As the Mavericks defense routinely gave up layup after layup in their Game 3 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers Friday night, I kept thinking I had found my moment to highlight the Mavericks inept defense. The one play that could sum everything up.
Then another breakdown would happen that felt worse. Then, another. Honestly, it was hard to keep track of all the Mavericks defensive miscues. That tends to happen when you allow a team to shoot 58 percent from the floor.
In the end, I thought of two plays that sort of summed up the Mavericks defense and fittingly, from both plays involved their two stars, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (yes, yes, please insert your “Tim Hardaway Jr. is the Mavericks second star though” jokes here).
Both plays were bad beats that resulted in layups. Both of them were not off complex actions, just getting beat by a simple backdoor cut or a 1-on-1 attack.
There are definitely reasons for both of those Clipper baskets — Porzingis was guarding a perimeter player, Doncic guarding a quicker point guard — but at the end of the day, the excuses don’t mean much. The Mavericks got roasted by the Clippers, who shot 17-of-20 in the restricted area, an astronomical number for a high-stakes playoff game.
While the Mavericks still have a 2-1 series lead and are definitely still in good position with Game 4 at home on Sunday, the defense hasn’t been good enough throughout the series. As Locked On Mavs co-host Nick Angstadt pointed out after the game, the Mavericks defensive ratings have been dreadful in each game and it’s getting worse: 121.2 in Game 1, 124.7 in Game 2 and 136 in Game 3, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. For reference, NBA.com had the NBA’s best offense this season as the Brooklyn Nets, who scored 117.3 points per 100 possessions, a new record, shattering the Mavericks offense from the season before. So through three games, the Clippers are performing at a significantly better number than the best offense in NBA history. That’s less than ideal, even if the Mavericks are stunningly doing even better than the Clippers on the offensive side of the ball.
On Friday the Clippers did to the Mavericks what the Mavericks like to do to other teams — stretch the spacing of the floor to make the defense as uncomfortable as possible. With Serge Ibaka out with an injury and Ivica Zubac again getting eviscerated by Doncic, the Clippers played almost the entire game with no real center. That caused problems for the Mavericks and especially Porzingis, who had to guard a perimeter player for the majority of his 34 minutes.
Los Angeles spread the Mavericks out and picked on their poor perimeter defenders. Say what you will about Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson, but defensive dynamos they are not. The Clippers were able to isolate the Mavericks poor perimeter defenders with lots of space and not too much worry of any resistance at the rim. With Porzingis on a perimeter play like Nicholas Batum and Maxi Kleber on Kawhi Leonard, the Mavericks had no shot blocking all night. Dallas had two blocks, both coming from Willie Cauley-Stein in his 14 minutes.
In the play above, Rondo easily scoots by Doncic to get an easy lay-in. Doncic getting beat is bad enough, but the Clippers small ball forced Kleber and Porzingis to make rotations as Rondo started his drive, preventing either from helping at the rim. The Mavericks can’t keep their man in front of them and it’s causing a cascade of issues.
Even when the Mavericks did have a big to meet a Clippers player at the rim, Los Angeles just shot over them as if they weren’t there. Porzingis did little to stop the Clippers paint attacks when he did get to rotate over.
“Mainly just attacking,” Paul George said of his offensive mindset after the game. “They don’t have a rim protector, so just try to get there and put pressure at the basket.”
Porzingis will take the brunt of the defensive struggles and honestly, it’s earned. Doncic and the other Mavericks didn’t help him out, to be perfectly fair, but getting help from your teammates doesn’t prevent getting whipped by two backdoor cuts and a drive to the basket all within one quarter.
Simply put: Porzingis has to be better in these situations, because things are difficult enough with the inconsistent perimeter defense that often leaves Porzingis in no man’s land. It doesn’t help that the Clippers rarely offer an easy place for Porzingis to hide, as most of their role players are comfortable making plays at the rim. Whether it’s Porzingis figuring things out or the Mavericks scheming to help (maybe some zone?), Porzingis either has to be better or play less minutes, regardless of where the fault lies.
When the Clippers go this small, it’s just tough for this Mavericks roster. Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith are the Mavericks two best defenders in the starting lineup, but both Leonard and George have gotten whatever they wanted this series. That’s fine in a vacuum, those are two great players, but if the Mavericks two best defenders aren’t making an impact on that side of the ball, what chance does the rest of the team truly have in terms of getting stops? The Mavericks have a lot of one-way players on the roster and there were moments in Game 3 where it became apparent and hard for the Mavericks to manage.
Late in the third quarter, Cauley-Stein and Josh Richardson checked in and both gave Dallas some good defensive minutes. Unfortunately with those two on the floor, the Mavericks spacing gets cramped and the Mavericks couldn’t close the gap before the fourth quarter started. Then Rick Carlisle would go with Brunson and Hardway next to Doncic, which means you have three average to below average defenders sharing the floor. With Brunson’s hot shooting, it was hard to take him out, but the Clippers just kept scoring. According to NBA.com, the Mavericks gave up 160 points per 100 possessions in Game 3 when the two-man lineup of Hardaway and Brunson were on the floor. This is the major issue the Mavericks coaches will have to contend with on the defensive end for the rest of the series. For the Mavericks sake, it needs to be solved sooner rather than later.
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.