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The Mavs Have a Blueprint for the Future, and It’s Not Just Luka Doncic

Dallas, down 3-0 to Golden State, may have finally run out of magic. But along the way, it has showcased a defensive foundation that could make all the difference next season and beyond.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Some losses tell a team where it stands. Some tell a team where it could go. The games the Mavericks have dropped in these conference finals feel very much like the latter—an emerging team finding its way in real time, on one of the biggest stages in basketball. Even now, just one loss away from getting swept, Dallas coaches and players have celebrated their run for what it is: a starting point.

“This is a lot bigger than just this one game or this one series,” head coach Jason Kidd said after Sunday’s Game 3 loss, building on a theme he’s returned to throughout the playoffs. Really, it’s an arrival.

Dallas is in the conference finals ahead of schedule, elevated by a 23-year-old basketball genius in Luka Doncic. It’s natural to frame any team down 3-0 in a series by what it’s missing—a rim protector or a second star or some critical bit of depth. Yet the Mavericks can be better understood by what they already have: a clear proof of concept.

Even in a series with a margin as lopsided as this one, you can see the bones of a formidable team defense: Dorian Finney-Smith cycling between every conceivable matchup; Reggie Bullock trailing the Warriors’ future Hall of Fame shooters in a perpetual high-speed chase; and Maxi Kleber stepping up to guard on the perimeter while doing what he can to protect the paint. Golden State—a cover unlike any other—has simply pushed good defenders to their limit, and an imperfect roster to its breaking point. But to even reach this stage, the Mavericks had to dispatch the NBA’s top-ranked offense in the first round and its third-ranked offense in the second. In both series, Dallas tightened the screws from one game to the next, slowly shutting down the actions that Utah and Phoenix had come to rely on. It was a remarkable transformation by a team that ranked 22nd on defense last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, with largely the same personnel.

“I would say it starts,” Finney-Smith explained, “from the head of the snake.”

Kidd, in his first season as Dallas’s head coach, managed to turn the Mavs into a top defensive outfit by sheer force of will. Dallas has worked on its defensive principles constantly under Kidd, cycling through the same scrambling sequences, over and over, until they became quick-twitch instinct. Overall, Mavs players point to attention to detail as the biggest difference between this season and last.

“It kinda gets boring sometimes, when you do shootarounds or when you go through it, because it’s always the same, the same, the same,” Kleber said. “But it’s just patterns we have in our head now that you know: This is an automatic rotation for me. That’s big time.”

This isn’t a training camp project or the focus of a practice-heavy homestand; Dallas has brushed up on its core rotations at every opportunity, on the floor and in film, until every player on the roster learned the system chapter and verse. “Then,” Kleber said, “we go into detail specifically on how the [other] team plays, what kind of offensive plays they have, and we analyze those. We just try to adjust our schemes to what they do and give us options in different scenarios.”

It’s easier to suppress Utah’s 3-point shooting when every rotation is ironed out in advance. The prospect of guarding Devin Booker feels more manageable when you’ve deconstructed the exact dribble handoffs Phoenix likes to run for him when it needs a bucket. This is textbook defensive process. “The littlest thing can help get a turnover or a rebound or a steal,” Kidd said. “This group has paid attention. This group has grown.”

Dallas’s defensive approach has been almost blandly conventional—no-frills, fundamental coverage that strays from making anything more difficult than it has to be. In that way, it’s the antithesis of the aggressive, overloading scheme Kidd’s teams ran in Milwaukee. That style was novel, but could be easily exploited by opponents that spread the floor. Dallas is building something more stout. There may be individual matchups to attack or double-teams to play out of (as Steph Curry has in this series), but most games will come down to whether an opposing team has the talent or the precision to beat the Mavericks on the details.

The Warriors have proved that they do. Dallas hasn’t figured out how to keep Curry under wraps without letting a teammate like Andrew Wiggins or Kevon Looney spring loose, which has led to some uncharacteristic lapses. Part of the reason the Warriors seem so elusive, however, is that it’s difficult to pin down what the details of their offense even are. “They play so random and so fast,” Finney-Smith said. “They probably have a couple plays, but the rest of it just be throw the ball to Draymond [Green], and they play out of pin-downs and back screens and back cuts.”

It is notoriously challenging to preempt how Curry will explode onto the scene in those situations, and potentially devastating for any team that fails to. Bullock and Finney-Smith, in particular, have been tasked to try. Yet as they do, they’re also butting up against the physical realities of being the go-to defenders for a team that can’t afford to take them off the floor.

“I always tell him: We can’t be tired, because at least one of us gotta be on the court,” Finney-Smith said.

That’s not an exaggeration. If Bullock and Finney-Smith manage to stay out of foul trouble in this series, they can expect to play upward of 40 minutes—40 minutes of uniquely taxing defense against a Warriors team back in championship form. That’s on top of the fact that they rank first and second, respectively, in total minutes this postseason. There are times, near the end of games, when you can see the toll that takes. It’s impossible to separate the demands on Bullock defensively from his shooting in Game 3, when he went 0-for-10 from the floor.

Finney-Smith, for his part, has logged more total minutes between the regular season and the playoffs than all but two other players. “He never takes a night off,” Kleber said. “He’s just a true fighter.” Yet even that resolve has a cost; Finney-Smith’s workload has reached a point that the Mavericks seem reluctant to play him at the 5, in what had been a series-changing lineup against previous opponents.

The Mavericks can’t rely on their wings beyond Finney-Smith and Bullock, so they’ve been forced to choose between what’s promising and what’s practical. Which only exacerbates a similar strain in the frontcourt. It’s proved difficult for Kidd to play Dwight Powell, the Mavericks’ starting center and designated lob threat, for more than a handful of minutes a game against the Warriors. That has stretched Kleber, one of the first Mavs off the bench, into an even larger role while erasing any margin for error. Kleber is a terrific defensive player, but when he, like Bullock, couldn’t get his long-range shooting on-line in Game 3, Davis Bertans—the Mavericks’ biggest defensive liability—wound up playing 13 minutes for the sake of better spacing.

In diagnosing the play of his team, Kidd will sometimes talk about a player’s need to participate. Not dominate. Just be willing and able to be involved. What Dallas needs now, more than anything, is just a few more players who can participate. Another star would be great. A top-notch rim protector would be outstanding. Yet Luka has this team close enough to a title that even a bit more rotation talent could make a dramatic difference. This isn’t a roster that necessarily needs to be reimagined—just reinforced. Dallas already started that process when it traded Kristaps Porzingis, diversifying with two bench contributors in Bertans and Spencer Dinwiddie. Another role player or two could keep the starters’ minutes out of the 40s, let Finney-Smith explore the full range of his versatility, and position Kleber to make an even bigger impact as a stylistic counter than as the only real option at center.

These are the kinds of limitations Dallas overcame while knocking out the desperate Jazz and upsetting the team with the league’s best record. It’s a triumph of high effort and note-perfect execution. Dallas doesn’t have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate to clean up all its mistakes and prop up wanting lineups. Everyone has to dig in. Everyone has to close out. Even Doncic, whom Kidd challenged publicly during the Suns series, has to compete hard enough to preserve the integrity of the system. The lack of a safety net has forced every defender in the chain to be accountable to one another. “Now when guys is not in their rotations or whatever, we can talk it out before we even get to the film,” Finney-Smith said. Or, in many cases, before they get to the bench during a timeout. Even when things break down against the Warriors, the Mavericks troubleshoot among themselves, searching for what could have caused the rotations they know backward and forward to come undone.

“It’s never one against one,” Kleber said. “We protect each other. And if someone’s beat, someone’s gonna rotate, and then out, out, out. We don’t leave anybody on an island. That’s the no. 1 concept that always stays the same.”

What Dallas proved this season is that it can take good defenders and connect them. It can bring together a group of players that will support one another so fervently from the bench that they’ll rack up nearly $200,000 in fines from the league office. It can trade for veterans playing some of the worst basketball of their careers, and help them tap back into who they were. This is what the Mavericks are building, obscured though it may be by a challenging matchup.

“When you’re in a battle, you’re not thinking about the big picture,” Kidd said. “You’re just thinking about the thing at hand and that’s making a basket or get a stop. But as we reflect this summer, whenever that starts, we’ll understand what we did and how we can get better. And that’s the blessing of this whole thing: We truly believe we belong here.”