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Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks

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Dallas Mavericks vs. Los Angeles Clippers: The Mavs Moneyball Preview

The Mavericks are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Here’s everything you need to know about their series against the talented Clippers.

Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The last time the Dallas Mavericks stepped on the court for a playoff game, nearly everything about the team was different.

The then six-seeded Mavericks gutted out a season led by Dirk Nowitzki and a hodge-podge collection of journeymen. Looking back, willing those Mavericks to the playoffs and a swift gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder ranks among the more impressive achievements in the 20 year Nowitzki Era.

Fast-forward to the 2020 playoffs. Dallas has rebuilt on the fly following three seasons in the lottery, parlaying draft assets into another generational European superstar in Luka Doncic as well as landing Kristaps Porzingis from the New York Knicks in a blockbuster trade. Rebuilding this quickly with players of this caliber is largely unheard of in NBA history.

Experts had a hard time assessing the Mavericks’ chances in this year’s standings. ESPN’s analysts and writers guessed a flat .500 as did their BPI analytics rating, Caesar’s sportsbook predicted 42 wins, and FiveThirtyEight.com was the most bullish with 45 wins. Despite recent challenges in the eight bubble games, a woeful clutch game record, and removing seven regular season games from the schedule, the Mavericks surpassed all expectations with a 43-32 record (.571 winning percentage).

We’re about to find out just how good these Dallas Mavericks really are. Though the roster is fairly injury-ravaged in terms of depth, Doncic, Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Maxi Kleber have all shown themselves capable starters and scores during the 2019-20 season. Can the Mavericks’ historically best offense make it competitive during a seven game series against the season’s best overall? Or will the Clippers’ talent and depth wear out a strained Maverick squad?

The basketball we’ve witnessed in the 2019-20 season has been like a refreshing jump in a pool after a too-long day of yard work. The previous three seasons were more work than fun. This playoffs berth is the end reward for the work and the faith we’ve placed in the Mavericks. Enjoy every moment, knowing that even better years are likely to come.

- Kirk Henderson

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

BY THE POSITIONS

Guards

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images
Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Where do you even start with Luka Doncic? He’s a 21-year-old superstar who has almost single-handedly vaulted the Mavericks from festering lottery flotsam to rising Western Conference contender. Hell, I even struggled where to put Doncic in this preview, since he has the body of a wing but the skill of a Hall of Fame point guard. Doncic being an MVP contender in his second season is basically the one sentence summary for why the Dallas Mavericks are where they are after such a short rebuild.

The numbers don’t cease to amaze no matter how many times you look over them — 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists per game. He’s shooting 57 percent on two pointers! Again, for someone who is just 21-years-old with room to grow and develop further. If the Mavericks are to have a shot against the Clippers, he has to be as good or even better than his numbers suggest.

That will be a tough task against a Clippers team that feels genetically engineered to stop Doncic. Going against two of the top wing defenders in the league, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, will make things tough. Doncic struggled (for him) overall in the three regular season games against the Clippers, as the Clippers’ length and sheer defensive talent on the perimeter cut off his passing lanes and drives to the basket. He averaged only seven assists to five turnovers per game and shot just 42.6 percent from the floor in those games.

Having said all that, he still averaged 29 points per game because Doncic is just that good. He’ll just have to be even better, and get more support from his teammates who will need to to knock down shots that he can and will create with all the Clippers attention on him.

Can Doncic live at the rim against this Clippers team? Los Angeles doesn’t have a fearsome rim protector, though Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell compete on that end of the floor. Doncic is shooting an absurd 72.6 percent from the restricted area — the fourth best percentage among players who have attempted at least 350 shots from that zone of the floor. Getting to the rim against Leonard and George is another question entirely, but it will be key for Doncic’s success. The Clippers would love for Doncic to get three-point happy, as it’s by far the most glaring weakness in his offensive game.

The other Mavericks guards will be crucial in determining whether Doncic has enough help. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry both had up-and-down seasons, but once they got on track after a shaky first month, they’ve been brilliant. Hardaway has been one of the best shooters in the league and his improvement has been instrumental in the Mavericks historic offense. If Hardaway produced any less as a starter than he did, the Mavericks would be in trouble. His shot-making has been huge: almost 40 percent from three overall, 42.1 percent on catch and shoot threes and some decent shooting out of the pick and roll in the few times the Mavericks have needed him to bail out a possession.

Curry has been a little more inconsistent, but he’s tops in the league in terms of scoring out of the pick and roll and his shooting has been liquid fire since getting comfortable with the team. The Mavericks found some lineups to feature him in — 50.7 percent from three on 5.8 attempts per game in the 13 games since the All-Star break. Curry and Hardaway have helped supercharge a starting lineup that desperately needed a boost after Dwight Powell went down with a season-ending Achillies injury in late January.

Both have been shaky in the bubble and it is imperative that they both shoot and score well in this series if the Mavericks want it to last more than four or five games. Defensively, you don’t expect much in terms of stopping what the Clippers have, but they just have to be good enough. Hardaway will probably find himself on George or Leonard because the Mavericks just have zero wing depth (more on that later) so you just hope he can survive in those matchups. Curry has shown decent defensive chops in the past, but has been really inconsistent this season. He needs to hold his own against Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams.

For the Clippers, much of the attention is, rightly so, on their star wing duo. Don’t sleep on their guards though, as they quietly help power their offensive engine. Beverley is a defensive beast and agitator, but he just finished his fifth straight season of being a 38 percent shooter or better from three. He’s not an occasional shooter like Delon Wright; he gets up plenty of attempts per game. In other words, he’s a legit shooter and floor spacer that the Clippers need when teams throw their focus on George and Leonard. He’s solid enough off the bounce, too. Beverley is struggling with injuries in the bubble, so we'll have to see how effective he can truly be.

Williams is obviously more herald, a mainstay of the Sixth Man of the Year award. His creativity and scoring in the pick and roll feels like a cheat code when you already have go-to scorers like George and Leonard. The thing that makes the Clippers so dangerous is that George and Leonard are totally comfortable as spot-up threats for the occasional possession. Hell, that’s how they both started their careers, as 3-and-D role players. So when you’re not getting beaten to death by their scoring punch, the luxury of going to Williams in the pick and roll and having those two be great shooters spacing the floor is almost unfair. Thankfully, Williams gives it up on the other end as much as he contributes on offense, so the Mavericks have to attack him when he’s on the floor.

For the Mavericks, one of Delon Wright, Trey Burke or J.J. Barea have to do something. The Mavericks seriously lack playmaking punch behind Doncic and those three are the most capable guys to make plays with the ball in their hands. If you’ve been following the Mavericks all season, you know the deal with Wright — a mercurial player who comes and goes by the game, flashing moments of brilliance in spot possessions sandwiched between the most invisible player on the roster. His offense feels like it is what it is at this point, but the Mavericks could desperately use some defense from him this series, which has been inconsistent at best.

Burke feels like the bet to pop off for a random big game, like he did in the bubble opener against Houston. He’s the type of guy the Mavericks always seem to get good stuff out of, even when the rest of the league passes. Another guy that Dallas needs to hit open shots. Barea might not play much, but I’m guessing he’ll still be the “break glass in case of emergency” player that Rick Carlisle will lean on if the series starts heading south.

Los Angeles is just so deep. Former Detroit starter Reggie Jackson is on this team now, which, huh. That feels like an embarrassment of riches, regardless of what you think of Jackson’s talent level. He can absolutely hurt you in the 15 to 20 minutes he’ll get each game. Landry Shamet is as steady as 3-and-D guards come. He’ll definitely have an annoying game during this series.

Wings

LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

As the league trended to position-less basketball, that meant an increased focus on acquiring as many capable wings as possible. Just about every Finals contender either has an All-NBA level wing or a stable of long, switchy, 3-and-D guys or in some cases both. The Clippers not only have both, but they have two All-NBA level wings.

There might not be a better perimeter 1-2 punch than Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They are the total package — versatile offensive games that can get you a bucket in tough, late-clock situations and all-world defensive players capable of putting the clamps on your offense in a hurry. Both players made a name for themselves on the defensive end of the floor when they entered the league and both transformed themselves into number one option, franchise level guys. How is any team supposed to realistically counter this? Leonard and George both average 20+ points, five-plus rebounds and four assists per game. They both shoot great from three on high-volume. They are two terminators.

They both compliment each other so well, too. While George has garnered criticism as being a guy that can’t lead a team in the clutch, Leonard basically transformed into Michael Jordan 2.0 during last season’s playoffs. Now George can just play and not worry too much about late-game struggles since he has the reincarnation of MJ playing next to him to handle those situations.

Perhaps the best you can do to counteract George and Leonard’s defense is to try to keep them away from the ball and on the weak side of the floor, making their individual defensive powers less crucial. As great as these two are, they aren’t rim protecting bigs so, theoretically, you could avoid them during a trip down the floor, much like an NFL passing offense would try to not throw on the side of the field where an elite corner is playing. That’s a theory, of course — George and Leonard are terrifying close-out defenders and can wreck havoc in the passing lanes. The Mavericks will need to be careful and get creative to free up space for Doncic.

The Mavericks’ wing counter for this terrifying twosome? Dorian Finney-Smith, come on down! Yes, a four-year college player who went undrafted will now be expected to tackle these two mostly on his own. Good luck!

To be fair, this is nothing against Finney-Smith, who low-key is one of the most important players on the roster. The Mavericks are dying for capable 3-and-D wings and Finney-Smith is truly the only one. Watching him scramble each defensive possession, trying to cover all the Mavericks warts on that end is truly impressive, even if that means he gets over extended sometimes. Finney-Smith isn’t a true stopper, but he has guts, he hustles and works his tail off. It’s not his fault the Mavericks roster doesn’t really give him any back up on that end, aside from Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber guarding the rim. Offensively, he’s been huge — he shot 37 percent from three on just over four attempts per game and considering he could barely sniff 30 percent in his prior seasons with the Mavericks, he truly feels like a revelation this season. After a shaky bubble start, he got on track too, with a monster game against the Bucks. Fair or not, Dallas needs the Finney-Smith from that Milwaukee game to make a regular appearance if they want to have a shot at beating the Clippers.

Los Angeles has the decided edge in depth here. Even after Leonard and George, they still have Marcus Morris, who sort of flips flops between bad and useful, but on a good team that can hide his bad habits, he’s definitely a quality starter. When the Clippers have George, Leonard and Morris on the floor all at once, that means some poor guard will likely be on Morris, which is a matchup nightmare for the Mavericks, especially on the boards. Dallas has basically nothing to bring off the bench in this area to help — Justin Jackson has looked horrendous in the bubble and probably won’t play much at all. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has basically been MIA since the Mavericks signed him after the trade deadline but showed something during the last few bubble games. He’s an absolute zero on offense but he’s 6’9 and he can guard. The Mavericks so badly need as many 6’9 wings that can guard that as bad as the offense is, they’ll probably toss him out there just to see what happens. Dallas doesn’t have much to lose there.

Bigs

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images
LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Much like the regular season, a lot of this playoff series comes down to one simple question: how good can Kristaps Porzingis be?

The Mavericks had a modest off-season last summer, mostly retaining their own guys and bringing in some smaller additions, knowing Porzingis was the real acquisition during the 2019 trade deadline. A lot was riding on Porzingis complementing Luka Doncic in such a way that the Mavericks would be not only be on track, but ahead of schedule as a legitimate Western Conference playoff team. So it happened! In a weird way.

Porzingis started off rough, which is to be expected when you consider all the factors at play. He was playing his first meaningful NBA minutes in over 20 months, he was coming back from a bad knee injury and needed to regain confidence and trust in his physical performance and he was working on a new team, with a new coach and a drastically different role. In New York, Porzingis had the green light to do whatever. In Dallas, the Mavericks wanted to introduce some structure into his game and wean him off his bad habits. That there were bumps in the road early on shouldn’t be a surprise.

Things clicked when Porzingis moved to center full time after the Dwight Powell injury. Now instead of being relegated to a 7’3 shooting guard, getting touches only when he needs to shoot, Porzingis was involved in the offense constantly — he started setting more screens and started touching the ball in non-shooting situations, helping his confidence and his rhythm. The results speak for themselves: in the 25 games following the Powell injury, Porzingis averaged 24.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and about two blocks per game on 46/37.1/85.2 shooting splits. He’s carried this over to the bubble as well, leading the team in scoring during the restart at over 30 points per game. This is the Porzingis Mavericks fans dreamed about for almost a year and the fact that he’s showing us this within his first full season with the team is pretty remarkable.

Porzingis will be the key because the Clippers just don’t have anyone that can realistically match up with him. Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell are quality players, but neither are equipped to chase Porzingis 26-feet from the basket for an entire game. Those guys would prefer to stay near the rim and Porzingis breaks that with his pick and pop threes. Dallas simply has to get a great series out of Porzingis to keep the pressure off Doncic and exploit the one area they have a true matchup advantage. Dallas will need to keep Porzingis from posting up, as I’m sure the Clippers will do their best to entice Porzingis into it. Face-up jumpers out of a post up are fine, but true post-ups will sink the Mavericks offense. The Mavericks and Porzingis will need to be smart about this.

Maxi Kleber is probably a top-4 indispensable Maverick, which is a pretty crazy career path considering where Kleber was (an undrafted, older rookie free agent) a couple of seasons ago. Kleber is a rarity on the Mavericks roster — he plays defense! Kleber’s versitility as a big that can switch onto perimeter players and still help at the rim has been invaluable to the Mavericks, even if Kleber’s defense has dropped off compared to his rookie and sophomore seasons. Part of that feels like Kleber having fewer chances to be a weakside help defender, as he’s had to play more minutes as the sole big in lineups without Powell or Porzingis. Kleber is another Mavericks role player to enjoy a career mark in three point shooting and just like the other role players, he has to keep hitting to keep the Clippers defense honest. The key for both Porzingis and Kleber will be how much they mix some rim runs into their pick and pop diet. Dallas misses the verticality that Powell brought and it can cause their offense to be one-note sometimes. Kleber and Porzingis have shown some rim-running chops in the past and hell, Doncic’s game-sealing assist to Kleber in the Bucks win came on a Kleber dive in the pick and roll. They’re both capable finishers, so they’ll need to mix it up to get the Clippers defense moving.

Harrell and Zubac are quality players as mentioned before, with Harrell being a Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner. He’s sort of like a supercharged Dwight Powell or a poor man’s Tyson Chandler, relentless on the glass, a strong pick and roll finisher and a hustler on defense, even if he isn’t always successful guarding the rim. His ability on defense this season has probably vaunted him up the pecking order on this Clippers roster. It’s the one area on defense they lack and Harrell has tried his best to fill that void. Zubac is just as steady as they come for a big — all of his offense is mostly assisted on but he screens well, he moves to the right spots and is a good finisher. He’s a big body on defense, even if he isn’t athletic enough to swat shots. Having Leonard and George makes his life easier, allowing him to fill the gaps elsewhere and feast on teams that have their eyes on the Clippers star duo. It needs to be noted though that Harrell had to leave and re-enter the bubble due to personal reasons and hasn't played in any regular season games since the restart. There's definitely a question to how effective he'll be with limited practice time and game action.

A point I’ve been beating like a dead horse but is still true: the Clippers depth is insane. Not only do they bring Harrell off the bench, but they have quality backups to swing between the four and five spots in Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green. They haven’t been super consistent this season, but Green is shooting 38.7 percent from three and Patterson is at 39 percent. Point is, these guys aren’t huge minute getters on this Clippers roster, but when they do play, they hold their own and provide insurance for Harrell or Zubac getting into foul trouble. The Mavericks only have Boban Marjanovic behind Porzingis and Kleber and while Marjanovic is a fan favorite and great locker room presence, it’ll be hard for him to stay on the floor in a playoff series. He’s just too big to move well on defense and the Clippers will pick and roll him to death on that end of the floor. Expect to see Boban as an emergency player in case Porzingis and Kleber get foul trouble. I won’t deny though that every time Boban steps on the floor, he seemingly puts up numbers. Stranger things have happened to this Mavericks team, so I won’t be shocked if the Mavericks steal a game behind a Boban 20 and 10 night. Expect Carlisle to get funky with Finney-Smith and Kidd-Gilchrist as small-ball fives for short bursts.

- Josh Bowe

LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

BY THE NUMBERS

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images
Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers Photo by Derek Cain/NBAE via Getty Images
NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

0-3

The Mavericks’ record against the Clippers this year. Their goose egg against the Clips represents the only team in the West Dallas has not won against this season. There’s a reason so many were hoping to avoid them in the first round of the postseason.

Nevertheless, when you have an offense as good as Dallas’ is, anything can happen on any given night. Perhaps we will get a flame-throwing display from Tim Hardaway Jr. or Seth Curry that can tip the scale in a game or two. It won’t be easy; LA has the league’s fifth best defensive rating and holds opponents to the fifth lowest three point percentage at just 34.5 percent. And mind you, that’s with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George coasting on and off for much of the regular season; biding their time until playoff basketball starts.

17th

Much was made about the Mavericks’ all-time NBA best offensive rating from this season (including by me, mere paragraphs ago). And while the numbers don’t lie, they also don’t capture the area where the Mavs struggled. It’s no accident that an offense that surpassed that of those dynastic Golden State Warriors teams wasn’t accompanied by a record to match them. The reason Dallas finds itself sitting at the 7th seed as opposed to, say, 4th or 5th in a congested Western Conference, is because of their inability to win close games.

In the fourth quarter this year, that NBA-best offense fell all the way down to a pedestrian 17th in the league. That dramatic falloff shoulders much of the blame for the Mavs’ less than stellar record in clutch games (games within five points in the final five minutes). The poor clutch performance became a compounding problem as the team ended up playing in 41 clutch games this season. That was the sixth most in the league, and Dallas managed to win just 17 of those matchups. Its .415 win percentage in the clutch was 20th worst in the NBA and behind teams like Charlotte, Cleveland and (gulp) Sacramento. Hopefully, this is an area that can be addressed as this team gets more experienced. Hard to say how much learning they can do before tipoff on Monday, though.

-0.5

Perhaps the great irony of this season is how shorthanded Dallas currently finds itself when it comes to bench depth. In years past, as the Mavericks trudged its way to the bottom of the league, the bench was a lone bright spot; often among the league’s best, in fact.

The same was true at the start of this season with Dallas’ bench posting a rating of +3.6 through January 22nd, which was second best behind only Milwaukee. Why January 22nd you ask? That’s the day Dwight Powell tore his Achilles. Since that day, and as additional injuries piled up for the team, lineups got thinner and less steady. The bench, in an endless state of flux, slipped to -0.3. Going from a bench that could extend a lead to a bench that would often surrender one has proved to bridge too far on many nights this season. Now, coming off a months-long league hiatus, teams are entering the post season perhaps as healthy and rested as they’ve ever been, but Dallas finds itself still without Powell, Jalen Brunson (whose injured shoulder proved season-ending), and Courtney Lee who sustained a calf injury during the break and is now unavailable to the team. Not to mention a leg injury that saw Seth Curry miss multiple games in the bubble and all of a sudden, you have a team devoid of guard depth. Truly, something unthinkable for a coach who for years would play three at a time, so overflowing was Dallas goblet of guards.

Trey Burke has been added to the bubble team to shore up the leaks where he can, and to his credit, has looked fantastic in his second stint with Dallas. However, Burke’s stellar play wasn’t enough to boost Dallas’ bench rating higher than -0.9 during that stretch; perfectly mediocre at 11th out of 22 bubble teams.

So…that may sound like a lot of bad news, but there’s a reason nobody wanted to play the Clippers!

- Matt Gilroy

LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

FOUR STORYLINES TO WATCH

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
NBA: Preseason-Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Playoffs?! You kidding me?

Jim Mora’s classic outburst paired well with the sentiment surrounding the Mavericks at the start of the season—all the way back in October 2019. The team was coming off yet another dismal season in which it mustered just 33 wins, yet to a person, the players were already talking about the postseason. Given the youth and experience of the team, making the playoffs looked like a longshot.

Fast forward to the present and the Mavericks are getting ready to square off against the Clippers in a seven-game first-round series. They met their goal. But the path forward won’t be an easy one. Los Angeles has drubbed Dallas in each of their three meetings, most recently inside the NBA Bubble. Success for the Mavericks relies entirely on the play of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Neither has any NBA playoff experience.

“They’re going to play well,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle says. “They’re both tremendous young players. They’re both the two leaders of our team on the floor. They’re going to be the central focus of the Clippers’ defensive plan. They’re really going to try to hone in on things to make it difficult for those guys. Ultimately, in the playoffs, there’s a level of patience and discipline required because you’re going to see the kitchen sink thrown at you. We’ve got to do our best to prepare those guys for whatever is going to come their way.”

Having a team led by two young stars—Doncic is just 21 and Porzingis is 25—isn’t unusual. What is unique about them is just how fast they’ve gelled into a dominant force on the floor. Inside the bubble, they erupted offensively. They combined to average 60.5 points per game. Most impressively, Porzingis increased his scoring average at Disney World by 11 points when compared to the rest of the regular season. He averaged 30.5 points in Orlando and 19.2 beforehand.

“I think being the trail guy in our offense and playing with Luka is so easy,” Porzingis says. “You know me also adjusting my game in a way, popping and rolling, and I’m mixing those two things and I think it’s hard for the other team to make the read. Also, being more aggressive when I do roll to the basket and ask for the ball inside and take advantage of a mismatch.”

Keeping that scoring output going will be key against the Clippers. As Carlisle notes, they’ll harry the Mavericks’ stars in any number of ways. Still, there’s promise that Doncic and Porzingis can maintain their offensive prowess in the series. In the teams’ meeting in the bubble, Doncic scored 29 points and Porzingis poured in 30. Both shot the ball well. The playoffs are a different beast, though.

The intensity of the game ramps up in the NBA’s second season. They’ll be going toe-to-toe with playoff veterans like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, and others. Without any postseason experience, how Doncic and Porzingis respond to the pressure is anyone’s guess. That’s not to say that either is unfamiliar with high-pressure situations. They have competed in similar situations in Europe and in international play. Still, those situations aren’t the same, but they can draw on that experience.

“It is the playoffs,” Doncic says. “It is the same emotions. For sure I am going to lean on that experience, it is tough to play in Europe too. Same emotions, it is a way higher level in the NBA, but same emotions so you have to be ready.”

The Mavericks have come a long way since they first made known their playoff aspirations at the start of the season. What looked like a bridge too far as well as a potentially feasible goal at the same time is now a reality. How far their excursion into the postseason lasts depends almost entirely on how far Doncic and Porzingis can carry the team. Regardless if they don’t play another series, the experience both gain now is not only invaluable in the present but also for the future of the franchise.

“This is a very important period,” Carlisle says. “It’s very important for our players to have this experience. Matching up against the Clippers, it’s a very challenging matchup because of their talent and the physical nature of how they play. We’ll learn a lot about ourselves as we begin competing in the series.”

Watching Nylon Burn

In the history of the NBA, no team has fielded a better offense than the 2019-20 Dallas Mavericks. In 75 games, they had an offensive rating of 115.9, more than two full points better than the No. 2 team—their playoff opponent, the Clippers. Simply put, the Mavericks are an offensive juggernaut.

That prowess maintained inside the NBA Bubble in Orlando. It wasn’t in top form, though. Dallas ranked fourth in overall offensive rating during the seeding games at 117.4. The Portland Trail Blazers and their 122.5 rating took the top spot. As the playoffs begin, it’s going to be the offense, more than anything, that determines their fate and carries the Mavericks forward.

“I like to score,” Rick Carlisle says, “what can I tell you?”

Carlisle has done it all. In the span of two decades, he’s coached one of the most feared defensive teams—the Detroit Pistons—and now has the most prolific offense ever under his belt. The Mavericks poured in a whopping 8776 points total this season to lead the league. However, they weren’t particularly special when it comes to shooting percentages.

Dallas isn’t a top-10 team when it comes to field goals. They rank sixteenth at 46.1 percent. When it comes to three-pointers, they move up the charts a little bit. They’re No. 10 at 36.7 percent. It’s the volume from deep that really sets the Mavericks apart, though. With 3,095 attempts, they rank second behind just the Houston Rockets.

“Obviously, that’s one of our strengths—our offense,” Kristaps Porzingis says. “Just the way we play, we’re a dangerous team offensively. On any given night, we can surprise people we can beat anybody with our offense.”

If the Mavericks were seeing the Milwaukee Bucks—another potent offense—in the first-round, there might be a certain degree of expectation that they would advance. Dallas has had Milwaukee’s number this season. The Mavs drew the Clippers, though.

Los Angeles has the talent to quell Dallas’ offense. In three meetings this season, they’ve held the Mavs to 42 percent shooting overall and just 30.9 percent from downtown. Combine that with Dallas’ lackluster shooting in Orlando and you may have a recipe for a quick first-round exit.

The bubble hasn’t been kind to the Mavericks. Their three-point shooting just hasn’t been there. Not only are they shooting the long ball less, but they are connecting at a rate of 34.8 percent. If they are to have any shot of challenging the Clippers, Dallas will need to see its offensive spark return.

Even though this season will go down in history as the best for the Mavericks’ offense, it’s not something they are dwelling on. They know that it’s their strength, but to be more successful, they are still trying to become a more complete team. If they can do that against the Clippers, there’s no telling how far they may go.

“As good as we are on offense,” Carlisle says, “our best chance to be ultimately successful is to keep improving defensively.”

Third quarter blues

For as good as the Mavericks are, there are times when they look like a G League team getting run out of the gym. Nowhere is this seemingly more apparent than in the third quarter. It’s been an issue for years.

As frustrating as third quarters can be, Dallas has a knack for tripping over itself. That’s been the case in several games in Orlando so far. If the Mavs find success in the playoffs, they’ll need to clean up all the minor errors that lead to crushing, late-game losses.

“Sometimes, the game isn’t going to go your way,” Tim Hardaway Jr. says. “The ball bounces a certain way, here and there. You can only control what you can control out there on the floor.”

It’s not just lapses coming out of halftime, it’s late game situations too. Dallas is remarkably poor in the clutch. While they have the best offensive rating in the history of the league, that mark plummets to 99.2 in clutch situations this season, ranking them twenty-sixth.

That number is markedly improved in the bubble. They have an offensive rating of 118.9 in the clutch in Orlando. Still, that’s only good enough for ninth. Repeatedly, the Mavericks’ inability to execute down the stretch has been on full display.

Opening night of seeding play for Dallas was a prime example of the team’s late game stumbles. The Mavericks allowed the Rockets to climb back into the game after building a huge lead. They would lose to Houston in overtime thanks, in large part, to their inability to come up with timely plays and buckets in the final minutes of regulation.

“I think we should have stayed probably more offensive-minded the way we were the whole game,” Porzingis said after the game. “At the end we tried to slow it down and the pressure was up obviously, and we tried to slow it down, and kind of just cruise and win the game.”

Against the Clippers in the bubble, the Mavericks had another late game melt down. That can’t happen in the playoffs. The Mavericks have made it a point to focus on their struggles out of halftime as well as late in the fourth quarter. They don’t have to be perfect, but they must play better.

“We’re a young team,” Doncic says. “We’ve got a lot to learn. We’ll get better for sure. I know we’re going to get together when it matters most to the players, so I’m not worried about that.”

Stepping up when it matters most

Play inside the bubble has been…different. What notions of who the Mavericks were this season went right out the window. Through eight seeding games, the team took on a remarkably new form.

Outside of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks are not who we thought they were. The players that supported the two stars haven’t produced at the same level. If Dallas is going to make their series against the Clippers interesting, it’ll need the help of its role players.

“It is great just being able to get shots up and being able to attack the basket to get myself going that way instead of settling a little” Hardaway said after playing the Utah Jazz. “I think that really helped me out a lot just to see the ball go in the basket.”

Hardaway hasn’t played remarkably well since the season restarted. Prior to the league suspending play, he established himself as the Mavericks’ third option. His play in Orlando has been anything but consistent, though.

In the 63 games before the shutdown, he averaged 15.8 points on 43.7 percent shooting. He was also knocking down shots from deep at 40.7 percent—a career high. His point production hasn’t taken a huge hit, down just 0.4 points, but his long shots aren’t falling. He’s only connecting on 32.8 percent from deep.

Seth Curry has also seen his numbers fall in the bubble. He’s been dealing with a right leg issue that has kept him out for several games, which may be the reason for his inconsistency. He was averaging 12.6 points on 50 percent shooting before the break and hitting threes at a 45.3 percent clip. In the bubble, those numbers have dropped to 10.2 points, 42.9 percent shooting overall, and 42.9 percent (yes, the same percentage) on three-pointers in five games.

As Hardaway’s and Curry’s contributions waned, Dorian Finney-Smith stepped into the fore as the team’s go-to third option. He set a career high in scoring against the Bucks with 27 points, draining six of his 12 three-point attempts. His emergence has been crucial for the Mavs.

Finney-Smith is averaging 11.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. He’s also shooting the ball well at 44.6 percent overall and 39.5 percent from deep.

“He’s blossomed into a terrific three-and-D guy that can drive the ball, rebound, and make plays for others as well,” Hardaway says. “So, I’m happy for him.”

If the Mavericks are going to advance in the playoffs, they’ll need Hardaway and Curry to round back into form. With the Clippers locked in on Doncic and Porzingis, they will have more opportunities and they must rise to the occasion. The entirety of the seeding games led them to this moment and they need to be ready.

“Every game is leading up to the playoffs,” Seth Curry says. “You might not win the game but, win or lose, it is about trying to work yourself into as good of shape as possible to get ready for the first round.”

- Doyle Rader

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

THE FULL SCHEDULE

All times CST, all games to broadcast on Fox Sports Southwest except Game 4

Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4 Game 5 (if necessary) Game 6 (if necessary) Game 7 (if necessary)
Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4 Game 5 (if necessary) Game 6 (if necessary) Game 7 (if necessary)
Monday, Aug. 17, 8 p.m., FSSW/ESPN Wednesday, Aug. 19, 8 p.m., FSSW/TNT Friday, Aug. 21, 8 p.m., FSSW/TNT Sunday, Aug. 23, 2:30 p.m., ABC Tuesday, Aug. 25, TBD, FSSW/TBD Thursday, Aug. 27, TBD, FSSW/ESPN Saturday, Aug. 29, TBD, FSSW/TNT

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