The Western finals start Wednesday with a fresh face and a few less fresh ones. After a two-year hiatus from the playoffs, the Warriors look to make their sixth Finals appearance with the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green group at the helm. Meanwhile, after not winning a playoff series since the 2011 Finals, the Mavericks are the Cinderella story of the postseason, seeking a championship spot thanks to the prowess of Luka Dončić. Here are three big questions heading into the series.
Who protects Luka Dončić?
Luka finished the Suns season with serial killer-like efficiency and playfulness, and is arguably the toughest cover in the NBA right now. You can’t guard him with just one person because of how he hunts breakers and yet at the same time Golden State needs somebody to throw at Dončić. I’m not sure you can afford Draymond to foul. Andrew Wiggins seems too mild after Luka posted Deandre Ayton in the last series. Klay Thompson is not the same as three years ago. And Jonathan Kuminga may be too young for such a risky task.
Of course, we’ll still see a mix of these options, plus Otto Porter Jr. and maybe even Kevon Looney in some weird lineups. Ultimately, who protects Luka will only matter less than the builds in the lineup. Phoenix had a great defense during the regular season. And guys like Ayton even took some changes well. But in many cases, Luka played Mikal Bridges (DPOY finalist) or chased 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’ 3-point shooting will be just as important as getting Luka to take tough shots.
If it’s worth it, if a team is to be comfortable when things change little, it’s Golden State, which perfected the art form in the middle of the last decade. Phoenix had its ups and downs as Dallas played five outs. The Warriors seem better equipped to handle that style of play, and should at least have more options to make Dallas pay at the other end. Which brings me to my next question…
Can the Warriors play with their three-guard lineup?
After a blistering start to the playoffs, the Steph-Klay-Jordan Poole trio now have a -2.1 net rating in 11 games. It’s shocking after how well that group dismantled the Nuggets’ outmatched defense. The Grizzlies presented a more difficult challenge against that group, and the Mavs may be even more difficult. The Curry-Thompson-Green-Poole-Wiggins lineup still has an 11.0 net rating through nine games, though it was actually -0.8 in the second round. The Dubs fared better with Porter on the floor than either Thompson or Poole. (The Curry-Thompson-Poole-Porter-Green lineup has played just five minutes together.)
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Against Memphis, Looney helped a lot to match the Grizzlies’ volume up front and help with rebounding. Playing smaller will probably help Golden State when Dallas puts Maxi Kleber at the five, but I’m curious to see who makes the floor. Curry and Poole will be mercilessly hounded by Dončić on the switch, making life difficult for off-the-ball players who want to stay close to shooters. Porter played very well against Memphis, but taking him off the floor gives you one less shooter to run down the floor and twist the Dallas defense. And it’s not just Luka that the Dubs have to be worried about. Jalen Brunson can also get in the paint and collapse the defense. Spencer Dinwiddie has perked up after a slow start in the playoffs. The Mavs have multiple players who can drive and kick or finish near the rim. It won’t be as simple as resisting Luka alone.
If there’s one problem Golden State had heading into this postseason, it was not having enough time to figure out what its best lineups were with most of the team healthy. Once again, Steve Kerr will have to answer some questions on the fly.
Will the Warriors target Luka and, if so, how?
Phoenix had success early in the second round by putting Luka in switches and letting Paul and Booker attack him. Dallas responded as the series progressed, either by pre-switching or by having Luka cover up and get the original man back from him. The Warriors, however, have a much more destructive offensive force on the team than Phoenix has on Curry. Just off the ball, he, Thomson and Poole will make Luka operate in ways he didn’t have to against the Suns. Even if he is guarding a non-shooter, the number of screens Dončić will have to navigate will be a whole new beast compared to the Suns series. And if Dallas tries to hide Luka over 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 pro hoops.
The thing is, Kerr doesn’t really like to go hunting. She has said before that it is not her basketball style. It’s not that the Warriors don’t intentionally try to get Luka involved. But they won’t be as ruthless as the Suns. I think that if Kerr ever started to deviate from his preferences, now is the best possible time. Forcing Luka to expend constant energy defensively may be the only way to slow him down offensively at this point in his career. Even if Kerr doesn’t want to play the postseason trade and have Steph go one-on-one, forcing Dončić to navigate space or work through screens is imperative in my opinion. Letting him sit is a win for Dallas, which has now shown that it can at least execute its coverage and recovery scheme. Even though Dončić is a one-man wrecking ball on offense, Curry has shown that he can have a similar impact even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hand. Harnessing that talent to its full potential will be incredibly important if the Warriors want to get to the next round.
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