It’s been one star after another for the Warriors in these playoffs. In the first round, they took on two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. In the second round, they faced Ja Morant, this season’s Most Improved Player and an All-Star starter.
Next up? Luka Doncic.
Doncic will be Golden State’s toughest test yet. He missed half of Dallas’ first-round series with Utah with a calf injury, but he’s fresh off of carving up a Suns team that ran away with the best record this season and has been one of the league’s stingiest defenses in each of the last two seasons.
Doncic finished the series averaging 32.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists on 47.6 percent shooting from the field. He went for 33 points in Game 6 and 35 points in Game 7, pushing his career scoring average to 38.3 points per game when facing elimination, the highest in NBA history. The Suns had absolutely no answer for him.
If the Warriors are going to advance to the Finals for the sixth time in eight seasons, they’ll need to have more success against Doncic than the Suns did. Are they up to the task?
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Who on the Warriors will guard Luka Doncic?
According to the matchup data, only two players spent more time matched up with Doncic in the regular season than Andrew Wiggins. The numbers point to Wiggins limiting Doncic’s playmaking, but Doncic was still able to get his for the most part, scoring 33 points on 10-for-22 shooting from the field, 6-for-12 from 3-point range and 7-for-8 from the free-throw line when Wiggins was his primary defender.
Wiggins has proven himself to be one of the better defenders at his position, but he is giving up a decent amount of size to Doncic. While they’re both listed at 6-foot-7, Doncic has over 30 pounds on Wiggins.
After Wiggins, Gary Payton II defended Doncic the most in Golden State’s regular-season meetings with Dallas. The problem? Payton remains out with a fractured elbow and there’s still no word on when he could return. He hasn’t been ruled out for the Western Conference Finals, but Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said him returning is “a long shot.”
So expect Wiggins to be Doncic’s primary defender, but also expect to see the likes of Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson defending him because, well…
Luka Doncic has a masters from LeBron James University
Doncic has been compared to LeBron James time and time again in his career. Doncic is his own player, but one particular thing he shares with James is that he’s a bully.
I mean that sincerely.
Over the last few seasons, Doncic has proven himself to be one of the most complete scorers out of the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t shoot all that much from midrange, but he’s as good as it gets finishing from floater range and at the rim. The Mavericks have wisely paired him with two very different centers to complement those skills: Maxi Kleber, a pick-and-pop machine, and Dwight Powell, an athletic big who rolls and cuts to the basket relentlessly.
MORE: How Doncic defied the odds to become one of the NBA’s best finishers
If teams play Doncic’s pick-and-rolls traditionally, he’s more than likely going to pick it apart with a series of step back 3s, soft floaters, nifty up-and-unders, lobs and needle-threading kickouts. (Oh yeah, Doncic is a 6-foot-7 point guard who is one of the five-best passers in the league. Doubling or trapping him can open up a new world of hurt.) But if they switch, it opens the door for him to go into bully mode.
Like James, Doncic doesn’t shy away from singling weaker defenders out. To no surprise, Defensive Player of the Year finalist Mikal Bridges spent the most time defending Doncic in the Western Conference Semifinals, but Deandre Ayton, Cameron Johnson and Chris Paul each took a pitstop on Doncic island. Doncic targeted the three of them relentlessly, putting them in pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll in an effort to get them switched onto him.
Ayton, Johnson and Paul are three very different players, but Doncic had an answer for each one of them.
Ayton had some success defending Doncic but still struggled to keep up with him one-on-one at times, especially when he had to worry about Doncic’s stepback. (Doncic even posted up Ayton one time in Game 7, because why not?)
Johnson is closer to Doncic’s size than even Wiggins, and yet Doncic put him in the weight room.
Doncic did a bit of both against Paul, using his length to shoot over him on the perimeter and his size to wear him down in the post.
The Warriors could run into the same issues that the Suns did. Not that Curry, Thompson or even Looney are bad defenders, but they’re either at a size, strength, speed or length disadvantage against Doncic. Doncic is unique in that he appears to be as comfortable dancing with bigs on the perimeter as he is bulldozing smaller players in the post.
The Warriors do have some options, though. If Doncic does have his way with Wiggins and is picking and choosing his matchups as he pleases, it’ll be interesting to see if Steve Kerr toys with the idea of having Draymond Green, who was the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year this season before missing extended time with an injury, defend him. That would limit Green’s impact as a help defender because Doncic isn’t someone you can take your eye off of, but it might be worth the payoff.
Could we also see some Jonathan Kuminga? It’s a big series to play a rookie real minutes, but he could be useful in small doses as long as he can stay out of foul trouble.
Ultimately, there isn’t a clear answer anymore to guarding Doncic anymore. The Jazz learned that the hard way in the first round. The Suns did in the second. Are the Warriors next?