With Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris, the Mavericks just don’t have enough wings to counter. Dorian Finney-Smith is the only reliable 3-and-D wing on the roster, having Luka guard one of the trio would risk foul trouble and Tim Hardaway Jr. is just not equipped. For Game 1, coach Rick Carlisle tried to fight the Clippers size advantage on the perimeter by beefing up his own lineup, starting Maxi Kleber.
The results were, uhm, mixed to put it delicately. Leonard, George and Morris combined for 75 of the Clippers 118 points on 29-of-56 shooting (51.8 percent). Kleber guarded Leonard for a good portion of the night and Leonard absolutely smoked him — when guarded by Kleber, Leonard shot 6-of-12 from the floor and scored 15 points and notched two assists. Take away the threes and he was 5-of-7 against Kleber. The Mavericks started the game in an 18-2 hole before making a lineup switch that eventually got them back into the game. That lineup switch was going back to a one-big, five-out offense that had been successful for the team since Dwight Powell’s season-ending injury in January.
To be fair to Kleber, he did about all he could. Leonard is a monster in the mid-range, shooting 43 percent this season on the fourth-most mid-range attempts. In last season’s playoffs, where Leonard bulldozed his way to a title, he shot a remarkable 49.2 percent from mid-range. Point is, a lot of great defenders have tried to stop Leonard and he routinely beats defenses with the shot defenses are fine giving up. As an aside, Morris was 12th in mid-range attempts this season and shot 44.5 percent on them. Not great when you consider the Mavericks defensive scheme tries to force mid-range jumpers.
Watching Leonard work against Kleber, Leonard just looked comfortable, despite Kleber’s effort to contest as much as he could.
What else is Kleber supposed to do on those possessions? I’m not even sure. The more difficult question is if not Kleber, who? Finney-Smith can’t guard three players at once. Shift Finney-Smith over to Leonard (which the Mavericks did throughout the game) and one of George or Morris were able to get off clean looks.
As the Mavericks were getting run off the floor in the opening minutes, I wondered what data Carlisle looked at to make this switch. The lineup that started Game 1 played just 87 minutes in the regular season and were outscored by 29 points and shot 43.8 percent from the floor and 31.5 percent from three. The lineups featuring the duo of Kleber and Kristaps Porzingis are better: they’ve outscored teams by 46 points in 656 minutes, although the shooting numbers are still pedestrian (43.6 percent from the floor, 35.2 percent from three).
In Game 1, the Kleber-Porzingis duo played 13 minutes in which the Mavericks were outscored 38-30 and shot just 27.3 from three. It was bad enough that Kleber’s defense didn’t make an impact, his offense vanished too — Kleber scored three points, went 1-of-5 from the floor and had three turnovers. The supercharged small-ball identity the Mavericks discovered after the Powell injury behind a Porzingis at center lineup was gone to start the game, and in its place was a lineup that couldn’t guard well enough and offensively looked lost without the additional shooting and scoring of Seth Curry.
Exasperating the lineup struggles was the key move Clippers coach Doc Rivers made by putting Ivica Zubac on Kleber and having Morris guard Porzingis. With Morris on Porzingis, the Clippers had an easier time guarding the Luka Doncic-Porzingis pick and roll and Zubac “hid” on Kleber. If the Mavericks started their normal lineup, that’d force Zubac to guard a perimeter player or Porzingis and even if that’s a stand-still shooter like Dorian Finney-Smith, that’s still preferable because at least you could potentially punish Zubac in cross-matches during transition opportunities. Having Zubac guard Kleber felt like a cop-out and completely negated the Mavericks biggest advantage in this series with Porzingis as the lone big on the floor.
I understand Carlisle’s thinking, but the Mavericks are never going to be a great defensive team with this roster. Stick to what got you here, with your high-powered, historic offense. Plus, Kleber off the bench allows the Mavericks to match up better for when the Clippers bring Montrezl Harrell into the game. The Mavericks options are limited right now with all the injuries and I’m not sure removing one of the few non-Luka ball handlers on the roster from the starting lineup is worth it. With Kleber in, that meant Dallas started three players who aren’t a threat with the ball in their hands past the three point line
Most of this bore out after the Mavericks calmed down and made some lineup switches in the first quarter. Dallas had a 14-point lead at one point in the first half and it wasn’t by accident. Using Porzingis as the lone big to create hard choices for the Clippers defense along with Curry’s much needed scoring went a long way. Those options just aren’t there with Kleber in the starting lineup. The Mavericks just become entirely too predictable.
Like I said earlier, however, it’s not like Kleber was bad on Leonard. He guarded him about as well as he could. Knowing that, it wouldn’t shock me if the Mavericks tried the lineup again in Game 2 and just hope for a better bounce. If that doesn’t happen though, hopefully the Mavericks are ready to go back to what they know and stay that way to make the series competitive.