Dennis Smith Jr. is known for his thunderous dunks, but his most destructive play Monday night in San Antonio was a layup.
Smith took the ball out of the basket after a Brandon Paul bucket and raced it up the court, lifting off while there were still 21 seconds left on the shot clock and catching everyone — including even the camera crew — by surprise. Smith’s man ended up on the floor so the Mavericks had a 5-on-4 opportunity, and the rook took control of the situation, turning it into two easy points.
Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle wants Smith to do things like that more often. You might only get one or two chances at a play like the one above per game, but generally speaking if Smith could run the ball up the floor with a little pace every time, Carlisle is confident the opposing defense could bend or break earlier in the shot clock.
“Put pressure on the D. He can do it like no one else we’ve had here in quite some time,” Carlisle said. “He’s getting better and better with things like that, with things defensively, with recognition, seeing where his shots are coming from, and seeing how to play with teammates.”
This season, the Mavericks have been very good at scoring after opponents’ misses, with an effective field goal percentage of 52.6 percent in those situations, per nbawowy. For reference, that would rank ninth in the NBA for the season. However, Dallas’ team eFG% after opposing made baskets or free throws is just 47.5 percent, which would rank 29th in the league. That’s a significant split in efficiency, and Carlisle is certainly aware of what happens when his club begins an offensive possession against a set defense.
“The defense has early position that they want. They’re in their shell, or however you want to term it,” he said. “Frequently in those situations if you try to call plays, things are scouted well, teams are relaying calls. It’s just an inherently, intrinsically more difficult way to play.”
In other words, if you walk the ball up the floor slowly against a set defense, you’ve got an uphill struggle ahead of you. You might be able to fool teams with a couple set plays throughout a game, but generally opposing scouting is so good these days that most teams know exactly what you’re running. Watch Dirk Nowitzki, for example, before every inbound pass, for example: He calls out the opposing play to the Mavs staff, who then shouts back the action. Dallas ranks third-best in the league defensively in points per possession allowed against both baseline out of bounds plays and plays following a timeout, per Synergy Sports.
For the season, the Mavericks have been very good offensively early in the shot clock. Their team effective field goal percentage is 60.1 percent when they shoot with 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock (considered “very early” by NBA Stats), 55.2 percent when there’s 18-15 remaining (“early”), and 52.7 when there are 15-7 seconds (“average”).
But as the clock winds down, so does the accuracy: Dallas shoots just 37.9 percent from the field when there are 7-4 seconds left on the shot clock (“late”) and 38.2 percent when there are 4-0 seconds left (“very late”). It’s hard for most players to create something out of nothing. It should be noted, though, that Carlisle worked with Smith on late-clock shooting after Monday’s practice.
If Smith could turn just three or four opposing made baskets into fullcourt sprints the other way, it could really play to the Mavs’ advantage. Maybe it only results in an extra two points across the course of a game, but an extra bucket here or there could keep you in a close game down the stretch. Points are points, no matter how you get them.
Tonight could be a good example of end-to-end sprints. The Brooklyn Nets rank second in the league in pace (to the Mavs’ 25th, though they’re rising), and per NBA Stats more than 21 percent of their shots come with 22-18 seconds left on the shot clock, second-highest in the league. Dallas, by comparison, takes just 10.6 percent of its shots that early in the clock.
“When you score on (the Nets), they’re as good an answer-back team as I’ve seen in this league,” Carlisle said. “The other night against Memphis they took the ball out of the basket and zoomed it up full-court and laid it in like three or four times. That’s really a disheartening thing for your defense.”
This could be the same kind of thing coaches always preach against teams that like to press: Sometimes the best way to combat their stuff is to throw it right back at them. If Smith can push the ball the other way back at the Brooklyn defense, it could lead to plenty of easy points for Dallas. The Nets rank 27th in defensive rating this season and have allowed at least 117 points in four of their last five games.
This is the game within the game tonight: Can Smith push the tempo every now and then, just enough to squeeze out an extra couple points? These teams could combined to score 220 tonight, but an extra two could make all the difference in the world.