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The Mavericks playoff-basketball truth serum

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Reflection on the Mavericks - Clippers first-round series after the first four games

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After writing a game observation article after each of the first three Mavericks games, there is not much to analyze after Game 4. Things went bad early, and the Clippers blew out the Mavericks 106-81. So, instead of doing the game observations, let’s reflect on what we’ve seen in the series so far after the first four games. The series is still tied 2-2 after all.

It’s important to remember Mavericks were a big underdog going into this series. I wrote about this in my preview, the Clippers were the second-best regular-season team in the league based on point differential. Mavericks were 10th. This is not your typical 4 - 5 seed matchup. It’s more like the second-best team in the league against the tenth-best team. The second thing is, that the Clippers were freaking awesome when both Kawhi Leonard played, posting an +18.1 differential in these games. Lineups with both Leonard and George, ranked in 99th percentile on offense, and 94th percentile on defense.

Kawhi Leonard - Paul George lineup data (Source: pbp stats)

George and Leonard didn’t play much together in the regular season. The Clippers were conservative again, so both missed a lot of games and ended up playing just 1028 minutes together during the regular season. Through the first three games of this series, both averaged more than 40 minutes per game.

The Playoff-basketball truth serum

One thing that a casual fan probably doesn’t see is, how different playoff basketball is compared to the games we see in the regular season. It’s almost like watching a different sport. We don’t see empty possessions, bad players and bad teams are not playing… it’s just next level. Flaws get exposed. Especially when playing against a team like the Clippers. The flaws that the Mavericks showed during the regular season were there for all to see in the first four games of this series.

We saw it all, the good, bad, and the ugly.

‘The good’ is Luka Dončić is awesome. Like basketball, Playoff Luka is a different player. In the first two Playoffs series of his career, Luka Dončić showed us he is ready for the moment. Dončić has that other gear only the great players have. Even after a bad game 4 where Dončić was visibly affected by a nerve injury, he is still averaging 33.3 points per game, 8.3 assists, and 8.0 rebounds in this series. Mavericks can beat any team when Luka and their offense are clicking. ‘The bad’ is that the Mavericks don’t have much to lean on when the offense is not at an elite level. That’s when things get ‘ugly’ and the limitations of this roster become evident.

The Mavericks are not a good defensive team

I’ve been nearly obsessed with the Dallas defense this season. Carlisle highlighted improving defense as their off-season priority. The front office talked about their off-season roster changes, as the moves that will transform the Mavericks into a good defensive team. Based on a full season worth of data, and what we’ve seen in the Playoffs so far, we can see that both Carlisle and the front office failed. The Mavericks are not a good defensive team. Dallas finished the regular season ranked 22nd on defense.

Dallas Mavericks - Defense Ratings per game including Playoffs

Dallas defense was trending in the wrong direction during the last two weeks of the regular season and it just fell off the cliff in the Playoffs (NOTE: Game 4 data skews the picture a bit. The Mavericks had a defensive rating of 129.8 in the first half when the game was basically decided).

Of all teams playing in the post-season, only Boston has worse defense by a tiny margin. Mavericks played terrible defense in all four games against the Clippers. However, their unbelievable shooting in the first two games overshadowed the holes on defense. Once Hardaway Jr. and other role players shooting came down to earth, it was impossible for the Mavericks to stay competitive without getting any stops.

The Mavericks had some good defensive stretches during the season, but as currently constructed this team has limitations that are impossible to hide. Their best two players, Dončić and Porzingis are below-average defensive players. Porzingis regression on defense is difficult to accept for some fans, but the data (and eye test) has been brutal all year long. Porzingis was the worst Maverick on defense based on the on/off numbers, the team allowed +5.6 points more per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. I wrote about why Dončić - Porzingis pairing is problematic on defense during the season.

Defensive rating for Dončić - Porzingis pairing - regular season (source: pbp stats)

The first four games against the Clippers confirmed all fears we had going into the series. It’s obvious how little respect the Clippers have for Porzingis as they drive on him at every opportunity. 31 percent of the Clippers' shots are at the rim, and they make 73% percent of them. These are just brutal numbers.

“Mainly just attacking. They don’t have a rim protector, so just try to get there and put pressure at the basket.” - Paul George on his added penetration in this series.

Having two players in Dončić and Porzingis that opponents can go at on defense in the lineup is a probem and one that the Mavericks will have to look hard at in the off-season.

Things get worse for the Mavericks when we add their third-best player, Tim Hardaway Jr. to the equation. Starting the trio of Dončić, Porzingis, and Hardaway Jr. was a clear indication that believed an all-offense line up was the best chance Dallas might have. The lineups with this trio were downright terrible on defense all season. Mavericks had a 127.2 defensive rating with all three on the floor, which ranked them at the bottom of the league (2nd percentile). Four games against the Clippers proved that it’s not possible to build a competent defense around these three. There are just too many holes to fill. The Clippers went at all three at different times in the series and scored easily. Another problem with Porzingis and Hardaway Jr. is that they have overlapping strengths in shooting and spacing. When their shots are not falling, there aren’t other aspects of the game where Porzingis and Hardaway Jr. are making an impact.

The other two players in the starting lineup, Maxi Kleber and Finney-Smith are ok defensive players with outsized responsibility for Dallas. Neither is a game-changer on defense that the Mavericks need them to be. Both struggled mightily with their defensive assignments in this series, defending Leonard and George. A defense built around three below-average defenders, and two okay ones is not a recipe for a contending team. The Mavericks just don’t have an outstanding defensive player on their roster, an all-defense kind of a guy, that they could put on one of the Clippers stars and contain at least one of them. The Mavericks have seen how that looks first-hand in this series when Kawhi Leonard first put the clamps (or paws) on Krsitaps Porzingis in Games 1 and 2, then Tim Hardaway Jr. in Games 3 and 4.

Kristaps Porzingis is not the second-star Mavericks need him to be

Carlisle’s plan to go all-offense and outscore the Clippers worked in the first two games. It was a gamble on Mavericks’ shooting and Dončić and Hardaway Jr. delivered better than probably even Carlisle could have imagined. By Game 3 the Clippers decided they had enough of Hardaway Jr. and his hot shooting and put him in Kawhi Leonard’s jail. Dončić was incredible again in Game 3, as the Mavericks build a 19 point first-quarter lead. To outscore the Clippers the Mavericks needed another player to step up, but Porzingis just couldn’t. The playoffs didn’t only expose Porzingis’ defense, it showed that his offensive game is not built for the post-season as well. It’s hard to outscore a team like the Clippers when your second star is averaging 15.3 points, 4.0 rebounds on 47 percent shooting. Most of the limitations of Porzingis’ game were magnified this season by his physical limitations and lack of mobility. Porzingis was never a player that could create his own shot, but things got even worse in this series. Porzingis' inability to score against the smaller defenders in the post is a big reason why the Clippers can play small lineups that score at will on Mavericks on the other end. Dallas has to work hard for Porzingis to get going, something that shouldn’t be the case for your star player whose main mojo is scoring. 91 percent of Porzingis makes were assisted in the first four games. For comparison, Paul George was assisted on 30 percent of his shots, Kawhi Leonard on 49, and Luka Dončić on 6 percent. The Clippers have two stars who can get a bucket when things get tough, the Mavericks have one. Dončić looked like the best player in the series for the better part of it, however, the gap between the second stars, George and Porzingis is just too big.

“With their offense, [Luka Doncic] has to do so much. I’m sure it’s wearing on him. He has to do so much for them. Our job is to continue putting pressure on him.” - Paul George

Dallas bet big on Porzingis to be the second All-star next to Dončić, unfortunately, he is far from that this season. Based on the data from Dunksandthrees, a site that tracks advanced metrics, Porzingis is closer to being an average starter this season than to being an All-star.

Kristaps Porzingis’ EPM and eW ratings (source: dunksandthrees.com)

Porzingis ranked 80th in EPM (estimated +/-) and 105th in eW (eW stands for estimated wins, a metric that incorporates availably). It’s obvious that Porzingis is physically not the same player he used to be. But the Mavericks need their second start to be in the top 20-30, rather than in the top 50-100 range.

How much of Porzingis’ regression is temporary, because of the difficulties he had this season, is a question that the Mavericks’ coaching staff and the front office are probably asking themselves every day. How they see the answer to that question will determine the moves the Mavericks do in the off-season.

You’re telling me there is a chance?

After two losses the things don’t look good for the Mavericks. We haven’t seen any signs that the Mavericks can play competitive defense. Dallas doesn’t have answers for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The moves Carlisle made so far, show he sees outscoring the Clippers as the best way to win the series. Although the circumstances were different, it’s the same plan the Mavericks had last year when these two teams met in the Playoffs.

In a way, the Mavericks are taking a gambling approach. They hope the three-point shots go in, taking their chances over a relatively small sample of a 7-game series. With the volume of three-point shooting on both sides, gambling on threes and playing the numbers game might be the best possible plan. The Mavericks beat the odds and shot well above their expected field-goal percentages in the first three games. Luka Dončić and Tim Hardaway Jr. hit some really tough shots. In Game 4 their shooting regressed, and Mavericks had a shooting outlier on the other end of the spectrum.

Source: Seth Partnow, the Athletic.

It seems like the best bet is to hope for another two incredible offensive outputs, even if the odds are low. Mavericks made at least 17 threes and shot better than 47 percent from beyond the arc in each of the first three games.

The first two games we won were very high-scoring games. We scored a lot. They scored one game 121, the other game they scored 123 — those are high-scoring games. From a process standpoint, we’ve just got to stick with it offensively. - Rick Carlisle

The good news is that the gamble worked out in two out of the four games already. The Mavericks need to hit the jackpot in two out of the next three, which are slightly worse odds than the four in seven when the series began.

The other alternative for Carlisle is to try to fix the defense. For that, he would need to bench Porzingis and play lineups with Wille Cauley-Stein and Josh Richardson. A drastic adjustment, one that Carlisle is probably not willing to do, based on how the team dealt with Porizngis all season. But we’ve seen crazier things happen in playoffs, and it will be interesting to see what adjustments Carlisle makes.

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.