Recently, the Mavericks have been getting closer to playoff mode, especially when it comes to how opponents are playing Luka Dončić.
“They’re going to try to take your best playoff player out,” coach Jason Kidd said recently.
While this may be an unwinnable challenge for defenses, it’s become clear lately that the Mavericks have adapted to the different looks opponents are throwing at Luka.
He will always have his. It’s obvious.
But play from other players has recently proven that the Mavericks are prepared for those times when opponents lock in to take the ball out of Dončić’s hands.
Last week in Cleveland, it was Dorian Finney-Smith who went wild for a career-high 28 points.
Before that, Reggie Bullock had a hot shot game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sunday afternoon, as the Mavericks eliminated Milwaukee, it was Dwight Powell who left as the Bucks defense focused on Luka.
Powell had a season-best 22 points and 13 rebounds. Many of his points came off the pick-and-roll with Dončić because the Bucks were overplaying to take away the 3 corner points that were such a potent weapon for the Mavericks.
“If you’re going to have six guys in double figures, that puts you in a great position to win games,” Kidd said after Sunday’s victory. “You try to take something away and it opens up something else. They were trying to take corner 3 from us. And I thought DP was awesome. Luka decided to feed DP and DP responded.
“When they started to take DP off it opened up the opportunity for corner 3 or lay-up (for Luka) and I think he did a great job of reading the situation. And the guys stayed Communication on both ends was high and that is what we will need moving forward.
And going through it a few hundred times doesn’t hurt either.
Repeated acknowledgment of what opponents are doing works wonders for Powell and his teammates as they feed off Dončić.
Powell said “you could write a book” just from how Luka reads defenses.
“Understanding where the weaknesses in the defense are (is important),” Powell said. “Understanding the flow of the game and how defenses slowly adapt to different things and how he tries to stay ahead of that. He’s a special player. Defenses have to do a whole bunch of different things to try to get him out of his game.”
And, as the playoffs approach, Luka and the Mavericks have learned to deal with many wrinkles the defense might throw at them.
Free to take away: It’s becoming clear that one of the Mavericks’ best allies is their free throw shooting.
Dončić missed the first two they tried on Sunday. The Mavericks then hit 24 of their last 25 tries from the boards, including 23 in a row before Luka split a pair with 15 seconds left and the game in hand.
In their last 11 games, the Mavericks have hit 80% or more from the line six times and hit 81.9% in that streak.
That’s a big increase from their 76.9% completion rate for the season, which is a lukewarm 17.and in the league.
“It’s just a credit to everyone’s work ethic,” said Jalen Brunson, who made both of his free throws on Sunday and hit 43 of his last 46 over the past month. “It’s just focus, trusting everyone to step in and make their free throws. You can’t really think about it too much. Just make sure we trust our mechanics.
Hair scraping: Dončić was on the receiving end of a rather bizarre fourth quarter foul when Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday volleyed at him on a 3-point shot and grazed the right side of Luka’s head.
It looked a bit like a hair fault only.
“He tried to do the two lines on the other side,” Dončić said, referring to the hairstyle he has on the left side of his head. “Jrue said to me after the match: you are welcome for the haircut. But he kinda got me. I think it’s a fault.
The umpires agreed and although the Bucks disputed the appeal, he stood up after the video review.
For Powell, 79 less, 3 to go: Powell is one of a handful of NBA players who have the chance to play all 82 games this season.
If the Mavericks clinch their playoff spot, he understands resting might be the selfless, smart thing to do. But being available is something the veteran is very proud of.
“Being able to be there for my guys and compete is definitely something that was on my mind at the start of the year,” he said. “You want to be there for your guys and play as many games as possible.”
The Mavericks returned from Milwaukee after Sunday afternoon’s game. They’ll rest on Monday, then train at home on Tuesday before heading to Detroit for the final road game of the season.
On whether he’ll try to play all 82, Powell said: “I hope we take care of business, but at the end of the day I like competing and being out there with my guys.”