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Previewing the Dallas Mavericks against the Los Angeles Clippers

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A deep-dive into the Mavericks first round series matchup

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks played the whole 72 game season to get to the same spot where they were last season. A first-round playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Here we go again.

Well, not everything is the same. Last season Mavericks were the seventh seed, this season they improved and finished fifth in the Western Conference. Some might see it as progress. But the 4 vs 5 matchup looks misleading. Looking at the point differential (which is often a better indicator of a team’s true strength), the Clippers were the second-best team in the league this season. The Mavericks finished tenth. The gap in point differential between both teams is actually bigger than it was last season. In 2019-20, Dallas finished sixth in point differential, and the Clippers were third.

Poor clutch performance this season led to the Clippers falling to the fourth seed; well that and some late season tanking. They were 16-18 in clutch games, Mavericks were 18-15. This is the opposite of what happened last season, when Mavericks ended up much lower in the standings than they should be based on their point differential, because of their poor clutch record.

The Mavericks are still a big underdog going into this series even if the standings might not show it as such. There’s still hope: any team with Luka Dončić and Rick Carlisle playing on the big stage is dangerous. They proved that in last year’s playoffs when they beat the Clippers twice with a depleted roster. Heck, Rick Carlisle had to play Boban Marjanović, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Trey Burke significant minutes and still managed to make the series competitive.

Let’s dive into the key things that will decide this matchup.

Mavericks Profile

  • 42-30, 5th in the Western Conference.
  • Tenth in point differential, eighth ranked offense, 22nd ranked defense per Cleaning the Glass
  • Offense based on pick and roll, drive and kick game, and three-point shooting: fourth in the NBA in three-point frequency, 28th in at the rim frequency.

Strengths: Good pick and roll team, ranked third in the NBA in pick and roll ball-handler efficiency, fifth in pick and roll roll-man efficiency. Best in the NBA in at the rim accuracy.

Weaknesses: Defense. Mavericks ranked 22nd in overall defense, 25th in pick and roll defense, 22nd in defending isolations, and 27th at defending post-ups.

Clippers Profile

  • 47-25, fourth in the Western Conference.
  • Second in point differential, fourth ranked offense, ninth ranked defense per Cleaning the Glass.
  • Offense based on great individual play, isolations, post-up, long-mid range shots, and corner threes: fifth in the NBA in long-mid frequency, and second in corner three frequency, 26th in at rim frequency.

Strengths: Best three-point shooting team in the NBA, ranked first at spot-up shooting per Synergy.

Weaknesses: Pick and roll defense, last in the NBA in pick and roll ball-handler defense, 23rd in pick and roll roll-man defense. Clutch offense and end of game playmaking.

Key matchups — what and how to watch

Long gone are the days where NBA basketball was about who wins the one-on-one matchups. Allowing zone , and embedding concepts of the zone into help defense, made containing great scorers like Luka Dončić or Kawhi Leonard a team job. Teams run so many pick and rolls and ball-screen actions, that it doesn’t matter as much who starts the possession defending a star player. It’s what happens after the first rotation, and how the help defense reacts that really matters. This matchup is not about Luka Dončić versus Kawhi Leonard. It’s Luka Dončić against the different Clippers' defensive schemes.

Clippers defense and key coverages

How the Clippers plan to contain Dončić and the Mavericks offense is the most interesting thing to watch for Mavericks fans. Based on what we’ve seen in regular-season matchups and last year's playoffs, the Clippers’ coverages on defense will depend on whether Kristaps Porzingis is on the floor or not. When he is, the Clippers will defend him with a wing player (they have many options with Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris, or Nicolas Batum) and have their big man Ivica Zubac defend the other Mavericks’ front-court player (Kleber or Finney-Smith).

Many Mavericks fans wonder why Dončić and Porzingis don’t run more pick and roll actions. When a wing player defends Porzingis, the Clippers will switch on every pick and roll between Dončić and Porzingis, which prevents Mavericks creating any real advantage. Expect the Mavericks to counter by running pick and rolls with whoever Zubac (or Serge Ibaka) is guarding. The Clippers will defend pick and roll actions that involve Zubac with a drop coverage, while switching on all other actions. The goal of the drop coverage is to take away drives to the rim, and force Dončić to shoot the three-ball or mid-range jumpers.

When Porzingis is not on the floor, the Clippers will adjust and put their big man on the Mavericks non-shooting big, Dwight Powell or Willie Cauley-Stein. In some transition situations and cross-matches, Zubac would eventually defend Porzingis and you see Dončić attacking that matchup immediately.

You can also expect the Clippers to throw different looks at Dončić. They’ll try to put on-ball pressure with smaller guards like Patrick Beverly, Reggie Jackson, or Terance Mann. Or bother Dončić with strength and length with Leonard, Morris, Batum, and George.

End game situations

At the end of games, expect Dallas to start hunting guard to guard ball-screen actions to get Dončić the most favorable matchup. We’ll see who from the trio of Beverley, Rondo, Jackson will be the point guard for the Clippers in closing lineups. Mavericks will do everything possible to get one of them switched on Dončić. His last season game-winning three in Game 4 of the Clippers series happened in such a situation when Reggie Jackson was forced to switch on Dončić after initial Kleber’s screen.

The point guard is not the only intriguing position in the Clippers’ closing lineups. It will be interesting to see if Lue ends the game with Ibaka or Zubac at the center position, or if he’ll go to a small-ball lineup with Morris at the five spot.

Maverick starting lineup and defense

The biggest question mark going into this series for the Mavericks is the health of Maxi Kleber. Kleber is the key piece on defense, the primary defender on Leonard and if he’s not able to go or not fully healthy, the Mavericks will be in trouble. Carlisle experimented with two big lineups at the end of the regular season, but I don’t expect we’ll see much of them if Kleber is healthy. Powell-Porzingis lineups looked really good on offense, but were terrible on defense. Terrible might be an understatement, as lineups with both Powell and Porzingis on the floor allowed 133.2 points per 100 possessions, among the worst lineups in the league (zero percentile).

On defense, the matchup against the Clippers is not the worst thing that could happen for Porzingis, who struggled on defense all season. The Clippers don’t have fast guards with the range that extends beyond the three-point line, which forces Porzingis to defend in space. It will be interesting to see if the Clippers attack Porzingis in pick and roll, especially if Carlisle plays him in a drop coverage. Both Leonard and George are capable of getting to their mid-range spots. Carlisle might counter by providing nail help defense, which gets Dallas in defensive rotations and leaves the spot-up shooters open. This is a risky business, as the Clippers are the best three-point shooting team in the league. Every rotation player (except Ibaka) shot above 40 percent from three this season.

The other difficult decision Carlisle will have to make is who’ll be the other wing next to Dončić in the starting lineup. He can go offense with Tim Hardaway Jr., or defense with Josh Richardson. Hardaway had a great run to end the season on the offensive end, but Dončić-Hardaway Jr.-Porzingis lineups are very bad on defense. The Clippers averaged 127 points per game against Dallas in the last playoffs. Regardless if he starts or not, this might be a series for Josh Richardson to redeem his season. Richardson was good in three regular-season games against the Clippers, averaging 13.7 points on 53 percent shooting and he seems to do well when matched up against Paul George. I wrote about how Dorian Finney-Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Dwight Powell stepped up their games and made plays when teams started to double Dončić regularly at the end of the season. Richardson will have to make simple plays like this to enable Carlisle to have another defender on the court when it matters.

3 things you can expect to happen in this series

1. Slow pace: The Mavericks (26th) and the Clippers (28th) are two of the slowest-paced teams in the NBA. Dallas is last (30th) in the league in transition frequency, the Clippers are 25th. Carlisle tried to play at a faster pace and outscore the Clippers with an undermanned roster in last year’s series. The Mavericks played at a faster pace in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. But don’t expect this to happen again with the full roster.

2. Clippers will load up on Dončić and take the rim away: Dallas finished the season ranked 28th in the league in rim frequency. So, it’s not exactly that they are a rim attacking team. Only 28.5 percent of the Dallas shots are at the rim. But they’re the best in the league at finishing once they get there.

Mavericks either take good shots or pass out well off Dončić’s and Brunson’s drives. In the last two regular season’s games against the Clippers, the share of Mavericks rim shots was much lower than average, in the low twenties. With Zubac in drop coverage, it’s difficult to get to the rim, so it will be important for Dončić to hit his mid-range shots. Dončić developed his game to become one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA this season.

3. Mavericks will shoot a lot of three-pointers: Another consequence of Clippers loading on Dončić is that there will be a lot of three-point shooting by the Dončić’s supporting cast. Mavericks are fourth in the league in three-point frequency, 40.8 percent of their shots were three-point shots. In three regular-season games against the Clippers, these shares were 47.9, 51.2, and 40.2 percent. We got used to the fact that the outcome of Maverick’s game is heavily dependent on their three-point shots falling. This series won’t be any different.

3 Key question marks for the Mavericks

1. Is Maxi Kleber healthy? Kleber is the most important Mavericks defensive player in this matchup — if he’s healthy and ready to go. The Mavericks don’t have anybody else with Kleber’s combination of size, length, and mobility to throw on Kawhi Leonard. “Maxi is unique in that he’s got really good size and length and he moves his feet well,” Carlisle said this week, describing Kleber and his unique skill-set.

2. Can Dallas get any stops? Even if Kleber is ready to go and available, the Dallas defense will be tested. Mavericks were up and down on defense all season. Carlisle tried more aggressive coverages on defense when Porzingis was out, with Cauley-Stein and Powell defending higher at the level of the screens. With Porzingis back, Mavericks will probably revert to more conservative schemes with Porzingis in drop coverage in pick and roll. Carlisle will try to put Porzingis on the worst shooting wing and use him as a help defender. But Porzingis regressed as both a help defender and rim protector this season. This will be a huge series for Porzingis to prove he can still be a difference-maker on defense.

The other interesting thing to watch is what Carlisle does when the Clippers go small. Los Angeles occasionally close games with a small lineup that features Morris at the center. How Porzingis fares against the smaller lineups both on defense, and on offense could decide this series. This brings us to the next question.

3. Will Porzingis be able to punish switches?

Dallas will need the best version of Porzingis to defeat the Clippers, which plays the center position both on offense and defense and in as many pick and roll actions with Luka Dončić as possible. They are the most efficient pick and roll combo in the league, the problem is they don’t do it as much as they could.

To that Porzingis will need to show he can score against the smaller defenders and force the Clippers to defend him with a big man. Porzingis improved as a post-up player this season. 20.4 percent of Porzingis’s possessions are post-ups and he is scoring 0.981 points per possession on them. He had mixed success posting-up against the Clippers this season. Porzingis shot a respectable 57 percent but also had three turnovers on ten possessions against the Clippers. This will be the series for Porzingis to prove he can be the second star and get a bucket when things get tough.

Final predictions

This will be a fun matchup. Any playoffs series with Luka Dončić on the big stage is.

In the end, it will come down to if the Mavericks can step up defensively and to which team shoots better from beyond the arc. We know the Clippers will defend, they replaced their weak links in Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams with Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, and Rajon Rondo — all are competent defenders. The Mavericks didn’t improve their defense, but maybe they can prove us wrong in the playoffs. Both teams will defend the star player on the other team with double teams and help defense, so role-players hitting open looks will be crucial. The Clippers were the best regular-season three-point shooting team, better than the Mavericks by a significant margin. Yet, three-point shooting luck can swing, especially early in the playoffs and over a short period of a seven-game series. We’ve seen what happened to the Playoff P last year.

The odds are not great for the Mavericks, but this team played against the odds all season long. Mavs in 7 baby!

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