A reminder list is in the works for the Mavericks Game 2 vs. the Warriors

SAN FRANCISCO — Because Luka Dončić is ahead of schedule, so are the Mavericks. They designed their generational superstar just four years ago and within months of his rookie season jettisoned all four starters to build around him.

They gave up their first attempt to find a competitor, Kristaps Porziņģis, at this year’s close. When that triggered what it did — the league’s second-best record after the All-Star Game and that run to the Western Conference Finals — Mavericks decision-makers said they expected the trade to improve them.

And, hey, it did. But maybe not enough, not yet, not against the championship-hardened Golden State Warriors, who have served as the hegemons of this conference and will not relinquish that eminence so easily.

Friday’s 126-117 loss in Game 2 was a harsh reminder that the Mavericks’ roster construction is not yet complete. The Warriors’ methodical erasure of Dallas’ 19-point lead felt a lot like the horror-movie villain reemerging after being deemed defeated. These plots aren’t written with the classic hero’s journey in mind, and these protagonists don’t usually get happy endings.

To win titles in this league, it’s best to be the antagonist: bulletproof to the point of invulnerability, with no weakness or fragility. Dallas wasn’t that on Friday, and now that team is 2-0 down for the second straight game.

After being blown out in Game 1, it was clear the Mavericks couldn’t make that series competitive without hitting open 3s. With small, impactful adjustments — which we’ll get to — they created candid shots and this time knocked them down. Dončić, who is still struggling with persistent shoulder pain, also stepped in on Friday to recover from an illness. “I felt a bit sick last night,” he admitted afterwards. But there’s a reason Dallas has twice disbanded his team to build around him; his 42 points on 12-of-23 shooting with eight assists on two turnovers showed it. Dallas took a 26-10 lead in the opening minutes of the game. That’s where the memories of the progression of this roster began.

This deep into the postseason, Jason Kidd really only trusts six players, not even enough for his truncated playoff rotations. Frank Ntilikina’s ban lasted four minutes as he missed all three of his jumpers. In the second half, Kidd reached further down the bench for Josh Green, who missed his only shot, an open corner 3, in the five minutes he played. Spencer Dinwiddie, himself one of those trusted six, didn’t show why in the 22 minutes he was given. His game was erratic all postseason, but his four points on Friday matched the number of turnovers he committed. Golden State beat Dallas by 11 points during Ntilikina and Green’s stints, which is difficult to recover in a nine-point game.

After another offseason and trade deadline, Dallas may have another two-way wing to fill that void, or perhaps Tim Hardaway Jr. who is back to health. But this series is not played in the future, but right now.

Kidd said his team lost that game defensively and they don’t play well that end if there are no shots. Dončić agreed: “We were fine offensively. We just need to improve a lot on defense.” Still, it’s hard to miss when Golden State playmaker Jordan Poole, who came on as a substitute, scores 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Or when Andrew Wiggins dribbles past closing defenders to find teammates under the rim. Or when the teammate who is most open bottom, Kevon Looney, dynamically passes off the rim and still ends up scoring two points. (His 21 points was a career high.)

These are Golden State’s direct counterparts to Dallas’ Bank. The Warriors even survived their own depth problems – Damion Lee played a cruel five-minute stretch – by including Moses Moody in the rotation in the second half; Moody contributed with a layup and an assist.

The Dallas starters ended with 104 points to Golden State’s 90. That’s a simplified reading of Friday’s result that doesn’t nuance or descriptively enough the ebbs and adjustments of the game. It’s not wrong for the Mavericks to blame their defense for their loss, but this game could have been won in a shootout where the second half had just enough shot power to carry the first half’s blast. Against the Warriors, victories must be forced on the street wherever they can.

Dončić has made his rise seem easy, which in turn has made it difficult for the Mavericks’ team-building approach to keep up. It’s not his fault, not entirely the team’s, certainly not that of this reformed front office that took charge just last summer. And while that trip to the conference finals may have been ahead of Dallas’ schedule, there’s no sympathy for overachievement. You want to be the best team in the west? This series, two games in, has uncovered exactly the reasons why the Mavericks aren’t.

Both teams wanted to avoid this series turning into repeated one-on-one attacks against their star players. It’s understandable: Stephen Curry has blossomed into a great team defender throughout his career and Dončić has made similar strides this regular season, but it’s a wasteful use of their limited energy when they’re constantly defending 25ft from the basket. Although Dallas has preferred to aggressively trap Dončić when Curry drags him into screening promotions, Golden State has opted for Curry to show up faster and recover his man. He should only delay and screw up Dončić’s attacks, but not force the ball out of his hands. Wiggins, who has drawn level with Dončić in the first place, should have time to recover until then.

Early in Game 2, Dallas threw away most of his stacked pick and roll sets — ones where two players adjust screens for the ball handler — and spammed the Dončić pick and roll with Reggie Bullock, Curry’s assignment. He put up 29 screens Friday, the most of any game this season; the second most was the 22 he fielded in Game 1. (Four of the eight games in which he put up the most screens came against Utah; another came against Golden State in the regular season.) Bullock’s quick release makes him the ideal player to move quickly and bomb away before Curry can recover. These actions either took him out for 3 seconds, allowed Dončić to attack Wiggins before resetting, or forced Golden State to help Bullock, creating mixed-up situations that Dallas duly took advantage of. Dallas averaged 1.7 points per possession every time Bullock played for Dončić, an astronomically high number for each halffield action. It was a smart adjustment to the defensive strategy Golden State had effectively established in the opening game of this series.

Golden State responded in the third quarter by switching Curry to Dorian Finney-Smith, a slower shooter who doesn’t panic as much when moving away from the ball. That’s probably why Dončić went from attacking Wiggins to looking for Looney switches. Without Bullock’s interfering gravity, Wiggins more often restored proper defensive position against Dončić. Dallas also suffered from a reversal of shooting in the third, hitting just 2 of 13 from behind the arc.

Dončić, with all his grievances, admitted after the game that he went into half-time exhausted. Although catching Curry on the other end prevented Dončić from being constantly exposed, Wiggins would sometimes drive straight at Dončić himself, cutting off primary actions to call his own number. While Wiggins was shooting 3-for-6 with Dončić as his closest defender – not nearly enough volume to sustain an offense – getting Dončić to expend energy in a variety of ways is useful.

On defense, the Warriors would sometimes let Dallas players cut the lane straight, covering on both sides, using zoning principles and relying on the near-impossibility of lasering passes for layups in the middle of the floor. Here’s an example below, late in the third quarter, although you can find half a dozen more if you comb through the footage. Dončić is such a brilliant passer that he might dare throw this over the top, but Otto Porter Jr. is well positioned to disrupt anything but a perfect pass. The screenshot below ends in a kick-ball injury that Golden State certainly counts as a defensive win.

On the other hand, Dallas fell far too often to the gravity of Curry and Klay Thompson. It’s hard not to respond to her on the edge, knowing that any sliver of space could cause the basketball to tumble the net, but Looney often seemed right on the edge to dunk. “We play defense when we play offense,” Kidd later said, “and we don’t play defense when we can’t score.” Like I said, I’m sure Kidd meant that as a critical assessment of his players. He tells them to be sharper no matter how well they play on the other end.

But you could also read that pragmatically: If the Mavericks’ defense suffers when the ball doesn’t come in, then they should make sure that there aren’t any slumps like in the third quarter. If Dallas has a shot at winning games in this series, it could be the shootout approach. Game 2 was a painfully missed opportunity to steal one this way.

When the Mavericks lost 2-0 to the Phoenix Suns in the last series, it didn’t look like they would win four of their next five games like they do now. It’s the glimmer of hope this team should still feel for this series. But the warriors aren’t the suns, and what went into eliminating Phoenix last turn is irreproducible. Dallas erased Chris Paul’s influence on that series and then denied Devin Booker access to his favorite spots. It challenged role players like Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges to play dribble and passing games while restricting catch-and-shoot three-pointers.

Golden State has already proven its supporting cast can do just that, and Curry’s brilliance comes from having no favorite spots. He shoots wherever space is given to him. The Mavericks realized how to make their previous opponents static; The Warriors’ roster-wide dynamic has so far resulted in their defenses becoming unraveled.

Dallas’ approach could still have won this game. It was not dissimilar to Wednesday’s crushing loss, but making open 3s and relying on Dončić’s brilliance naturally made it more effective. But even then, only these improvements were guaranteed to make this series competitive. Whoever won still came down to the little things and the narrower margins of competition.

Dallas lost Game 2 thanks to these things. And when they’re 2-0 down, it’s difficult to find another way against a tougher opponent that leads to four more wins.

(Photo of Jalen Brunson and Jordan Poole: Kyle Terada/USA Today)

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