Once again, the Golden State Warriors' path to the NBA mountaintop runs deep through the heart of Texas. There will be no Rockets' red this year, however, nor any pesky Beard. Instead, the Dubs will go to head to head with a slick, step-back shooting maestro.
The Dallas Mavericks beat the Warriors 3 games to 1 during the regular season, though the Dubs finished exactly one game ahead of the Mavs to secure home-court advantage for the Western Conference Finals. The modern-era, Steph-Draymond-Klay Warriors have never faced Dallas in the postseason.
In late February, the Mavericks came back from almost 20 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Dubs 107-101 at Chase Center. Was that game somehow emblematic of the Warriors' streakiness that flared up through the second-half of the season? Was that game a sign that Golden State was somehow not "hungry enough" to win it all?
Read the regular season tea leaves however you like. For now, the mission at hand are those cowboys from the Lone Star State, and their 6'7", 23-year-old Slovenian buckaroo, Luka Doncic.
How do you stop Luka Doncic? Well, you don't. Like Nikola Jokic and Ja Morant, superstars are gonna superstar.
Jokic averaged 31 points against the Warriors in Round 1, and Ja Morant averaged 38 in Round 2, prior to his exit from the series. Warriors' fans should expect Luka Doncic to pick up where he left off in the Mavericks' clobbering closeout of the Phoenix Suns on Sunday. (Luka scored 35 points in that game.) In early May, Doncic had 45 points in Game 1 and 35 points in Game 2 against Phoenix; Luka overtook Michael Jordan for the single highest playoff scoring average with 33.5 points.
The X-factor will be the players around Doncic, such as Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Spencer Dinwiddie, who had 30 points against Phoenix on Sunday. There's a pretty good chance that Luka will average at least 30 points a game in the WCF, but if the aforementioned names can be contained, then anything is possible.
Certainly, the Warriors will throw their best onto Luka Doncic, and we can expect to see Draymond Green bring his brand of defense to the series, but it will be interesting to see who else might be asked to step up. One analyst suggested that Johnathan Kuminga is athletic enough to take on the challenge. Andrew Wiggins will no doubt take a few switches onto Doncic, as well.
What about Gary Payton II?
At a press conference on Sunday, reporters asked Payton a gazillion questions about the fractured right elbow he sustained in Game 2 against Memphis: Are you coming back soon? What kind of "things" are you able to do with your injured arm? (Like, guard Luka Doncic, for example?) What is the exact date and time that you're coming back?
Payton shrugged and said that all it would take was, "Time. With more time, it's starting to feel better and better. If I squeeze out a little more time, that would be best." Payton said that he's been "keeping his body right" through conditioning. "Everything else is staying right, staying ready."
Otto Porter Jr. has been listed as day-to-day after suffering a foot injury in Game 5 against Memphis. Porter had found his shot in the last few games, and had been a rebounding machine. His return would bode well for the Warriors.
At a press conference on Monday, a reporter asked Stephen Curry: How do you expect Dallas to approach you? Do you expect to get double teamed throughout the game (as Curry had been in some of the regular season matchups against the Mavs)?
"I know we're a different team than we were, and a lot more polished. We still have some things to work on in terms of valuing possessions and taking care of the basketball, but we have a lot better flow and understanding of how we're going to create good offense, even if they want to trap me all over the court or try to keep the ball out of my hands. We'll be prepared for all of that.
Another reporter asked about what has been the Warriors' worst vice: "Are you worried about turnovers — are you doing anything to address that?"
"Just being mindful about the type of turnovers that you have," Curry said.
"[The turnovers are] kind of spread out amongst us all, and it seems like a lot more — it's not like one guy's racking up, just like, five, six, seven every night. It's just kind of spread out just because of how we play.
"We understand that if we want to hit our peak in terms of offensive explosion and the ability to put it together every night, we have to keep those down, because keeping it down means that we're getting shots at least, and usually marginal shots for us are good shots."
Here's how the basketball pundits have weighed in for the Western Conference Finals:
Shaquille O'Neal: "I will never go against my favorite player, who happens to be Steph Curry." In picking Warriors to win the WCF, O'Neal cited the Dubs' "experience and know how."
Charles Barkley: "I'm gonna go with the upset. I think the Mavs are gonna be better at small ball."
Stephen A. Smith: "I'm going with the Warriors. I'm not jumping off this bandwagon. I've been with the Warriors all season long. [But], the Warriors, and how they've looked the last three games . . . they ain't winnin' the 'Chip' if they keep playing this way," Smith said, referring to the Warriors' streakiness and deluge of turnovers.
"I just don't believe it will last. I got the Warriors in 6."
Seven of eight analysts for CBS Sports selected the Warriors to edge out the Mavs in the WCF.
And what of the Mavericks' youth vs. Golden States' core player's continued journey toward their golden years? A reporter asked Steph Curry something to the effect of: Do you feel like you've got younger people trying to take what you have?
"We don't have anything right now," Steph said unequivocally.
"You have won three times," the reporter replied.
"No. We don't have anything right now. That's the mindset: us being greedy in terms of what we're trying to go after. Maybe that's just me not trying to claim the 'old-guy' tag. We're as hungry as they are to get it done."
Top Image: Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images