For Luka Dončić and the Mavericks, loss to Bucks was unfortunately nothing new

DALLAS — There’s comfort in a familiar story, but not like this. Not for the Dallas Mavericks, not after the team lost again to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, a 129-117 defeat that looked similar to the ones we’ve seen before. There’s no comfort in that, not without some hefty dosage of Stockholm syndrome.

But hey, at least there’s familiarity.

While Dallas remains three games over .500, the team has been sinking quickly of late. This was the team’s sixth loss in eight games, and the Mavericks have a losing record since their 8-2 start to the season. Against Milwaukee, the team’s usual patterns could be found: Luka Dončić stuffed the box score but played more than 40 minutes; the team missed critical rotation players because of injury; Dallas looked great when its 3-pointers fell and fell apart when they didn’t; the team was overrun in transition (allowing 19 points) and within the paint (64). That’s how most of these recent defeats have gone.

Without Dereck Lively II, the 19-year-old rookie center who will miss at least one more game when he has surgery Monday in Dallas to reset a broken nose, Dallas had little chance to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo. Relative to the rest of the league, Dallas plays small. Its roster doesn’t have meaningful size to start with, and it’s exasperated when its other two absences, Kyrie Irving and Dante Exum, aren’t available. Yes, both players are guards, but Dallas has to pack the floor with its collection of imperfect ballhandlers rather than one reliable one who can elevate defensive-minded players.

This has also led the Mavericks to overexert Dončić, who leads the league in minutes per game and has averaged just under 40 since Dec. 1. Irving’s absences have been unfortunate ones — a foot injury when a teammate fell on him, a broken finger in his shooting hand when swiping down for a steal — but the 31-year-old star does have this track record. When he plays with Dončić, it works. But lately, he hasn’t, and it has required Dončić to play 40-plus minutes in four straight games. Before Saturday’s game, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd talked about his usage.

“I had a discussion with him this morning,” Kidd said. “I told him, ‘I’m trying to keep you under 40 minutes,’ but I did love his response. He told me he hadn’t played in four days, so that meant that I could play him 48. But that is a concern because it is a long season.”

Dončić has played this much because he’s the team’s lodestar. Reducing his minutes is reducing the team’s chance to win, even if it hasn’t done that much of late. But these heavy workloads haven’t been good for the smaller improvements Dončić has shown this season: his attempts to engage defensively more consistently and show more stoicism toward officiating. Dončić stayed more than an hour after Saturday’s game, later than any other player on the team, recovering and receiving treatment on his ongoing ankle sprain that he tweaked again in the game’s first quarter. Dončić’s defense, even in this game, has drastically improved from his past lowlights. But there are still moments when he trails behind in transition or loses his man, ones that are much more a byproduct of his extreme minute totals than his improved desire to compete on that end.

Against Antetokounmpo, the Lively-less Mavericks were destined to concede paint points. He shot over Dallas’ big men and skated around the team’s wings — conventional basketball strategy is to flip that around, but that’s how physically imposing Antetokounmpo really is — en route to a 48-point night. Even a brilliant Maxi Kleber, who scored 21 in what might have been his best game in two seasons, had no answers. But the team’s other familiar flaw, conceding back-breaking transition baskets, is one that is increasingly systemic to the offense. Dallas always has shooters in the corners, sometimes on both sides of the court or sometimes two players stacking up close to each other in the same one, like this:

On offense, the Mavericks often stack one side of the court. It can lead to transition opportunities for their opponents. ( / Stats)

Dallas turned the ball over 21 times on Saturday, an atypically high number for the team with the league’s second-best turnover rate. The play above didn’t lead to transition points — the miss caromed high and toward the baseline, the type of rebound that takes several seconds to track down — but it certainly would have for a live-ball turnover.

“If you’re going to turn the ball over,” Kidd said afterward, “it’ll put you in harm’s way.”

Dončić himself turned it over nine times, some of which did turn into quick run-outs for Milwaukee, which makes you wonder how much his ankle was affecting him.

But when the team misses 3-pointers, this same floor pattern, which is great for scoring points, also can work against Dallas going the other direction. A quick rebound can provide teams with a man advantage before Dallas’ defenders have recovered, especially if the shooter has remained static or if the passer (Dončić, typically) has had his momentum carry him past the baseline. Even beyond that, though, this Mavericks team has tended to rise mentally in the moments when shots fall and struggle when they don’t. The Bucks’ 15-0 run to close the second quarter, completed in just under two minutes, was a striking example.

So here is Dallas once again: a size-disadvantaged team even with Lively that lost the paint battle without him; a depth-disadvantaged roster even with Irving and Exum that needed Dončić to be impossibly good without them, even better than the 40-point, nine-rebound, 11-assist performance he did have; a 3-point-reliant roster that has to keep shooting them, despite what happens when they don’t go in. It’s this same familiar script, a tired one that even sports journalists are running out of ways to write about.

This coming week, the roster’s long-awaited return to health that seems on the horizon could finally change this outlook. Or perhaps roster change ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline, despite many of the season’s dominoes falling already, will shake us out of these narratives. But in the wake of Saturday’s defeat, there’s nothing new to learn about this team’s recent struggles. We can only acknowledge that, well, yup, they’re still there.

(Top photo of Luka Dončić: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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