In the first three games of the series, the Golden State Warriors made life miserable for the Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors handled Luka Doncic better than the Jazz and Suns by making life difficult for him up front and using a heavy dose of zone defence.
In Game 4, the Warriors played a ton of zone defense, but Luka has shed light on how exposed he can be by doing something everyone has been begging him to do all season long: cut the ball off.
The zone defense works relatively well when Luka passes the ball and remains stagnant outside the 3-point line. It’s too easy to defend other guys like that. But when Luka lands the ball on the deck and attacks the circle, things get complicated. Then throw off-the-ball cuts when teammates have the ball and it’s nearly impossible to keep.
Check out how he got his first field goal in Game 4:
Luka abandons his dribble and passes the ball to Frank Ntilikina – something we’re used to seeing. But what he does differently this time is that instead of putting pressure on Frank to create the dribble, he simply walks past his defender who was too engaged in the pump counterfeit. Draymond Green is the guy who is supposed to defend the rim on this play, but he turns his back on Luka assuming he wasn’t going to cut at the rim without the ball in his hands. Luka makes it pay by rushing over the edge and Frank gets an easy assist.
Later in the fourth quarter, Jalen Brunson had the ball in the corner with the other four guys spaced around the perimeter. Normally this is a game that would require Brunson to create for himself and it would be unclear whether or not it would work when the shot clock ran out. But look at this one:
In the play above, Luka takes advantage of a sleeping Jordan Poole at the top of the Warriors area and cuts in the middle of the floor where Brunson gives him the ball and Luka spins to the edge.
This is what the Mavs need Luka to do. When he gets away from the ball, he opens up the whole attack and makes the Warriors’ zone defense useless.
Luka is one of the brightest basketball minds in the world, so it’s no surprise he got it. He just needs to be locked in enough (and in good enough shape) to cut consistently even if he doesn’t receive the ball. Cutting hard when the opponent is in a zone is always useful whether you receive the pass or not.
Another way Luka was able to punish the zone defense was by noticing when he had a lag at the top. Looked:
In this play, Luka brings the ball back to the ground and immediately notices Jordan Poole at the top of the area. He immediately turns around and starts backing Poole up. He steers his post-up away from the assist defense, then easily overpowers Poole and gets a lay-up.
It’s little things that become big things. Obviously, the big story in Game 4 is that the Mavericks are a better team when they make threes (shock!), but little things like chopping the ball and finding lags end up demoralizing the defense and getting your team. After open eyes as the game progresses.
Is it too late for the Mavs to win this series? Perhaps. Time will tell us. But Luka’s off-ball movement is something he needs to keep working on as his career progresses. It’s the kind of thing that will separate his play from the oft-compared early James Harden.