and the Jazz before them in the first round — are somewhat conventional in their attacks. Golden State is not. The motion and flow of their offense wears teams down. Stephen Curry wears teams down. It’s one thing to close out on a couple of shooters, but the Warriors have more of them better spaced, and the ground a defense needs to cover on closeouts is farther against the Warriors. They wear teams out.
Is Dallas up to the task? Maybe, they held the Warriors to a season-low 82 points in one meeting this season. Also, in meetings this season, the Mavericks didn’t hesitate to trap or blitz Curry, not letting him get off a shot.
When teams put two on the ball, Draymond Green can shine on the short role as a facilitator, and players like Klay Thompson or Poole often get hot. Dallas plays defense on a string probably better than any team still going in the postseason — the Mavericks aren’t stacked with great individual defenders, but they have a lot of solid ones all on the same page and not making mistakes. The viral clip of Jason Kidd exhorting his defense in Game 7 against the Suns is a great example — everyone is focused on Kidd’s words but watch the players execute.
You have to love J.Kidd's intensity!
🔊 Jason Kidd is wired for sound in Game 7. pic.twitter.com/b1C4M1AfpQ
— NBA (@NBA) May 16, 2022
Dallas is still playing this deep in the postseason because they are an elite defense (well, that and Doncic). But can they keep that up for six or seven games against the motion and shooting of the Warriors?
One key to watch this series: Fast break points. Can the grind-it-out, slow-paced Mavericks keep the high-flying Warriors out of transition and easy buckets? Slow the game down enough and Dallas has a real chance to rack up four wins in this series.
3) Whose bench steps up?
Does this become a Jordan Poole series or a Spencer Dinwiddie series?
Who is hot between those two may be the best bellwether of who wins this series.
Poole has become a key cog for these Warriors and the Poole Party three-guard lineups have been unstoppable. But if Doncic hunts Poole off the floor, the Warriors lose a weapon and have to play bigger lineups.
Dinwiddie runs hot and cold, but when he is hot and is a second or third shot creator and scorer (Jalen Brunson is the No. 2 option), the Mavericks’ offense becomes unstoppable.
For all the star power of Curry and Doncic, the team that gets the better bench play will win this series.
Prediction: Mavericks in six. This is a coin flip series, one the Warriors can undoubtedly win, but Golden State has been sloppy and inconsistent in the first two rounds while the Mavericks have had to play at a higher level to get here. I trust that, but if the Warriors from the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Memphis show up for every game and every quarter this series, they will win.