Luka Doncic vs. Kawhi Leonard is undoubtedly the headline of the Mavericks and Clippers series. However, Luka versus Ibaka Zubac and Serge Ibaka is an interesting undercard worth investigating.
Zubac is a terror rolling to the rim after screening for Leonard. Maxi Kleber does as good of a job as can be expected limiting Leonard to midrange jumpers, but Kleber is simply not athletic enough to fight through a screen and stay in front of Kawhi. There aren't many players in the league who are. Once the helping big hedges at all (think Kristaps Porzingis in the first quarter of Game 1), Zubac rolls to the rim as hard as he can and looks to finish strong.
This combination of a solid screen and a hard roll, with a ball handler who is too good to be defended without some form of help by the helping big means the Mavericks are not able to defend the Leonard/Zubac pick and roll with two defenders.
Involving a third defender is not ideal due to the Clippers elite shooting. Despite the poor showing in Game 1, the Clippers led the league in three point percentage during the regular season at 41.1 percent. Zubac is the only rotation player besides Ibaka with a three point percentage below 39.7 percent. Ibaka shot 33.9 percent this year and is a career 35.9 percent shooter from three so he is at least a respectable threat.
Leonard has averaged consecutive career highs in assists each of the last two seasons. He has improved as a passer but his assist-per-100 possessions is still noticeably higher with Zubac on the floor as it improved from 6.96 without Zubac to 8.42 with Zubac this season. Zubac’s hard rolls open simple passes to the rim, while his vertical gravity opens up simpler passes to open shooters. Leonard had five assists in Game 1 and four of them happened during Zubac’s 19 minutes.
No matter how dangerous the Leonard/Zubac pick and roll is, it can’t hurt the Mavericks when Zubac is on the bench. It is imperative for Luka to punish Zubac enough to keep him on the bench. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
Ibaka and Zubac played a combined total of 32 minutes in Game 1, meaning there were long stretches for the Clippers without a true center on the floor. The Mavericks were plus-11 in that time. The Clippers elite collection of defensive wings is impressive but the attention that Luka requires means that the Mavericks will always be able to create advantages for someone on the court. Without a rim protector behind them, those advantages become fatal for the Clippers defense.
Ibaka does not present the same rim running threat as Zubac but he does offer rim protection and the option of a pick and pop. He presents the same defensive weaknesses for the Clippers that Zubac does. Luka can also punish him on either switches or drop coverages. If Luka can play both off the floor, the Mavericks should be able to dominate the paint and potentially the series.
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