The Long Two: Tyrese Maxey, and Jordan Poole emerge, Luka Doncic returns

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images /

Tyrese Maxey and Jordan Poole are two of the NBA playoffs’ emerging stars, plus Luka Doncic’s return throws the Mavericks into a mini-identity crisis.

The NBA playoffs have a way of testing first-timers in a way nothing else really can. The difference in focus, intensity and execution between the regular season and postseason has arguably never been wider, so it’s hard to gauge a player’s true mettle until he’s thrown into the playoff crucible. Some players fold under the weight of that heightened intensity while others sustain — or even raise — their level of play against stiffer competition. Based on their production so far, Jordan Poole and Tyrese Maxey would seem to fall in the latter category, having carried breakout seasons into the playoffs and helped power their teams’ first-round success.

Maxey and Poole have the benefit of playing alongside multiple offensive stars, both have given their respective teams important lifts as complementary scorers around those stars. Maxey was part of the 76ers’ playoff rotation last season, but this is his first go-round as the kind of offensive tentpole he’s quickly become.

Tyrese Maxey and Jordan Poole have been ready for the big moments

The 21-year-old has logged over 20 points and four assists in nearly 42 minutes per game against the Raptors, and his speed, shooting and decision-making helped galvanize Philadelphia’s offense early in the series. Maxey helped the Sixers claim a 3-0 series lead by balancing the floor when Toronto tilted toward Joel Embiid and James Harden, and he has feasted on open shots created by his star teammates. When the Raptors shade toward Harden or send extra bodies at Embiid, Maxey decisively attacks gaps in the defense, firing open 3s when given space and darting into open space before his man can recover. As one of the fastest players in the NBA, Maxey is excellent at attacking closeouts, with a great touch on running floaters:

He used that elite speed to beat Toronto down the floor in transition early in the series, which gave Harden a natural target for hit-ahead passes and the Sixers a source of easy, early offense. Maxey’s play, however, has come back to earth over the last three games as the Raptors have sharpened their defense.

He’s missed nine of his last 11 3-point attempts after going 8-of-14 in Games 1 and 2 and turned the ball over seven times in the last three games after doing so just once in the first two. The Raptors have stopped helping so aggressively off of him to clog Harden’s driving lanes and thrown more unpredictable doubles at Embiid, which has allowed them to stay home more on Maxey and hurt his ability to attack closeouts and punish Toronto for over-rotating. Maxey has still managed to create his own opportunities and find points within the flow of the offense, but they’ve been fewer and farther between.

Philadelphia needs Maxey to find more seams to attack to avoid a Game 7, which will likely involve doing more initiating of the offense. That should give him every opportunity to solidify himself as the kind of dynamic scorer he was in the regular season.

Poole, meanwhile, has helped orchestrate the Warriors’ offense with the confidence and panache of a 10-year veteran. The 22-year-old looks like an entirely different player — both statistically and stylistically — than he did even a year ago, and has become one of Golden State’s most reliable and dynamic offensive players.

When Klay Thompson started the year on the shelf, Poole more than capably filled in. When Curry missed the end of the season, Poole acquitted himself just fine in a starring role. Now, he’s spent five games torching an overmatched Nuggets defense as a scorer, facilitator and movement shooter alongside his older teammates, averaging 21 points and over five assists on a playoffs-leading 71.5 percent true shooting (a relatively poor Game 5 dragged down his volume and efficiency).

Poole is attacking assertively off the dribble and creating space for others when he doesn’t have the ball and looks every bit as comfortable and assertive in the playoffs as he did in the regular season, (albeit against a Nuggets defense with zero defenders who can actually stay in front of him). He has sharpened his passing, shooting and ball-handling, and blended those skills beautifully into the Warriors’ collaborative offense:

As much as any other addition to his game, Poole’s ability to move without the ball and improvise within the offense has opened up a new range of possibilities for him. He has the ball skills to play as a lead initiator in isolation or pick-and-roll but knows both he and his team are harder to guard when those on-ball skills become flourishes of his game rather than the foundation of it. The Warriors have posted a 134 offensive rating in the 53 minutes Curry, Thompson and Poole have shared the court this postseason, and though that mark like won’t sustain throughout the playoffs, it evinces how lethal they can be with three elite shooters who never stop moving with or without the ball. Poole has also become a capable part of the Warriors’ tight defensive scheme, and a quick enough on-ball defender to check smaller guards.

The symbiosis between Golden State’s best players will always be the foundation of its offense, but Poole’s ability to beat his defender and create shots off the dribble will still come in handy against defenses stingier than Denver’s. Opponents will key in on Curry and Draymond Green’s two-man game, which could thrust Poole into a more central scoring role. So far, he looks more than ready for that challenge.

How Luka Doncic changes the Mavs’ identity

If not for their identical uniforms, one might easily mistake the current iteration of the Mavericks for a different team than the one that claimed a 2-1 series lead over the Utah Jazz. The difference, of course, is Luka Doncic, Dallas’ methodical and immutable superstar. After missing the team’s first three playoff games with a calf strain, Doncic returned to action in a Game 4 loss, then torched the Jazz in Game 5 to bring Dallas within one win of its first second-round appearance since 2011. His masterful 33-point, 13-rebound, 5-assist outing on Monday might have assuaged most concerns over how he’d look coming back from injury, but the difference between how the Mavs play with him on the floor and with him on the bench still raises the issue of how best to reincorporate him into an ecosystem that thrived without him.

Leave aside the matter of Doncic’s defense, which slightly weakens Dallas’ otherwise active, connected outfit; bringing him back into the lineup isn’t as simple as stacking his monster production on top of the steady scoring and playmaking that Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie provided in his absence. It requires redistributing many of Dinwiddie and Brunson’s touches to Doncic instead. That in itself isn’t such a bad thing, seeing as Doncic is one of the best on-ball playmakers the sport has ever seen. But in order for Dallas to find the best version of itself, it must figure out how to balance its three playmakers in a way that maximizes each one rather than only one or two at a time.

Doncic is a deliberate primary creator who prefers to work his way into the lane, force defenses to commit, then either score or directly set up a shot for a teammate. That tends to be an effective plan of attack, but it also causes the offense to stagnate. Brunson and Dinwiddie are more of the slashing types, using their quickness to blow past defenders, put opponents into the rotation, and let the ball swing until it finds the open man. That approach gave the Jazz more trouble than they could handle earlier in the series, as the Mavs feasted on open kick-out 3s when Utah’s perimeter defenders couldn’t contain the ball and Rudy Gobert had to abandon shooters to protect the rim.

Game 4 suggested that the Jazz may actually be better equipped to contain a Doncic-led offense because it leaves them less susceptible to blow-bys and rapid ball movement; they could at least contend with Doncic’s strength in a way they clearly couldn’t with Dinwiddie and Brunson’s speed. Game 5 may have dispelled that notion, though it hardly matters how Utah’s defense plays when the Dončić and the Mavs get that hot and the Jazz go that cold.

Brunson and Dinwiddie’s emergence as reliable offensive creators theoretically gives Dallas a three-pronged attack that keeps defenses scrambling. In practice, however, pairing Doncic with two secondary creators has produced an offense that tends to alternate between two very different approaches. The Mavs have 48 minutes of outstanding guard play, but they’ve yet to maximize their output when their three playmakers share the floor. In the regular season, Dallas scored 118.8 points per 100 possessions in the 120 minutes Doncic, Dinwiddie and Brunson played together. That’s a robust figure (over an admittedly small sample size), but it’s only marginally better than the team’s marks with any two of the three playing without the other. In Games 4 and 5, the Mavs seemed to feel some tension between playing Luka-Ball and their up-tempo, drive-and-kick offense.

The incredible benefit of having a heliocentric playmaker like Doncic is that he almost guarantees his team a top-flight offense; perhaps the downside is that you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns when surrounding him with other ball-handlers. Because Doncic is so good with the ball and not much of a threat away from it, Dinwiddie and Brunson are essentially relegated to spot-up duty when he’s on the floor, with the occasional drive or second-side pick-and-roll mixed in.

When Dončić isn’t on the floor, the other two have more license to steer the offense. Dallas can score efficiently in both alignments, but the Mavs could still try to merge their drive-and-kick, pass-heavy style with Doncic’s masterful individual orchestration. Much of that will come down to Luka’s willingness to play without the ball, make quicker passes and take spot-up jumpers so that Dinwiddie and Brunson can cook.

If the worst thing that comes of Dallas’ three-guard rotation is the ability to maintain a great offense at all times, that’s a fine outcome. But it does seem to leave a decent amount on the table when they play together. The more active threats an offense has on the floor, the harder it is to guard. Hopefully, Doncic’s return not only gives the Mavs the superstar boost they need to enter the championship conversation but allows them to find the offensive balance they’ll need to stay there.

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