1 thought after the Mavericks disappointing 113-111 loss to the Pelicans

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The Dallas Mavericks dropped a close 113-111 game to the New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday night in New Orleans, despite the Pelicans missing three crucial starters.

New Orleans was without its two best players, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, while also missing their best wing player in Herb Jones. Even without those losses, the Pelicans took it to a well-rested and relatively healthy Mavericks squad, although the Mavericks were missing Tim Hardaway Jr. with a sore foot.

Dallas dug itself into a hole early and never really recovered. The Pelicans dropped 40 points in the first quarter, forcing the Mavericks to play the rest of the game uphill. To the Mavericks credit, they got their act together on the defensive end in the second and third quarters, giving themselves a lead headed into the fourth. But the Pelicans just kept coming, the Mavericks offense dried up, and Luka Doncic missed a potential game-winning three as time expired.

Doncic led all scorers with 37 points, in addition to grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing seven assists. The Pelicans were balanced throughout their lineup, with Trey Murphy leading them with 22 points on a perfect 8-of-8 shooting.

Here’s the one thing I noticed:

The Mavericks formula looks great until it doesn’t

Dallas has a simple formula that has worked out well since drafting Luka Doncic — surround him with shooters, at least one other ball handler, and a rim running big, and you’ll get results. The Mavericks have posted a better winning percentage in each consecutive season since Doncic was drafted by leaning hard into this formula. There is not denying it works, especially after the Mavericks Western Conference Finals run earlier in the year.

[Stephen A. Smith voice] HOWEVERwhen the formula doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work. Dallas has constructed a roster for Doncic to amplify and enhance, but not really the other way around. Doncic has been top-3 in usage since his second season in the league and right now leads the league with a 39.3 usage rate. Doncic’s usage has ticked up every season along with the wins, which makes sense, right? Give one of the best basketball players on the planet the ball more and more good things should happen. But basketball is ultimately a team game and while Doncic can dominate it as an individual, the formula the Mavericks have concocted can break down from time to time.

The Mavericks as currently constructed have three players that can find their way into a decent shot on their own, those three being Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Christian Wood. Those three scored 37, 24, and 23 points respectively against the Pelicans — no one else on the Mavericks scored more than eight points. The Pelicans meanwhile, without three starters, had eight players score in double digits, with five scoring 13 or more. Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bullock, JaVale McGee, Josh Green are good players in their own right and some of them have helped the Mavericks win a lot of games, but they are not dynamic players. They have certain roles and jobs to do and they do them well, but if a team takes away a piece of what they do, there isn’t much to counter with. Kleber and Finney-Smith have been canning open threes for enough time now that teams know what they can do. They also know what they can’t do. Through three games it’s felt like the Mavericks role players have less room from three, as defenses are staying home and living with Doncic parading to the rim. So far, with the Mavericks 1-2, that strategy by opposing teams seems to be working. Because if Finney-Smith or Maxi or Reggie don’t have an open three to shoot, what’s the counter? Pass it along until the ball finds itself to one of the three mentioned Mavericks scorers, is usually the answer. In the two fourth quarters Doncic has played in so far this season, his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) is just 36.4.

Teams are just hoping Doncic wears himself out by doing everything through three quarters and watching as his teammates can’t pick up the slack when he’s gassed by the middle of the fourth quarter. That tonight happened against the Pelicans. There was a possession with two minutes left in the fourth with the Mavericks down 111-107, where Doncic was doubled-teamed at the top of the key. He passed it to Dinwiddie, who then swung the ball to Bullock in the corner. The New Orleans defender closed out, but it was just strong enough to keep Bullock from shooting a three. Bullock drove into the open space and awkwardly missed a floater from just outside the paint, a shot that Bullock never shoots. It was exactly what the Pelicans wanted from that defensive possession.

Meanwhile on the other end of the floor, you have a squad of guys with slightly more dynamic talents that can do a little more on their own. It makes sense, when you consider the pedigree of some of the Pelicans players. Trey Murphy was the 17th overall pick in 2021 — he scored 22 points on a perfect 8-of-8 shooting, along with five rebounds. Dyson Daniels was the eighth overall pick of the 2022 draft, and he had 11 points, three rebounds, two assists, three steals, and a block. Jaxson Hayes didn’t do much tonight, but he’s another top 10 pick. And again, this is without two other homegrown first rounders in Zion Williamson and Herb Jones. The Mavericks have some quality players, but they have just two players on their roster that they drafted in the first round. And one of them only played 13 minutes Tuesday night, scoring two points.

Again, when the Mavericks formula works, it’s magical. We saw it on full display in a 41-point beatdown of the Grizzlies. We saw it run through the Western Conference earlier this year, until the Warriors shut them down. It’s a good formula. Unfortunately it occasionally leads to frustrating losses, like this one to a short-handed Pelicans team. Thankfully, the Mavericks have 79 more games to play to make this loss a distant memory.

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