NBA Playoffs basketball is fun. Each game is a chess game of tactical moves, adjustments, and counters. Dallas won game one 113-103 because their adjustments mattered more (and they hit more shots).
Throughout the playoffs, we’ll recap how things unfolded on the court. We’ll highlight key tactical wrinkles for each team in a notebook observation format.
Starting lineups and matchups: Mavericks started Luka Dončić, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Kristaps Porzingis. The Clippers starting five were Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kwahi Leonard, Marcus Morris, and Ivica Zubac.
Matchups and early defensive tactics (Mavericks): Carlisle started with Dončić on Morris, Hardaway Jr. on Beverley, Finney-Smith on George, Kleber on Leonard, and Porzingis on Zubac. Porzingis was mostly in drop coverage on ball-screen actions involving Zubac, while others switched on all other pick and rolls and ball-screens.
Matchups and early defensive tactics (Clippers): Ty Lue started with Beverley guarding Dončić, Leonard on Porzingis, Morris on Kleber, and Zubac on Maxi. Zubac was mostly in drop coverage on ball-screen actions involving Dončić, while others switched on all other pick and rolls and ball-screens. Putting a wing on Porzingis took the Latvian out of the game in terms of pick and roll actions like we predicted in our series preview.
What worked for Dallas:
Good things happened when the Mavericks pushed the ball and played with pace. Mavericks scored on several possessions in early offense in the first quarter.
Dončić took advantage and punished a smaller Beverley on post-up. Dončić was fouled and went to the line on the first play, then converted an and-one opportunity on the second post-up. Lue had to sub out Beverley with two fouls, after less than four minutes of playtime. This cleared out all doubts that Beverley could present problems on Dončić in this series. Just too f.... small.
Luka to Beverley: "Too f#сking small" pic.twitter.com/98ZneQ4bQA— Misha Konygin (@gdfactoryclips) May 23, 2021
Porzingis had a good start to the game both on offense and defense. Porzingis hit his first two shots and was good at providing help defense when the Clippers got to the rim.
- Dončić attacked Zubac in drop coverage with his drives and a mix of mid-range shots. The Clippers announcer talked about how Los Angeles felt comfortable with this matchup going into the series. But Dončić scored three times against Zubac and Ibaka, making tough fadeaway jumpers, but the kind we’ve seen him make this season. Dončić exposing Zubac with his mid-range game is an important early development in this series.
What didn’t work for Dallas
The Mavericks willingly switched all ball-screens involving Kawahi Leonard and Paul George. Dončić switched on Leonard several times and struggled to stay in front of Leonard on several possessions. Porzingis provided help, but Leonard either found Zubac under the rim or scored easily on isolation plays against Dončić.
While Dončić was efficient with his mid-range game against Zubac, his step-back three wasn’t falling. Dončić went 0 for 3 on step-backs in the first quarter.
Score: Dallas leads 33-30
- Lue started with a big man (Ibaka) guarding Porzingis in non-Luka minutes. The Clippers also switched all Porizngis ball-screen actions. Carlisle tried to establish Porzingis early in the second quarter, calling several plays for the Latvian early at the start of the second quarter. Porzingis failed to score, and the Mavericks offense struggled in non-Dončić minutes.
- Lue went to small-ball lineups for the first time in the series, at 9:20 mark in the second quarter. The lineup of Rondo, Jackson, George, Batum, and Morris. How the Mavericks cope with the Clippers' small-ball lineups both on offense and defense will be a key thing to watch in this series.
- The Clippers continued to hunt Dončić on defense, mostly with Leonard - Beverly pick and rolls. But the Mavericks adjusted and started to double-team Leonard on most actions.
- Here is Lue’s quote after the game about small-ball and hunting Dončić:
“I think going small, spacing them out a little bit. I think Porzingis playing the 5, we had to space him out, they spaced us out a little bit, was able to attack, get into the paint and make plays for our self and our teammates. So going small and kind of creating that energy defensively as well, being able to track Luka, firing at Luka and changing our defensive coverage as well.”
- Porzingis struggled against the switching Clippers defense, failing to establish a good post position or score against the smaller defenders. If Porzingis cannot punish smaller Clippers wing defenders, it will be hard for him to establish himself as a strong second option in this series.
- The Clippers targeted Melli with George and Leonard pick and roll actions with limited success.
- The Mavericks defense started to double Kawhi Leonard, on post-up and isolation plays. This generated plenty of wide-open shots, Rajon Rondo made his first two three-point shots in the series out of Leonard's double-teams.
- We saw the first trap against Dončić in this series at the 4:30 mark left in the second quarter.
- Lue went with Zubac again after the first run with the small-ball lineup. The Clippers adjusted and had Zubac show higher on screens and switch on Dončić in pick and roll actions. But, Dončić started to make his step-back threes on isolations versus Zubac. Dončić finding his three-point shot after his poor shooting stretch over the last month is a big development for this series.
Score: Dallas leads 60-55
- Carlisle tried to get Porzingis going at the start of the second half. Yet, Porzingis failed to score against Kawhi and Morris on either of the first two possessions.
- The Mavericks double teamed Leonard on almost every possession.
- The Clippers started with regular trapping of Dončić at the end of the third quarter, and the Mavericks struggle to adjust initially.
- The Clippers continued with small-ball lineups, switching on all ball-screens. Beverley switched on Porzingis on several occasions, but after initial Porzingis failures, the Mavericks stopped pursuing the mismatches.
- Dončić continued to attack Zubac in pick and rolls. Dončić scored in different ways against Zubac: getting to the free-throw line, making one-legged fadeaway jumpers, and a corner step-back three.
- The Mavericks were bad again in non-Dončić minutes in the third quarter. Jalen Brunson was -10, compared to Dončić +13 at the end of the third quarter.
- Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith made some good decisive plays when the Clippers trapped Dončić. This would be a key development that continued in the fourth quarter and eventually won this game for Dallas. If Mavericks role-players can continue to make plays out of Dončić’s traps, the Mavericks will have a chance in this series.
Score: Dallas leads 86-80
- Carlisle opened the quarter with a weird Dončić, Brunson, Richardson, Melli, Powell lineup. This lineup had three bad shooters (Richardson, Melli, Powel) next to Dončić and Dallas struggled on offense early in the fourth.
- However, Carlisle pulled the plug early enough, at the 8:30 mark in the fourth quarter, when he subbed most of the starters, including Porzingis back in.
- The Mavericks continued to trap Leonard on every possession. Dallas made several good and quick rotations out of Leonard's double-teams, closing on Clippers' three-point shooters.
- The Clippers closed the game with a small-ball lineup.
- The Clippers continued to trap Dončić on every possession in the fourth quarter. After Dončić scored only one point in the fourth quarter, he highlighted the Clippers traps and double-teams:
“I mean, they were double-teaming, first of all, on every possession.”
- The Mavericks were ready for the traps, Dončić “pulled” the traps to the half-court or to the sideline and the Maverick made several plays down the stretch in 4-on-3 situations.
- After a rough start Jalen Brunson made two big plays in the fourth quarter. Brunson was able to exploit the Clippers defense focusing on Dončić by attacking the rim. The Mavericks missed Brunson badly in the last year’s series, and these kind of plays are the reason why.
- Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, and Kristaps Porzingis (yes, we finally saw KP do good things) made several big plays in 4-on-3 situations after the Clippers trapped Dončić. Hardaway Jr. made several tough shots, while Finney-Smith made some good quick decisions on the short rolls out of the Dončić traps. The last zero-second pass by Finney-Smith is even more impressive than his three-point makes.
Final score: 113-103 Dallas win.
Earlier this month, when the Mavericks were deep in the play-in race I wrote why playing tough games will make Dallas better prepared for the playoffs. The Lakers and the Heat trapped Dončić aggressively in those games, and the Mavericks good important reps against aggressive coverages. Last night was proof that the Mavericks learned the lessons and are ready.
Dončić manipulated the double teams much better than Kawhi Leonard. Dončić’s ability to pull the traps far out to spread the court, and make quick passes is something Leonard in all his greatness can’t do. To be fair, often when Leonard passed out of the double teams, the Clippers didn’t make their shots. Dallas was doing well on most of the rotations, but the Clippers still got plenty of open looks. The best three-point shooting team in the NBA made just 27.5 percent of their threes last night. Per Synergy Dallas scored 18 points on 14 unguarded jump shots, while the Clippers made 18 points on 20 unguarded jump shots. Six more shots going in for one or the other team is a difference that will probably decide the rest of the games in this series.
Here’s the postgame podcast, Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you can’t see the embed below “More from Mavs Moneyball”, click here. And if you haven’t yet, subscribe by searching “Mavs Moneyball podcast” into your favorite podcast app.