Dorian Finney-Smith

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Luka Doncic is playing chess and NBA defenders are stuck on a checkers board

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LOS ANGELES — Luka Doncic’s second NBA season has been a revelation.

It’s not a surprise, everyone knew Doncic was good, he did just win Rookie of the Year last season (and was EuroLeague MVP before that). It’s how good — MVP-level good — and how fast that has been the revelation to fans (as well as a few NBA front offices that passed him up in the draft for “safer” choices).

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had his revelation much earlier.

“The first day he showed up in September [2018] and played pickup,” Carlisle said. “He dominated the pickup games with passing and vision, he wasn’t scoring that much. His size, strength, vision, power, stuff like that, it’s great for a young player.”

That young player was good, but the one filling up the stat sheet this season — and filling up NBA arenas to watch him play — is up another level. Or three. Doncic has been elite, averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.2 assists a game this season, leading a Dallas offense that is the best in the league while putting himself in the middle of the MVP conversation.

And this is not even his ceiling — Doncic is just 20 years old and still improving. Fast.

What led to this season’s leap for Doncic is not one simple thing, but a combination of many elements that led him to be arguably the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the game. Already. Before he can legally buy a drink.

The story of his leap starts in Europe at Real Madrid — Doncic played more than 120 games over a couple of seasons at the highest levels of basketball outside the NBA. Which means he may be just 20 but he’s seen defenses try everything on him to throw him off his game: Blitz, switch, ice, drop, hedge-and-recover, zones, whatever NBA teams try it’s not the first time he’s seen it. Doncic learned how to read and react, how to set his defender up, how to feign he was driving left just to draw a help defender one step to open a passing lane to the right.

“For me, playing basketball is like playing chess,” Doncic said of how teams defend him. “You got to read the game. If they double you, there’s going to be somebody open.”

Doncic shoots off the pick-and-roll 12.2 times a game and the Mavericks score an incredibly efficient 1.12 points per possession on those plays (for comparison, James Harden scores at a 1.02 rate). Doncic has an eFG% of 60.2 as the ball handler.

Doncic has amassed a Swiss Army Knife of moves he can break out, depending on the situation, and he put in the work in the gym to make those moves — those decoys or step-back jumpers — look smooth and effortless. He shortened the stride on his first step this season, making it both more explosive and easier to switch directions quickly. He can do any of this in games without hesitation, and this season added a floater (and, if he’s driving more from the wing, a bank-floater off the window).

“He really put in a great summer of work, in all areas of his game, from conditioning to all the skill areas,” Carlisle said. “In today’s pick-and-roll game, teams play it a lot of ways. We’ll see trapping, you see drop coverage where the big guys keep dropping, keep dropping and force you to make floaters, which are difficult two-point shots — analytically they are the shots you want to force opponents to take — but he’s got better at executing those at the basket. Some of it is just experience, having gone through it a year, but most of it is just hard work.”

Having gone through it a year matters a lot, too. Last season when the Mavericks came to Staples Center and played the Lakers, it was the first time Doncic went up against his idol LeBron James. The 19-year-old asked for a jersey after the game in the hallway.

“Normally, I was never nervous before a game. That game, I was nervous, for sure,” Doncic said after his team snapped LeBron and the Lakers’ 10-game win streak last Sunday. “It was something special for me. Just growing up, I used to watch him a lot…. I still admire him very much.”

Don’t confuse that with Doncic holding back — he dropped a 27-foot stepback on LeBron last Sunday to help seal Dallas’ win.

The teams that give Doncic trouble have multiple long defenders who can be aggressive. Minnesota, with Josh Okogie and Robert Covington, were able to do that Wednesday night and Doncic shot 8-of-22 (but Dallas still won the game). A week ago, the Clippers with their length and quality defenders did the same thing, overloading Doncic’s side of the floor and forcing him into a 4-of-14 shooting night with seven turnovers.

The Lakers tried the same thing with their length, but Doncic and the Mavs adjusted.

“[Doncic] made a really good adjustment in the second quarter, he started moving the ball quickly then getting the ball back, and that put him in some positions that were a little harder to predict for the defense,” Carlisle said. “The second half was more of the same…

“He hit a couple of hellacious shots that only a handful of people in the world can hit,” Carlisle added. Dallas pulled away to beat the Lakers comfortably.

Dallas has become dependant on Doncic and a few of those hellacious shots a game.

Doncic leads the league in touches at 97.7 per game, and he holds the ball an average of 5.59 seconds per touch (to be fair, him bringing the ball up the court skews that time number). Dallas has become dependant upon him to create, and Carlisle adjusted the starting lineup, rounding it out with shooters and finishers who can work off the ball, such as Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dwight Powell, and Dorian Finney-Smith. That group gives Doncic options: a roll man in Powell, a pick-and-pop guy in Porzingis, plus shooters and size everywhere (the shortest starter for Dallas is Hardaway at 6’5”).

Doncic was playing chess against Minnesota — they had taken away what works for him, but it opened up the opportunity for Jalen Brunson to come in off the bench and have room to operate. Brunson had 14 points in the fourth quarter, Doncic seven, and Dallas got the win.

Looking back to June 2018 now it seems laughable: The reason teams passed on Doncic in the draft were questions about how high his ceiling really went. With two seasons of high-level basketball in Europe to watch, teams picked his game apart and decided he wasn’t athletic enough, or that he had come close to maxing out what he could do in the pick-and-roll. Teams became enamored with American players such as Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley Jr. who were seen to have higher ceilings. It’s also always safer for a GM to miss on a high draft pick with American prospect than a European one, there’s less stigma. So Doncic slid down the board a little.

Doncic knows what any good chess player knows: Fortune often favors the bold. Mark Cuban’s Mavericks understood that and made the bold move, trading for Doncic.

The revelation that comes with that boldness is Dallas is going to be a force in the West for years to come. Because they have one of the top five players in the game and put the ball in his hands.

Dorian Finney-Smith slams putback dunk on two Timberwolves (video)

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The Mavericks have the best offensive rating (117.5 on Basketball-Reference) in NBA history.

That’s in part because Dallas is an excellent offensive-rebounding team.

Dorian Finney-Smith took it to the next level in the Mavericks’ win over the Timberwolves yesterday:

Poor Treveon Graham and Jarrett Culver.

Watch Luka Doncic drop 41 on Rockets in 137-123 Mavericks win

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HOUSTON (AP) — Luka Doncic scored 41 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. added a season-high 31 and the Dallas Mavericks never trailed in a 137-123 victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday.

The Mavericks scored 45 points in the first quarter and were up 78-60 at halftime. Hardaway had 19 in the half, Doncic 17 and Kristaps Porzingis 15.

The Mavericks has won five straight, scoring at least 137 in the last three. Houston has lost three straight after winning eight in a row.

The Mavericks got a dunk from Dwight Powell to push the lead to 11 early in the fourth quarter. Houston used a 6-0 run after that shot to get to 110-105 with 9 minutes to go.

Doncic ended the run with a jump shot, but Russell Westbrook added a basket seconds later to cut it to five again.

Dallas was still up by 5 later in the quarter before scoring the next five points, with a dunk from Hardaway, to make it 119-109 midway through period, and Houston didn’t get close again.

James Harden had 32 points for Houston but was just 2 of 15 on 3-pointers in a game where the Rockets made 10 of 44 3-point attempts.

The Mavericks had extended the lead to 16 later in the fourth when Doncic scored six points in a row, capped by a 3-pointer to make it 132-113 with about 3 1/2 minutes to go.

Dallas led by 20 in the third quarter before Houston scored the next seven points, with a 3-pointer from P.J. Tucker, to get within 89-76 with about seven minutes left in the third.

The Mavericks were up by 16 later in the third after two free throws by Dorian Finney-Smith before Tucker made consecutive baskets to cut the lead to 103-91.

Harden added two free throws, but Hardaway made a jump shot seconds later to make it 105-93.

Westbrook made a basket to wrap up the third quarter and cut the lead to 10 entering the fourth.

Report: Mavericks re-signing Dorian Finney-Smith for three years, $12M

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Dallas agreed to terms with five players this offseason – Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, Seth Curry, J.J. Barea.

All five had previously been on the Mavericks.

That won’t change with Dorian Finney-Smith.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is solid value on Finney-Smith, who signed with Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2016. At 6-foot-8, Finney-Smith is a versatile defender who can guard positions 2-4. If his 3-pointer develops, he could turn into a bargain. As is, the Mavericks need a hustling defensive-mind player like him on the wing.

Agreeing to terms with Finney-Smith actually increases Dallas’ effective cap space. The Mavericks are holding Finney-Smith at $1,931,189 against the cap to keep him a restricted free agent. Before signing him, they can pull his qualifying offer and drop his cap hold to $1,620,564. Dallas can then use its other cap room – still about $23 million – then use Finney-Smith’s Bird Rights to exceed the cap to re-sign him.

The big question now: How will the Mavericks spend that remaining $23 million?

James Harden runs 30-point streak to 30 as Rockets beat Mavericks

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden scored 31 points for his 30th straight 30-point game despite dealing with a shoulder injury, leading the Houston Rockets to a 120-104 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night.

Harden, who had eight rebounds and seven assists, seemed to be a bit slowed early by the strained left shoulder that he injured on Saturday against Oklahoma City, making just one of his first seven shots. But he warmed up after that and finished 9 of 23, capped by his sixth 3-pointer with less than a minute left to put him over 30 and keep the streak going. Fans chanted “MVP! MVP!” after he sunk the step back over Dorian Finney-Smith.

He’s now just one game from tying Wilt Chamberlain for the second-longest streak of 30-point games in NBA history. Chamberlain also holds the top 30-point game streak with 65 in a row.

Houston had a 14-point lead entering the fourth quarter and was up 106-90 when Harden entered the game for the first time in the period with about 6 1/2 minutes left. The Mavericks went on a 7-0 run after that, with a 3-pointer from Jalen Brunson, to get within 106-97 with about 3 1/2 minutes remaining.

Harden heated up after that, making two 3-pointers in a 9-3 run to extend the lead to 115-100 with about 2 minutes left and put the game out of reach.

Luka Doncic had 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for the Mavericks, who lost for the first time this season to Houston after winning the first two meetings.

Chris Paul added 17 points with 11 assists, and Gerald Green scored 19 points with five 3-pointers to help Houston to its fourth win in five games.

The Rockets were up by 14 at halftime and Harden scored seven points in the first few minutes of the third quarter to help push the lead to 76-58. Harden later dished to Green for a 3-pointer to make it 85-66.

The Mavericks scored the next eight points, capped by a 3 from Finney-Smith just before the shot clocked expired, to get within 85-74 with 2 minutes left in the third.

Green had a layup after that to end the scoring streak by Dallas and the Rockets had a 92-78 lead at the end of three.