When thinking about how the Mavericks would overcome the wildly deadly defensive duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, I thought about how defensive wings are, relatively, easier to avoid than a dominant defensive big.
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.
George and Leonard are All-Defense caliber players. The Mavericks offense has options when it’s rolling. Thanks to playing two bigs that can both stretch the floor and the huge contributions from bench guards in support of Luka Doncic, the Mavericks did everything they could to avoid direct confrontation with George and Leonard in Game 2 and instead picked out the weaker defenders from the Clippers lineups and aggressively attacked them for easy buckets.
By far the biggest Clippers adjustment in Game 1 was starting Ivica Zubac on Maxi Kleber and having Marcus Morris guard Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is the biggest advantage the Mavericks have over the entire Clippers roster and Zubac avoid having to chase Porzingis 26 feet from the basket was a huge win for Los Angeles. It helped neuter the Doncic-Porzingis pick and roll, as the Clippers were comfortable with Morris switching onto Doncic and Morris is faster to stay with Porzingis at the three point line. It contributed a little to the shell-shocked opening minutes and once Doncic calmed down and started picking out Zubac to attack, that’s when the Mavericks got back into the game.
In Game 2, the Mavericks didn’t allow Zubac to hide on the opening possession. Kleber is mostly a stand-still spot-up shooter on offense, but he’s had to mix in some rim runs in the pick and roll since Dwight Powell is injured. Kleber mostly hung out behind the arc in Game 1, but in the opening moments of Game 2, the Mavericks instantly forced Zubac to defend in space.
That play must have spooked the Clippers coaching staff, because after that Kleber dunk, Zubac guarded Porzingis on a few possessions in the first half and again, the Mavericks pounced as soon as they realized they had the matchup.
Look at where Zubac is on these Porzingis threes; he’s not even close. You can tell the Clippers wanted to send help from perimeter and just have Zubac worry about the ball handler in front of him, but the Clippers rotations were too late.
This trend continued to the bench, where the Clippers were supposed to have the advantage coming into this series. With Doncic off the floor, both Trey Burke and Seth Curry thrived by hunting out poor Clippers defenders and the Mavericks not forcing anything against a bad matchup. Watch how the Mavericks start with a Tim Hardaway Jr. and Porzingis pick and roll against Morris and Leonard. Predictably, the Clippers guard it well. The Mavericks just go to the next option, with Burke running a pick and roll with Dorian Finney-Smith. Who would you rather go against, Morris and Leonard or Harrell and Williams?
Curry did similar things, canning a couple of mid-range jumpers in the second half against a back-peddling Harrell. Even when the Clippers had their defense set to how they wanted, the Mavericks wisely used their guards to screen worse defenders onto their ball-handlers. Watch as Hardaway screens to force Jackson onto Doncic, which collapses the entire Clippers defense and gets Porzingis a clean look from three. After a Game 1 where the Mavericks made 15 three pointers, they were very hesitant to leave shooters in Game 2. This Porzingis three was one of the few times they did try to sell out and stop Doncic at the rim.
Amazingly, Doncic attempted zero shots against George and just two against Leonard. George started the game on Doncic for a brief moment, but the Mavericks wisely used their two shooting bigs to screen for Doncic and force mismatches against lesser defenders like Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Reggie Jaackon. Even weirder is the Mavericks didn’t have to work that hard to get Doncic against a poor defender — the Clippers, whether by mistake or not, would let a Williams or Jackson pick up Doncic to start some new possessions, usually off a Clippers miss.
This is sustainable, if the Mavericks keep picking these defenders out and forcing the Clippers into uncomfortable decisions. On the other side, the Clippers do have a counter left — fully committing to guarding Doncic with Leonard or George. For whatever reason, the Clippers just haven’t had either of those two guard Doncic for more than a couple of possessions in each half. Maybe they want to preserve them on the offensive end, especially Leonard, who has had to carry a lot in two games. But that option is still there. If it happens, Burke, Curry, Hardaway will need to continue to bully Jackson, Williams and the rest of the Clippers guards.
And they can.