The West final starts on Wednesday with a fresh face and some less fresh. After a two-year hiatus from the playoffs, the Warriors are looking to make their sixth appearance in the Finals with the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green group leading the way. Meanwhile, after not winning a playoff series since the 2011 final, the postseason Cinderella story, the Mavericks are looking for a championship spot through Luka Dončić’s prowess. Here are three big questions going into the series.
Who is guarding Luka Dončić?
Luka finished the Suns’ season with serial killer-like efficiency and joy, and he’s arguably the toughest cover in the NBA right now. You can’t guard him with one person because of the way he hunts for switches and yet Golden State has at the same time someone throw to Dončić. I’m not sure you can afford for Draymond to pick up on mistakes. Andrew Wiggins looks too skinny after Luka Deandre Ayton posted in the latest series. Klay Thompson is not the same man from three years ago. And Jonathan Kuminga may be too young for such a high-stakes assignment.
Of course, we’ll still see a combination of these options, plus Otto Porter Jr. and maybe even Kevon Looney in some weird alignments. Ultimately, it will matter less who guards Luka than the setup structures. Phoenix had a great defense during the regular season. And guys like Ayton even held up well on some switches. But in many cases, Luka played with Mikal Bridges (a DPOY finalist) or hunted down lesser defenders like Chris Paul and Devin Booker. It will take a team effort from the Warriors, and figuring out how to limit Dallas’ three-point shooters will be just as important as getting Luka to hit hard shots.
For what it’s worth, if one team should be comfortable with things changing small, it’s Golden State, which perfected the art form midway through the past decade. Phoenix had ups and a lot of downs as Dallas played out five. The Warriors seem better equipped to handle such a playstyle, and should at least have more options for getting Dallas to pay on the other side. Which brings me to my next question…
Can the Warriors play their three-player lineup?
After a scorching start to the playoffs, the Steph-Klay-Jordan Poole trio now have a net score of minus 2.1 in 11 games. It’s shocking how well that group has dismantled the Nuggets’ oversized defenses. The Grizzlies posed more of a challenge against that group, and the Mavs are perhaps even more difficult. The Curry-Thompson-Green-Poole-Wiggins lineup still has a net score of 11.0 in nine games, although it was actually a minus-0.8 in the second round. The Dubs performed better with Porter on the floor than Thompson or Poole. (The Curry-Thompson-Poole-Porter-Green lineup only played together for five minutes.)
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Against Memphis, Looney helped a lot to match the Grizzlies’ mass in the frontcourt and help with rebounding. Playing smaller will probably help Golden State when Dallas puts Maxi Kleber in five, but I’m curious to see who gets the word out. Curry and Poole will both be chased relentlessly by Dončić with switches, making life harder for off-ball players who want to stay close to shooters. Porter played very well against Memphis, but if you take him off the floor, you have one less shooter to run across the floor and crack the defense of Dallas. And it’s not just Luka that the Dubs have to worry about. Jalen Brunson can also come into the picture and cause the defense to collapse. Spencer Dinwiddie has perked up after a slow start to the playoffs. The Mavs have multiple players who can drive and kick or end up at the ring. It won’t be as easy as holding out against Luka alone in isolation.
If there’s a problem with Golden State heading into this postseason, it hasn’t had enough time to figure out the best lineup while most of the team was healthy. Again, Steve Kerr will have to casually answer some questions.
Will the Warriors target Luka, and if so, how?
Phoenix had success early in the second round, putting Luka in substitutions and having Paul and Booker attack him. Dallas responded as the series progressed by either pre-switching or letting Luka hedge and restore to his original man. However, the Warriors have a much more devastating attacking power in the team than Phoenix had in Curry. Off-ball alone, he, Thomson and Poole will have Luka operate in ways he didn’t have to against the Suns. Even if he’s guarding a non-shooter, the number of screens Dončić has to navigate will be a whole new beast compared to the Suns series. And if Dallas tries to hide Luka on Draymond, Golden State could theoretically put him in pick-and-rolls with Steph, and the Curry-Green pick-and-roll remains one of the deadliest moves in modern professional hoops.
The point is, Kerr doesn’t really like hunting. He’s said before that it’s not his basketball style. It’s not that the Warriors aren’t trying to intentionally involve Luka. But they won’t be as ruthless with it as the Suns. I really think that if Kerr were ever to stray from his preferences, now is the best possible time. Forcing Luka to put constant effort into defense may be the only way to slow him off offensively at this point in his career. Even if Kerr doesn’t want to play post-season switchball and let Steph go one-on-one, in my opinion it’s imperative to force Dončić to navigate space or work through screens. Leaving him stationary is a win for Dallas, which has now proven it can at least execute on its hedge-and-recover plan. Although Dončić is a one-man wrecking ball offensively, Curry has proven that he can make a similar impact even when not holding the basketball. Making the most of that talent becomes incredibly important if the Warriors are to advance to the next round.
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