The Mavericks are heading toward another photo finish.
Kyrie Irving brings the ball up the court following a basket from Rockets center Alperen Sengun that makes it a one-possession game with just over five minutes remaining in regulation. Almost as soon as he crosses halfcourt, Irving passes the ball to Luka Doncic on the right wing. He then walks toward Doncic to set a screen.
The goal isn’t for Irving to roll to the basket or pop to the 3-point line. It’s to force a switch. The Rockets give Irving what he’s looking for, switching the bigger Dillon Brooks off of Doncic and the smaller Fred VanVleet onto him.
Everyone on the floor knows what’s coming next. Doncic calmly sizes VanVleet up, turns his back to the basket and uses his 33-pound weight advantage to bulldoze his way into the paint. He spins off of VanVleet as he approaches the basket and kisses a floater over Jabari Smith Jr. off the glass for his 37th point of the night.
Doncic went on to finish with 41 points in another clutch win for Dallas.
It’s a notable play for several reasons. Chief among them: Doncic and Irving pick-and-rolls have the potential to be virtually unstoppable, but it’s not something the Mavericks have leaned on as much as many anticipated. It’s particularly surprising because Irving has plenty of experience in that screen-setting role.
Before stints with the Celtics, Nets and Mavericks, Irving was teammates with LeBron James on the Cavaliers for three seasons. During that time, the two of them formed the most feared pick-and-roll partnership in the league. James would sometimes be the screen-setter, but he was often the ball handler while Irving dragged whoever was defending him into the play. Those pick-and-rolls became a way for them to prey on the opposing team’s weakest defender or wear down their best player.
Irving and James have long been two of the best isolation scorers in the league, but their process has never been the same. If a defender could keep up with Irving’s speed and shiftiness, they almost certainly didn’t have an answer for James’ size and athleticism — and vice versa. It’s what made them such a dynamic pick-and-roll duo.
“You’re not going to put Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in a pick-and-roll, because the switch won’t matter,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “So teams pick the most vulnerable targets.”
Irving and Doncic pose a similar threat. James has been a popular comparison for Doncic throughout his career. Doncic isn’t close to being the same athlete that James is and was, but he’s capable of doing similar things on the court. He might be the best passer currently in the league not named Nikola Jokic. What he lacks in vertical pop around the basket he makes up with touch and craft. He’s become a punishing post-up scorer, capable of putting most defenders in the weight room. And when his step back jumper is falling, he’s totally unguardable.
Give Doncic any sort of space and, as VanVleet and the Rockets learned, he’ll cook.
Even in his 30s, Irving is an elite one-on-one scorer. Only five players scored more points than him in isolation last season and he ranked near the top of the league in efficiency. He doesn’t put the same rim pressure on teams that he used to, but he’s still a wizard with the ball. Few create space like he does and he remains an elite shooter off the dribble.
Irving can shoot off the catch, too. (He’s connected on 46.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, making him one of the most effective spot-up shooters in the league.) Teams have to be careful helping off of him one pass away. They also have to be careful closing out on him too aggressively because he’ll blow right by them.
The Mavericks can run a more traditional pick-and-roll with Irving as the ball handler and Doncic as the screener. It’s best when the roles are reversed because of how manipulative Doncic is with the ball in his hand, but the idea is the same — force a mismatch and get the hell out of Irving’s way.
Doncic talked about guard-guard pick-and-rolls with Irving when Dallas first acquired the eight-time All-Star. When the Mavericks have gone to it, the results have been dynamite. We’ve seen it down the stretch of a few more games this season, but it still feels like they’re leaving some food on their plate. Together, Doncic and Irving have 22 screen assists on the season. Irving had 42 by himself in his final season with the Cavaliers.
Perhaps it’s something the Mavericks are saving for the playoffs when the game slows down and teams have to rely even more on their half-court offense. We saw the heights reverted pick-and-rolls helped James and Irving reach during their time together in Cleveland. It could be the key to the Mavericks reaching their full potential.
Source : ESPN.com