Luka Doncic has done unimaginable things through his first playoff series. Through four games, he’s averaging 31.5 points per game (fourth in NBA), 10.5 rebounds per game (T-seventh), 9.8 assists per game (third) and 1.5 steals per game (T-sixth). He’s been scoring the ball efficiently, shooting 51.8 percent from the field and 37.9 on three-point attempts.
It feels greedy to nitpick Doncic’s game and ask for more, which is not what I’m trying to do. Rather, I want to shed light on a particular area where Doncic could be even more effective.
Of all the talented defenders on the Clippers roster, Ivica Zubac has — surprisingly — been the one giving Doncic the biggest headache. Zubac has held Doncic to just 23.1 percent shooting from the field, the lowest of any Clipper who has defended Doncic for more than one shot. Maybe even more surprising, Doncic has taken seven three-point attempts with Zubac defending him and has made only one.
Not to take anything away from Zubac, who finished the regular season with a strong defensive rating of 104.1, but this match-up should favor Doncic. Zubac is larger and slower, so if Doncic hasn’t been taking advantage of this switch, his mistakes have likely been self-induced. In the playoffs, when a larger defender has been switched onto Doncic, he often has been settling for step-back threes rather than attacking the basket. It would make sense if these shots were successful for Doncic, but they haven’t been so far.
Doncic does a good job here at using the shot fake to force the defense to switch. But when they do, Doncic doesn’t attack. Rather, he just uses a simple dribble in-between the legs and launches a step-back three. He leaves it short, which becomes a common theme as Doncic has to compensate for Zubac’s height advantage.
Take a look at how many Clippers have eyes on Doncic here when he begins to size-up Zubac. Five — every single one. The Mavericks are five-men out, every single body behind the three-point line. This is the offensive set that allows those staple kick-outs to the corner. All five Clippers are forced to watch Doncic because he’s such a threat on the drive. Marcus Morris Sr. isn’t even trying to be shy about the impeding trap.
You can see that he’s already prepared to detach from Dorian Finney-Smith. With his hands ready to catch the ball, Finney-Smith is anticipating Doncic to attack and then swing him the ball. Instead, Doncic takes another difficult, high-arching step-back. This one is far less pretty than the previous.
The confusing part about this is that driving has proven to be effective for Doncic. His dribble moves in combination with his size make it difficult for a large defender to keep up. While Zubac is dropping to protect the paint, Doncic slows the play down which forces Zubac to come up and respect his shot.
As soon as he does, Doncic uses a simple but quick crossover and drives right at him to get an easy bucket. Although he’s not the quickest player, Doncic’s uses his acceleration to help him beat defenders to the basket.
Doncic executes this switch to perfection. He could’ve hit Kristaps Porzingis for an easy three, but I like his aggressiveness to ensure he gets to the spot he wants. Doncic first uses a hesitation move, forcing Zubac to stop and shift momentum. Then he drives right at him, using an arm bar to create separation. After using a pump fake that Zubac doesn’t bite on, Doncic buries shoulder into his chest and goes straight up for a bucket.
Doncic is likely settling for step-backs out of fatigue. He has played the 24th most total minutes these playoffs despite missing a large chunk of floor time battling injuries. Then of course there are the injuries. Doncic is missing a bit of his explosiveness as he deals with a sprained ankle.
If the Mavericks continue to create opportunities like these for Doncic, it’s imperative that he attacks them. In the playoffs, he has shot 57.7 percent in the non-restricted area of the paint. That’s a vast improvement from the 41.4 percent he shot in the regular season. Especially with Porzingis out for game 5, it will be key that Luka Doncic can get to his spots and exploit mismatches.