It took the Clippers long enough, losing two games at home to start the series, but they made the change they needed to make. Ivica Zubac went to the bench after Luka Doncic turned him into a ghost and the Clippers have ripped off two straight to tie the series.
While it’s easy to panic, especially after the dispiriting effort in Game 4, this is how the playoffs work. This is always how it works. A team hits first, the other team has a chance to hit back and, if the two teams are indeed evenly matched, the back and forth continues.
Now it’s time for the Mavericks to hit back.
Los Angeles has gone to small ball and haven’t looked back. Dallas can’t guard it, with Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber struggling to guard the rim and the Mavericks perimeter defenders failing to stay in front of their man. It’s led to some ugly defensive numbers for the Mavericks — the Clippers are 33-of-43 from the restricted area in Games 3 and 4. The percentage is worrying enough, but the sheer quantity of made layups is absolutely troubling.
This was after Doncic torched Zubac into the phantom zone. With their small lineup, the Clippers switch almost everything and somehow Nicholas Batum has turned into a better rim protector than Porzingis. Batum had two blocks and four steals in Game 4, after being a solid deterrent in Game 3, despite the Mavericks making 20 three pointers.
So what now? Here are two options.
Move Dorian Finney-Smith to the four
This is the easy and obvious answer: match the Clippers small ball. Dallas has started Kleber and Porzingis in the frontcourt in every game, mostly because Kleber seems to be the only option to physically matchup with Kawhi Leonard. About that — Leonard is making basically everything, regardless of Kleber’s level of defense.
So if Kleber can’t slow down Leonard, sizing down to match the Clippers speed of their small ball lineups could maybe help. All season, the Mavericks presumptive “death lineup”, the ace in the hole the Mavericks could go to, would be Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Josh Richardson, Finney-Smith and Porzingis. Especially before the season, the assumption was these were the Mavericks five best players, so getting them all on the floor at the same time could help.
That lineup in the regular season has been bad, due to Richardson’s poor season. In 83 regular season minutes, it’s posted a net-rating of minus-21, according to NBA.com. Perhaps that’s why Rick Carlisle has been hesitant to go with it in this series.
Richardson hasn’t really show enough in these playoff games to change that line of thinking, outside of a great fourth quarter in Game 1, but it might be time to just throw it at the wall and see what sticks. For what it’s worth, that lineup has played three minutes in this playoff series and have outscored the Clippers by seven points in those three minutes.
It’s only three minutes. That’s smaller than a small sample size — but with how this series is trending, it might be worth it. Stick Richardson on Paul George, put Finney-Smith on Leonard and just hope that is enough to at least temper the effectiveness of the Clippers small ball havoc. With how the Mavericks have played on offense for three out of the four games, a little defensive improvement can go a long way.
This is why you traded for a player like Richardson. It might be time to try it out.
Put Luka Doncic in the post more
This might be difficult depending on the health of Doncic, but using Doncic’s size and strength in the post should be able to bust up a Clippers lineup that isn’t playing a big rim protector.
Luka lived at the rim in Games 1 and 2 when the Clippers went small, not even running any complex action. Literally some “give him the ball and get out of the way” type stuff.
This could also be a way to better free up the Mavericks shooters. The Clippers have clamped down the perimeter and are sticking to the non-Luka Mavericks better than they did in the first two games. Inverse the floor by moving Luka closer to the basket could be a way to mix up the Clippers defensive rhythm.
Regardless of what the Mavericks do, the main thing is they have to do something. What once seemed like a sure thing is now in doubt and after watching the Clippers dominate the Mavericks in 88 of the 96 minutes across Games 3 and 4, it’s clear the status quo isn’t working. It’s time for Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks to make their first big mid-series adjustment and see if that can turn the tide of 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.