Warriors – The five biggest questions that could decide the Western Conference finals

Warriors – The five biggest questions that could decide the Western Conference finals post thumbnail image

Luka Doncic, over the weekend, eviscerated the NBA’s best team — and he did it with a smile. Time and again, he read the Phoenix Suns’ defense from the top of the floor, waited for it to commit itself to a course of action, then leveraged that strategy against it. To the Dallas Mavericks and their fans, Doncic is a savior. To the league, he’s a global ambassador. But to those charged with beating him in a seven-game series, he’s an enormous, 6-foot-7 problem.

The Golden State Warriors have experience in encountering such problems — they schemed for LeBron James four times, winning three of those Finals. If James has a natural successor in the league — a player whose combination of strength, skill and sight can dominate games — Doncic is it.

The Warriors have succeeded as their own brand of problem. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green remain the stylistic and spiritual core of a team that won three titles with an innovative offense that maximized both the range of the Splash Brothers from distance with the brilliance of Green as a master facilitator who drops off passes and handoffs to cutters buzzing around the half court in constant motion.

As brilliant as that offense has been, the Warriors might be even more capable on defense, where they pioneered a switch-happy scheme that enabled defenders to keep a body in front of ball handlers and limited defensive rotations. Even with Green missing 36 games this season, the Warriors finished the regular season as the NBA’s No. 2 defense.

The Warriors 3.0 and the Doncic-led Mavericks offer an intriguing matchup that highlights so many of the big themes that have captured the NBA in recent years: positionless basketball, 3-point shooting, defensive versatility, the almighty high ball screen.

Here are five questions that could define these Western Conference finals:

How can the Warriors stop contain survive Luka Doncic?

There is no good coverage scheme against Doncic — just a series of least bad options. With his size, handle and vision, Doncic can simply get wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and find whomever he wants with a laser pass directly into a shooting pocket. Because he exerts so much control over the game, it’s almost impossible to speed him up, though Golden State will certainly try.

NBA teams learned long ago that blitzing Doncic with a double-team is a lost cause. He’ll happily pick up his dribble and make the correct pass — a crosscourt pass for a clean 3, a fill-behind pass to a guard who was lurking, or a lob to his roll man. Deploy the switch against Doncic, and he’ll order his preferred meal off the menu in the person of the least capable defender. Teams have enjoyed a modicum of success in spots by hedging screens for Doncic, but that can put a defense into rapid rotation — treacherous without length, intelligence, speed and some rim protection.

Shading Doncic right on pick-and-rolls might limit his step-back, but he’ll just punish opponents with his playmaking. Shading him left can induce him into shooting the step-back (which some coaches believe is the lesser of all evils), but Doncic will often adjust by calling for the pick-and-rolls on the right side. Oh — he also might be the best post-up threat left in the playoffs. And even when a defense manages to corral Doncic effectively for 18 seconds, he has an uncanny way of either drawing a foul, or undoing all that work with a late pass that exploits the coverage’s one soft spot.

Because there’s no single defensive scheme that can unnerve Doncic for more than a few possessions, the Warriors will likely choose a combination. They’re well-schooled in zone defense, which they’ll almost certainly unfurl at times to keep Doncic off-balanced, especially when they’re playing small. Which brings us to …

Who will see floor time for the Warriors?

Curry, Thompson, Green and Andrew Wiggins shared the court for nine seconds during the regular season, but over the next two weeks, they’ll be the quartet that will determine whether the Warriors enter June with a chance to win their fourth title in eight years. One of the most interesting questions of the Western Conference finals: Which teammate will join them when the stakes are highest against the Mavericks?

In the finale of their series against Memphis, Curry and Green lobbied for Kevon Looney to join them in the starting lineup, as the Grizzlies reinstalled the rugged Steven Adams as their primary center. The instinct paid off, as Looney collected 22 rebounds (11 on the offensive glass) and manned the interior. Those are two of the obvious services offered by Looney, who lends the Warriors’ random offense some structure with his screen-setting and rim-running.

Playing Looney doesn’t come without drawbacks. For one, it means Jordan Poole isn’t on the floor (unless you remove Wiggins, a capable 6-foot-8 defender who can find a shot with a short clock). Poole’s range and shotmaking have been a revelation for the Warriors, especially on nights when Curry and Thompson aren’t humming. He gives an already stretchy team yet another creative option.

But Poole is also the kind of small, young defender Doncic eats on a water cracker. Poole is harder to protect as a half-court defender because he doesn’t have much length and his command of team defensive schemes varies. Coach Mike Brown closed with Looney against the Grizzlies in Game 6, a decision that was only in part an expression of Poole’s poor shooting night. Pairing two small defenders like Curry and Poole likely means committing to a defensive hedge against Doncic — hard to do without a rim protector, like Looney, who can help with those late actions that Doncic can foist at a defense out of nowhere.

The Warriors have a couple of other options — Otto Porter Jr. and Jonathan Kuminga. Porter, who sat out Game 6 of the Memphis series because of soreness in his right foot, is the profile of a player developed in a laboratory for the Warriors — a smart, 6-foot-8 multiskilled player who can shoot from distance, rebound and switch onto bigger or smaller assignments. Early in the season, as Porter turned in one quality performance after another, the Warriors believed he might be a key cog in a closing lineup against the right matchup — a team that invites optimal switchability, and the Mavericks might just be that.

And if Dallas continues to play 5-out basketball with every Maverick spread along the perimeter, a stretched Golden State defense will need some length and speed to cover the full breadth of the court — a job well-suited to Kuminga, who can cover ground and quickly close on shooters.

Every one of these options has its advantages — and each its drawbacks. For the Warriors, the series could be decided by the quality of their cost-benefit analysis.

How will the Mavericks contend with the blender?

Defending Doncic is a bear, but tightening the vise on the Warriors isn’t exactly child’s play. The machinery of the Golden State offense lives in perpetual motion, with Curry and Thompson able to work off Green to find shot attempts in a flash. In transition, few teams have punished opponents for a missed shot attempt turnover more mercilessly than the Warriors. As good as Doncic is at calibrating the game to his preferred tempo, the Warriors have been pressing the accelerator since he was playing in Liga EBA as a 16-year-old.

After posting bottom-15 defensive efficiency numbers during the early days of Doncic’s NBA career, the Mavericks ranked seventh this season in an abrupt turnaround. Their task will start with figuring out how to guard the Warriors’ dizzying carousel of perimeter actions and post splits. For most teams, that proposition translates into turning the Warriors’ scorers into drivers. Generally that means guarding all of those Warriors’ perimeter actions on the high side in an effort to take away 3-point looks. But against the Warriors, it isn’t that simple — nothing ever is. If a defense is too focused on the arc, then those pesky Warriors cutters will get loose and shred the defense.

It’s a delicate balance of being fluent in off-ball coverage calls and understanding every little tendency of the Warriors’ core group. They might play random basketball, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t patterns to recognize.

Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith provide Dallas with its most versatile and dogged perimeter defense. Both have the physical tenacity to get into shooters’ airspace, and that’s vital. Against the Warriors, it’s not just enough to apply pressure on the ball — you must pressure the passer, especially Green. With the exception of Wiggins, the Warriors aren’t typically looking to beat defenders off the dribble; they’re waiting for the slightest opening produced by the slightest mistake — one Dallas can’t afford to make.

Will the Mavericks’ 5-out offense keep it rolling?

As dangerous as Doncic and the Mavericks are with a hard-rolling big man like Dwight Powell on the floor, they’ve unlocked something special with their 5-out unit draped along the perimeter. Lineups featuring Doncic complemented by some combo of Jalen Brunson, Bullock, Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie, Davis Bertans and Maxi Kleber are attempting more than half their shots from 3-point range — and to good effect. Apart from Doncic, who is shooting 34.7% from distance this postseason, each of the others is at 38.9% or better, with Kleber leading the way at 49.2% as the unit’s nominal center.

What the Mavericks have accomplished this postseason is positively Warriors-esque. They’ve surrounded Doncic (6-foot-7) with a platoon of versatile, players — like Dinwiddie (6-5), Bullock (6-7), Finney-Smith (6-7) and Kleber (6-10) — while allowing for some secondary playmaking from a dynamic small guard, like Brunson.

It’s a lot to ask defensively, but these Mavericks units have grown more and more comfortable selling out the perimeter selectively to rotate to the interior when need be, with Kleber providing an impressive brand of help defense. It’s a well-tuned machine that’s getting more confident in its choreography, a confidence against a Golden State attack that will stretch Dallas far more than Phoenix did in the previous round.

The Warriors have demonstrated that they won’t overreact to a torrid streak from a secondary scorer. Early in the Memphis series, they were more than willing to let Jaren Jackson Jr. fire away from the perimeter to preserve their interior defense. They might want to see if Kleber can continue draining half his 3-pointers before they start running a fire drill to stop him.

Can the Warriors stop throwing the ball around the gym?

When asked on Monday whether Steve Kerr had mentioned the Warriors’ unsightly habit of turning the ball over, Curry responded, “He mentions that he’s not going to mention it. There’s a subtle difference.”

It was a witty display of irony from Curry of something that isn’t a laughing matter. In their series over Memphis, the Warriors racked up a turnover rate of 17.7%, which means they coughed up the ball on more than one-sixth of their possessions.

Turnovers have long been a bugaboo of Golden State Warriors basketball, a byproduct of a system that favors ball movement over isolation. Pass-happy offense tends to be more high risk, high reward than simply sniffing out mismatches and playing one-on-one. That trade-off has clearly been a net positive for the Warriors over the past eight seasons, but it has made life harder for them, a condition that will be more than satisfied by having to defend Doncic for more than 80 possessions a night.

Kerr often emphasizes the “possession battle” — shots generated or lost because of offensive rebounds and turnovers. The Warriors have done a solid job in offensive rebounding, but the failures in the latter category must be reined in.

“Keeping it down means we’re getting shots at least, and usually marginal shots for us are good shots and good things come out of that,” Curry said.

This is a key point: The Warriors have compiled a true shooting percentage of 59.2 in the postseason, the best of any remaining team. In their current dynastic era, they led the league in each of the five seasons that led to a Finals appearance. So when the Warriors fail to produce a shot attempt, they stand to lose more opportunity than anyone.

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