Why the Dallas Mavericks still have a puncher’s chance of winning the NBA Finals

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Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks. Kristaps Porzingis & Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics.

Key Highlights:

  • The main reason the Mavericks are down 0-2 isn’t their defense. Rather, it’s their offense.
  • The Mavericks showed two little glimmers of hope in the fourth quarter that they could lean on in Game 3 in order to turn the series around.
  • If what we saw at the end of Game 2 is exploitable and the Mavericks offense can come back to life, they still have a puncher’s chance of winning this series.

Heading into the 2024 NBA Finals, 458 teams have fallen behind 0-2 in a playoff series, and only 34 of those times (7.4%) has the team that has fallen behind that far gone on to emerge from their series victorious (per Land of Basketball).

That statistic makes the 0-2 hole the Dallas Mavericks have fallen in pretty damaging, couple that with the fact that they are trailing to one of the best teams in NBA history (in terms of point differential), and that deficit seems downright insurmountable.

But as any good sports fan knows, it isn’t over until the final whistle blows. And at the end of Game 2, the Mavericks flashed something that maybe, just maybe, could turn the series around.

What Went Wrong?

Through two games, the Mavericks’ defense hasn’t been the unit of fortification it was in the first three rounds, but it also hasn’t been terrible. With a defensive rating of 112.8, the Mavericks have held the Boston Celtics to nearly six points below their regular season offensive rating (118.7).

What’s been missing is their offense. In the first two games, the Mavericks have an offensive rating of 100, which is 17 points below their regular season offensive rating (117.0).

As we talked about after Game 1, the Celtics have done a great job of taking away the pick-and-roll from the Mavericks. By putting Jayson Tatum on one of the Mavericks’ centers, the Celtics have been able to switch pick-and-rolls involving Luka Doncic (who has normally been guarded by Jaylen Brown or Jrue Holiday) and one of the Lob Goblins and derail one of the Mavericks pet plays.

You see, switching pick-and-rolls neutralizes the threat of the roll and eliminates the Mavericks’ prolific lob game. The clip below involves Al Horford switching the ballscreen instead of Tatum, but the point remains the same: by switching the pick-and-roll, the Celtics are throwing a major wrench in Dallas’ offensive flow.

This strategy works for two reasons. First, Tatum is strong enough to guard centers and then switch onto Doncic (yet people still want to call him a chocker). Second, since the Mavericks are almost always playing a below-average shooter (Derrick Jones Jr., P.J. Washington, and Josh Green), the Celtics can station Kristaps Porzingis (or Horford) on one of them so that they can sag off them and pack the paint.

Porzingis is such a big body that, when the Mavericks have tried to use one of those non-shooters in pick-and-roll to avoid Boston’s switching defense, the 7’2 Latvian can put a stamp on most rolls to the rim from shorter attackers. Like this:

The Glimmer Of Hope

That brings us to the main premise of this article. The Mavericks love to run pick-and-roll (tied for fourth in the playoffs in pick-and-roll ball handler frequency, per Unfortunately (for them), the way the Celtics are defending the pick-and-roll has forced them to resort to inefficient isolation ball.

With that said, in the few occasions that the Mavericks have been able to get a Doncic pick-and-roll with a center as his screener who is defended by a Boston big, the team has looked like their old selves.

So, the goal for the Mavericks should be to force the Celtics into more situations where their center is guarding the Mavericks’ center. But how?

As we semi-alluded to earlier, the Celtics are switching all their ballscreen actions not involving Porzingis or Horford. That means that they are switching ballscreens involving Tatum and Derrick White. In this series, White has spent a lot of time on Kyrie Irving. That means when Irving enters a pick-and-roll with Gafford (or Lively), the Celtics are conceding a massive mismatch by letting White guard Gafford/Lively (first clip in the montage below).  

Upon realizing this, the Celtics decided to stop giving that switch. However, denying a switch isn’t easy, and sometimes it leads to high-value shots (second clip). 

(Sidebar #1: When Irving was being guarded by Jrue Holiday, the Mavericks would have White’s man set a screen on him before having Gafford/Lively set one so that Irving could get the White matchup. The Mavericks have to do this because Holiday is actually pretty good at guarding centers.)

After getting burned by the Irving/Gafford pick-and-roll enough, the Celtics eventually moved their center back on to Gafford, which enabled Doncic to get back to his favorite play. Here, it ends up in a measly pull up jumper, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the Mavericks are dictating the matchups again.

(Sidebar #2: Look at Irving take advantage of the Celtics’ new matchups in this sequence here.)

This discovery puts the Celtics in a bit of a bind. If they keep their center on the Mavericks center, it plays right into Doncic’s magical hands. But if they keep the matchups as they originally had them set, Irving and Gafford/Lively can create strong offense by attacking White.

We know what you’re thinking. If this storyline is so meaningful, why did the Mavericks still end up losing? Well, the Celtics started to catch fire from downtown in the fourth quarter (4-for-9 from three), and they were able to create a handful of early offense turnovers (three) that caused the lead to balloon to 14 with under four minutes left.

In response, the Mavericks closed the game with a last-ditch, offensive-first lineup featuring Maxi Kleber at the five. So, we didn’t really get to see how much more the Mavericks could exploit the new setup.

A Sprinkle Of Creativity

The other big thing that caught my eye from the fourth quarter was this well-executed after timeout call from head coach Jason Kidd (one of the best play callers in the business). With Gafford and Lively on the bench, the Celtics went back to having their center guard Jones. The Mavericks countered this with a Spain pick-and-roll that resulted in an easy two points.

Against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Mavericks ran a ton of double drag and Spain pick-and-rolls to add some flavor to their ballscreen-centric attack. However, for some unexplainable reason, they have been doing very little of either of those pick-and-roll types against the Celtics (as noted by Mo Dakhil on Twitter). They are going to need to get back to these actions in Game 3.

If the Mavericks can combine the Celtics new matchups they’ve unlocked with the exotic pick-and-roll variations they have proven themselves adept at carrying out in the past, their offense may be able to rediscover its old groove. Don’t forget, the Mavericks mustered up a 118.3 offensive rating against one of the best defenses of the last decade just one round ago. They are surely capable of doing something similar to the Celtics (a great, but not all-time level defense).

And if they can do that, who knows, maybe Doncic channels his inner Dwyane Wade, bringing the Mavericks back from the dead and guiding them all the way to an NBA title.