You’ll be hard pressed to find back-to-back offensive performances in the playoffs as varied as the Mavericks have just shown in Games 4 and 5 of their conference semifinals matchup with the Phoenix Suns.
In Game 4, Dallas spread the Suns out, attacked DeAndre Ayton ruthlessly, and cashed in on 20 made threes. In Game 5, the Mavericks looked slow, tired, and creaky, making only eight threes and shooting 38 percent from the floor and just under 25 percent from three. Dallas looked like it had figured things out after a Game 4 win and now are one more troubled effort from bowing out of the playoffs entirely after losing Game 5.
The Mavericks won’t have long to diagnose and fix as Game 6 is Thursday. It’s unfortunate that this series has featured zero games after two days of rest, as the Mavericks are stretching the limits of their short playoff rotation. However, the Mavericks simply have to be better on the offensive end if they want this series to continue.
Phoenix was embarrassed in Dallas to a degree, as the Mavericks isolated Ayton guarding a shooter off the ball and punished the Suns almost every time. While Phoenix thought they were helping out their center by avoiding him play above the three point line in direct pick and roll action, the Mavericks smarty countered by making sure Ayton had to close out and rotate, something no big man really wants to do.
In Game 3, the Suns reversed course. Ayton was almost always guarding the Mavericks center, whether it was Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber. There were two strategies depending on who was on the floor: with Powell, Ayton played more traditional drop coverage and with Kleber, Ayton switched more aggressively onto the ball handler.
The Mavericks failed to punish Ayton in either of these scenarios. With Powell, Ayton was able to cover the lob threat while buying enough time for his pick and roll partner slither back into the ball onto the Mavericks ball handler. With Kleber, Ayton wasn’t exposed with slow rotations to a popping Kleber by just switching right away. The Mavericks couldn’t take advantage as Luka Doncic mostly settled for step back threes against Ayton and Doncic shot 2-of-8 from three, continuing his poor shooting from deep in this series. Of Doncic’s eight three point attempts, five were step back threes against the duo of Ayton and Bismack Biyombo — 1-for-3 against Ayton and 0-for-2 against Biyombo. The Suns will certainly prefer Doncic taking contested, difficult threes against their two centers as opposed to them guarding in space and trying to closeout to corner shooters.
Without Ayton on the backline, the Mavericks weren’t able to exploit the Suns by forcing them into constant rotations. The Mavericks offense dried on a vine as they either plodded up the floor for Doncic post ups, or surveyed the floor for too long against an Ayton switch, unable to get into the paint consistently to break things open. The Mavericks attempted 12 shots at the rim Tuesday night compared to 11 midrange attempts. About 15.5 percent of Dallas’ shot attempts were from the midrange, a higher distribution than both Games 3 and 4. The Suns were totally fine with Dallas dribbling around into midrange looks, even if they made them. The Mavericks shot only three corner threes in Game 5, after shooting a combined 24 in Games 3 and 4. The 32 three point shots by Dallas were the lowest in the series for the Mavericks.
Mikal Bridges was particularly great off-ball, forcing the Mavericks defense to hesitate. Watch as Doncic passes out to Brunson as he sees Bridges shading toward him, only for Brunson to pass up the three point look because of Bridges insane length and recovery time.
Kleber ends up making a three due to the Mavericks having good ball movement, but that was rare for most of the night. Phoenix kept this defensive intensity up all night and the Mavericks couldn’t adjust. Finney-Smith only had five three point attempts and Doncic only had two assists, if you needed any more numbers to illustrate just how sluggish and empty the Mavericks offensive performance was.
It’s probably time to focus on Doncic. His game was … weird. He finished with a great stat line (28 points, 11 rebounds) but his shooting for the three straight game was poor: 10-of-23 from the floor and 2-of-8 from three. This is now the third straight game Doncic has posted under 50 percent shooting from the floor and under 30 percent shooting from three. That the Mavericks are 2-1 in those games is remarkable and speaks to the impressive ball movement in Games 3 and 4, as Doncic combined for 20 assists. The Suns did well to adjust their rotation in addition to their tactics — JaVale McGee and Cam Payne were effectively benched for Biyombo and Landry Shamet. McGee and Payne were two players Doncic hunted, and Biyombo and Shamet represented just enough of an upgrade to prevent the Mavericks from getting easy points. The Mavericks can survive Doncic’s poor shooting if the offense is pinging it around the court and making shots, but Game 5 was decidedly not that. Finney-Smith made both of his threes in the first quarter, so after the first quarter, the Mavericks non-Luka starters made zero three pointers. The “role players play better at home” theory was definitely given more evidence. Dallas’ offense too often devolved into Doncic trying to post up 22 feet away from the basket, which led to some very wasteful possessions where someone was shooting a prayer at the shot clock buzzer.
Lots of Mavericks possessions in the first half started by looking like this:
If the Mavericks want Doncic to play bully ball in the post, perhaps moving his post ups closer to the basket could help. From this distance it was difficult for Doncic to get all the way to the rim and without that threat, the Suns were able to stick closer to shooters.
Again, it wasn’t all on Doncic. Brunson had four turnovers in the Mavericks disastorious third quarter, Reggie Bullock missed all of his shots, and Finney-Smith and Kleber didn’t do much after promising first quarters. Being back home in Game 6 should do wonders for Finney-Smith, Bullock, and Kleber’s shooting. The other piece of the puzzle will have to be how to reclaim that expert ball movement if the Suns are going to allow Ayton and Biyombo to guard the ball handler in the pick and roll. Whether that’s a rescreen or a more aggressive attack, the Mavericks have to get the Suns centers moving to get better looks. The Dallas offense has to find an answer, or the season is over.
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