The Luka Rules
How Andrew Wiggins and the Warriors did the impossible
BY DAVID THORPE
It wasn’t supposed to be this easy….
The Golden State Warriors had nearly a week to devise a scheme to make things hard for Luka Dončić, yet he would have them in checkmate just 250 seconds into the first game.
Barely four minutes into Game 1 between the Warriors and Dallas Mavericks, Luka Dončić gingerly dribbles his way into an and-1. In a game built for speed, Dončić takes his sweet time getting to the left side of the rim; his primary defender, Andrew Wiggins, hopelessly tries to get back into position to make a play on Dončić’s shot. From the time Dončić decides to drive, when he is just above the 3-point line, until he lays it up while getting Wiggins to foul him, nearly two seconds elapses.
Dončić has been sublime this postseason, just as he was last year. The Mavericks lost to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round—the Kawhi-led Clippers, not the Kawhi-less version that would beat the Utah Jazz in the following series. Luka gave them 36-8-10 in that series, shooting 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3. This year, he knocked off the top-seeded Suns, who chose mostly to guard him with one defender. Huge mistake, even if that defender was typically Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mikal Bridges or long, agile, seven-foot center Deandre Ayton. Seeing Dončić score so easily, so early, had to be jarring to Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, especially considering the bucket came from something the Mavs had schemed up themselves.
Heading into Game 1, it’s likely Mavs head coach Jason Kidd knew that his counterpart would not want to see Stephen Curry on Luka to start possessions. Curry’s too slight to stop that train. Getting Curry’s man to screen for Luka would trigger one of the following:
Curry switching onto Luka
Curry staying to trap Luka
Curry dropping off to help on a Luka penetration
Curry showing as if he’d help on Luka above the 3-point line before recovering
For multiple reasons, the first three options are too risky; so it had to be a “show-and-go” play, likely just what Kidd and Luka expected. There are schemes designed to solve the pick-and-roll challenges where the two defenders involved in the play are the only two guys asked to make decisions. The other three defenders stay home. Luka crushes that scheme. He’s just too good on offense to solve with those two guys; plus, his own teammates can roll (Dwight Powell) or roll/pop (Maxi Kleber).
To do what no team has done in the playoffs against Luka, Kerr and the Warriors had to devise a system meant to slow him down. It would require synchronizing five defenders; an awareness of where he was every second of each possession; and a primary defender who could be counted on to make things as hard on Luka as possible in one-on-one play.
Had it been made public, that last item surely would have made Minnesota Timberwolves fans giggle since the Warriors would be giving that assignment to Andrew Wiggins. You see, until somewhat recently, counting on Wiggins was a mistake. And that easy Dončić layup four minutes into the game could very well have been proof that the Warriors would prove the theory.
For a time, with the Timberwolves, it appeared that Wiggins was one of the most overpaid players in the NBA—a guy who didn’t put up performances capable of stockpiling wins. In some eyes, he was worse than a “bust,” a player who had been given his monster extension based on an awesome potential that was looking more like fantasy than reality.
As luck would have it, the Warriors needed someone to replace Kevin Durant, which on face value is a silly mission. There’s only one KD. The team instead valued finding a player who could score well enough, defend just as well (if not better), and fit into the core three (or four, if we add Kevon Looney). The Warriors also wanted an easygoing personality. Wiggins became acquirable via trade. Suddenly, the Warriors had something to help thwart the growing threat in Dallas. It would just take some time to turn Wiggins into exactly what the Warriors needed.
That time is up. He is now the focal point of the most important defensive mission these core Warriors have faced since their dynastic battles against LeBron James and James Harden a few years back.
With Wiggins and a slew of high-IQ defenders—some big, others very fast—Kerr could build his latest masterpiece. He gave the league his Cuisinart when he first arrived. Now he has delivered his latest project: The Luka Rules.
In 1992, my friend Sam Smith wrote The Jordan Rules, which chronicled Michael Jordan’s early years with the Bulls. The Detroit Pistons used a system to slow him down. Players like Jordan, or Luka, are simply too good to have any one player effectively do that; a defense needs five connected-and-inspired players to make that happen in a series often enough to win four games.
Despite that easy and-1 for Luka early in Game 1, that’s precisely what the Warriors accomplished: They executed their own defensive manual to make Luka seem average, and they’ll be using that manual again to try to contain him as they fight to return to the NBA Finals.
Somewhere, I expect, there is a list of the rules that the Warriors are following in this series—and I suspect that list looks something like this:
Find Luka early after makes or misses and start hounding him. Tired players make mistakes, and he is prone to turn the ball over.
Wiggins is our first choice to pick Luka up. If he can’t (or isn’t in), we prefer Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, or Otto Porter to mark Luka as he sets their offense.
All those players can switch onto Luka if their man sets a screen.
If Curry’s man screens for Luka, we want Steph to show quickly and then to recover back to his man.
Cleaning the Glass, an outstanding source for advanced metrics that we rely on daily, sends out an email to subscribers every night after a game is played. That email lists the wins that were expected and unexpected, then pushes out via an automated system the performances of players that were better or worse than expected. Only one player triggered that result from both teams.
GSW was favored by 5.5 and won by 25 (19.5 point difference)
Stats filter out 5:03 of garbage time in the 4th quarter.
Much worse box-score stats than normal:
Luka Dončić (DAL): 20 pts (3/8 2p, 3/10 3p, 5/8 ft), 7 reb, 4 ast, 7 tov, 1 stl in 35 min
The Luka Rules: 1
Luka Dončić: 0
To understand these rules as I saw them play out Wednesday night, two things are necessary: (1) an appreciation for Hubie Brown and his bouts with genius, and (2) some experience playing blackjack in a casino.
First, the Hubie Brown genius. TrueHoop fans will recognize the quote that’s coming as the smartest bit of basketball wisdom I’ve ever considered: “We set screens for one reason, to make defenders think.”
For the Mavericks to help Luka lead them to wins, they will need to set screens, hoping to catch Warriors defenders making bad choices. Rules have to be in place. Every defender has to know these rules, which dictate how each defender is supposed to react on any given screen. When you hear coaches or media experts comment that a team executed well on defense, they are referring to the players following whatever rules and guidelines they were given. On that Dončić and-1, at least one Warriors player did not follow the rules. The result was a potential 3-point play, the easy way. Too much of that and Luka ends up with 35+ efficient points and likely a win.
The job of the coach is to devise a winning strategy, then to ensure it is executed correctly as often as possible.