Western Conference Finals Preview: Warriors vs. Mavericks

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After a pair of grueling second-round series, the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks are set to square off in the Western Conference Finals. The series starts in San Francisco since the Warriors clinched home-court advantage with a superior regular-season record. However, Dallas beat Golden State in three of their four matchups despite being the lower seed. 

The season series comes with asterisks on both sides, however. Draymond Green missed three of these games due to injury, and Klay Thompson was available for just two. Two games took place before Dallas’ Kristaps Porziņģis trade, which brought in Spencer Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns. This is a matchup few expected, and the lack of prior information makes the prospect of this series particularly exciting. So who will win the Western Conference Finals? This series’ key questions are below, along with our prediction.

Western Conference Finals Preview: Warriors vs. Mavericks

Can Luka Dončić be stopped?

This is the key question of the Western Conference Finals. It could be the question every team in the league has to answer for the next decade. Lebron James held the mantle of “player who can guarantee an elite offense no matter his supporting cast” in his prime, and Luka Dončić has assumed it.

The one weakness in Dončić’s offensive game is shooting. He finished 35.3% from three and 74.4% from the free-throw line on his way to 28.4 points per game (PPG)  this season. Those numbers are in line with his career averages, but the Warriors wouldn’t know. Dončić flambéed Golden State en route to 31.5 PPG in just 34.5 minutes. His averages increased to 38.2% from three and 87.5% from the line while playing like the best player in the NBA

Thompson and Andrew Wiggins will likely be the primary Dončić defenders, with Green likely to get some stints late in close games. Dallas is unafraid to let Dončić attack in isolation and will set screens for him repeatedly. Wiggins and Thompson will need to have the strength to fight for position in the post and get through screens and the mobility to stay in front of Dončić’s drives. If they execute, the reward is chasing to contest a step-back three. Expect Gary Payton II and Andre Iguodala to take turns on Dončić as well if either gets healthy.

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How will the Warriors defend the Mavericks as a team?

Don’t expect the Warriors to give up easy switches against Dončić in the Western Conference Finals. They used a 1-2-2 zone against Memphis and traps to smother Ja Morant in Game 3 of that series. That variety should be the blueprint against Dallas, which will place four shooters around Dončić for most of this series. Dwight Powell will likely get token starting minutes and a little more.

Dallas has rotated Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson around Dončić’s orbit in the playoffs. The two usually share the court when Dončić goes to the bench. Both are adept at taking advantage after a defense has shifted towards Dončić. Dinwiddie and especially Brunson are given free rein to isolate as well and are a complementary duo. Brunson displays incredible footwork in the paint, unafraid to score in the post as a 6’1” guard. Dinwiddie tends to slide into step-back three launched over switching defenders.

Golden State will likely be content to switch actions involving Brunson and Dinwiddie, with Jordan Poole looming as a likely place to attack for Dallas. The Warriors will try to force turnovers, but Dallas had the eighth-fewest giveaways in the regular season. Golden State will need to remain tenacious when rebounding to fuel their transition offense.

Will Stephen Curry’s shooting return?

Stephen Curry shot under 41% from three in a full regular season for the first time in his career.

It was his first time under 40%. And 39%. He converted 38% of his threes and the number has dipped to just under 36% in the playoffs. Curry has been tremendous driving the ball and is earning two more free throws a game, and has set up teammates when not flinging passes out of bounds. He hasn’t done what has made him, him, so far in these playoffs, however.

Curry has shown flashes of the relocation shots and springy step-backs that have defined the NBA since 2015 but never consistently. The Warriors didn’t face the Grizzlies at full strength, and in fairness to Curry, he put together memorable fourth-quarter performances in those games. Winning the Western Conference Finals will require at least one, and probably multiple, vintage Curry performances.

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Can the Mavericks’ defense survive?

No one coaching or playing against Curry cares about his percentages. He’s an emergency whenever he’s in the vicinity of a handoff from Green. Dallas’ eyes will be fixed on Curry every moment the Warriors have the ball. Thompson and Poole will surely require similar attention during the Western Conference Finals as well.

Golden State’s offense has been inconsistent game-to-game and even quarter-to-quarter in the playoffs. That’s a product of their reliance on threes and propensity for turnovers, but they are capable of unmatched brilliance. The Mavericks will need to communicate to navigate Golden State’s usual maze of screens, and split cuts. When they are successful, Dinwiddie, Brunson, and Dončić will all be hunted by Curry and especially Poole. Curry in particular usually hunts bigs on switches and needs to target smaller players instead is an interesting wrinkle.

Dallas could put Reggie Bullock on Curry and Dorian Finney-Smith on Green, and switch actions involving the two. You can anticipate Maxi Kleber will be heavily involved as a helper or switch defender on Curry and Poole. The Mavericks need to consistently force turnovers and box out Looney, Wiggins, and Otto Porter Jr. to win the possession battle.

Final thoughts and prediction

This year’s Western Conference Finals are rife with narrative possibilities. An aging-yet-dynastic giant going against a young, upstart squad. Curry and Dončić as superstars engaging in a battle for supremacy. A rematch of the “We Believe”-era Warriors’ upset of top-seeded Dallas 15 years ago. And a crowning of the first-ever Western Conference Finals MVP.

The on-court dynamics will be even more compelling. The championship pedigree of Steve Kerr and staff will be tested by Dončić’s unique skills. Will Green defend him one-on-one? Porter’s health is an underrated story heading into this series; he may be part of the Warriors’ best closing lineup.

How will Jason Kidd and staff attempt to slow Curry and Golden State’s slew of three-point marksmen? This is the first time out of the first round for this Dallas team; will everyone respond to the pressure? Game 7 against Phoenix was a good omen, but these Warriors are a different beast. This series is incredibly tough to call since these two teams never met as constituted in the regular season. Remembering Golden State has home-court advantage…

The Golden State Warriors will win the Western Conference Finals in seven games.

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