Playoffs basketball is fun. Especially when the Mavericks win like they did Friday 105-100 to the Clippers. Each of the first four games of the series was a chess game of tactical moves, adjustments, and counters.
But Game 5 was an X&O chess match. Here’s what happened.
The Mavericks came into the game after two depressing losses to the Clippers on their home court. It looked like the Clippers figured out the Mavericks, and the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George looked unstoppable. Dallas’ defense looked awful and we speculated on what kind of adjustments Rick Carlisle can do. My guess was Carlisle will play Josh Richardson and Wille Cauley-Stein more to fix the defense. Wrong!
Carlisle went all-in on lineups with two big men that were terrible on defense all season. The move worked out for Dallas, and Carlisle showed again why he is the ‘adjustments genius’, born for playoff basketball. Carlisle started a lineup that featured a 7-4 Boban Marjanović and 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis to counter the Clippers' small-ball lineups that presented big problems for Dallas in the first four games of the series. Carlisle also played a two big-men lineup featuring Dwight Powell and Porzingis for long stretches.
On defense, Carlisle mostly played zone when Porzingis and Marjanović, or Porzingis and Powell were on the floor. When Powell played with Kleber, Dallas played aggressive defense, where Dorian Finney-Smith was the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard, but the Mavericks would double Leonard on most occasions. The Mavericks kept switching zone and man-to-man defense with doubling Leonard all night long, and the Clippers never got comfortable. Like all series long the Clippers still got to the rim (34 percent of their shots were rim shots), but they made only 54 percent at the rim. Per Synergy Dallas played zone defense on 25 out of 88 half-court possessions. The Clippers were way more efficient scoring against the zone than against the man-to-man defense, but Mavericks’ zone threw the Clippers out of their rhythm. Clippers had to shoot more threes, and less in the mid-range, where Leonard and George are the most comfortable.
I thought they showed two or three bodies tonight. They packed the paint to make sure Kawhi got off if it. I thought we got some great shots that we didn’t make. They enticed us to take threes instead of and keep attacking because we were so wide open. We didn’t make threes early on in the game, and they made some shots, gave them some confidence going into it. - Ty Lue
On offense, lineups with two big men meant Porzingis moved to the corner. Porzingis looked out of sync most of the night, but Carlisle praised him after the game.
“Super patient. He did a terrific job defending. He didn’t get a lot of touches because they were hugging him the entire time.” - Rick Carlisle
Porzingis received criticism throughout this series and he didn’t have a great game. But he stayed focused, played for the team, and his positioning in the corner opened up the driving lanes for the Mavericks again. One of the key things the Clippers did in games 3 and 4, was to prevent Dončić and Brunson from driving to the rim.
Porzingis spacing in the corner, and having Dončić play pick and roll with Marjanović and Powell, enabled Dončić’s drives again. After making just two shots at the rim in the previous two games, Dončić made five out of nine in game five. Dončić hitting his first five three-point shots might have helped as well.
Another effect of playing lineups with two big men was that if forced Lue to play Zubac more than he would’ve preferred. After playing 11 and 17 minutes in the previous two games, Zubac played 20 minutes in Game 5. Zubac was easy prey for Dončić again, especially in the deciding run in the third quarter, and was -19 for the night.
- Dallas surprised the Clippers with a Marjanović and Porzingis in the lineup and zone defense. The Clippers scored only 9 points in the first half of the first quarter, and trailed 14-9 when the first time out was called at the 6:36 minute mark.
What worked for Dallas:
- Dončić opened the game with another otherworldly performance. Dončić made his first five three-pointers, a start and a sign of another incredible performance. Dončić scored 19 points in the first quarter on 7 of 11 shooting. It was an amazing display of shot-making and pick-and-roll wizardry.
What didn’t work for Dallas:
- Porzingis had a great dunk after attacking a close-out from the wing. But, Porzingis missed two open three-point shots, and it was another night where the Mavericks failed to get the Latvian big men going early
Score: Dallas leads 35-28
- Dončić and the Mavericks' offense cooled off in the second quarter. Dončić scored 8 points but was 3 of 8 from the field. The rest of the team wasn’t any better, scoring just 13 points on 5 of 13 shooting. However, the Clippers struggled on offense against the Mavericks' big lineups and zone. Carlisle put Marjanović back in the game after just 10 seconds in the second quarter, forcing Lue to react and play Zubac. Lue was in react mode all night long. Zubac played ten and a half minutes in the second quarter.
What worked for Dallas:
- Mavericks defense held on and the Clippers scored only 26 points in the quarter.
- Dončić attacked Zubac in drop coverage again, prompting Lue to assign Kawhi to guard Dončić.
- Willie Cauley-Stein had a good stretch on defense again at the end of the second quarter. Cauley-Stein was quick in rotations, and had a nice steal on a Kawhi Leonard drive.
What didn’t work for Dallas
- Porzingis picked up two quick fouls, after Mavericks’ mistakes that led to transition play. Carlisle had to pull Porzingis out early in the second quarter with three fouls, and Porzingis played less than two minutes in the quarter.
- The Mavericks’ struggle in non-Dončić minutes continued. Dallas was -6 in three minutes, scoring just two points when Dončić was on the bench to start the second quarter. Tim Hardaway Jr. was 1 of 5 from the field in the second quarter.
Score: Dallas leads 56-54
- Paul George picked up his fourth foul at 6:35 minute mark in the third quarter. Lue had to take George out of the game, and the Clippers' offense collapsed without one of their two-star players. Kawhi Leonard struggled on offense all night, and the Mavericks put pressure on him with George out of the game. Leonard committed three live-ball turnovers in the quarter, which all led to Mavericks’ transition buckets. Mavericks were +17 in the time when George was out and closed the quarter with a 14 point led.
PG committed his fourth foul and then, you know, when he came out of the game, we got to ask Kawhi to do a lot. I think Kawhi got a little tired. - Ty Lue
What worked for Dallas:
- Mavericks defended Leonard well and forced 3 turnovers that led to 6 fast-break points. Porzingis whose defense was criticized in the Playoffs was involved in all three plays that forced Leonard to turn the ball over. Dončić took the most out of the live-ball turnover opportunities, assisting Powell and Hardaway Jr. on two occasions, and finishing an alley-oop on the third one.
- Dončić continued doing mean things to Ivica Zubac in pick-and-roll actions. Dallas scored on three consecutive possessions at the end of the quarter that extended the lead to 14 points. On all three possessions, Dončić went at Zubac in pick and roll. Zubac was in deep drop coverage on the first play, and Dončić finished in the paint after a hostage dribble and a nasty ball fake. Leonard and Zubac blitzed Dončić on the second play, and Dončić finds Dwight Powell for a dunk. Zubac was in deep drop coverage again on the third play, this time Donić made a step-back three after a snake dribble. Dončić had 13 points and 4 assists in the third quarter
What didn’t work for Dallas
- Dallas won the quarter 33 - 21, and build a big enough lead to eventually win the game, so not much to complain about.
Score: Dallas leads 89-75
- Dončić ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. After scoring 40 points in the first three periods, Dončić scored only 2 points on 1 of 8 shooting in the fourth. Both Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis made a huge three-pointer down the stretch in the fourth quarter to ice the game. Especially Porzingis’ shot was really impressive. Porzingis took only 6 shots in the game and was out of the flow of the game on offense most of the night. But Porzingis stayed focused and made what Rick Carlisle called arguably the biggest shot of the year. The Clippers loaded the paint heavily against Dončić in the fourth quarter, and Porzingis made them pay after Nick Batum gambled and helped from the strong side on a potential Dončić drive.
What worked for Dallas
- The Mavericks won the game with defense! The Mavericks struggled on offense in the fourth quarter but made important defensive plays down the stretch to hang on the lead.
- After Kawhi Leonard torched Maxi Kleber for most of the series, Rick Carlisle assigned Dorian Finney-Smith as a primary defender on Leonard (when the Mavericks didn’t play zone defense). Finney-Smith made several important plays on defense, particularly while guarding Leonard in the clutch. On this play Finney-Smith did to Leonard what Kawhi usually does to other people. He just took the ball away from him.
“Dorian Finney-Smith, man. He was the key to our win today for sure.” - Luka Dončić
- Tim Hardaway Jr. was involved in three deciding plays in a stretch of less than a minute in the clutch. Surprisingly, two of them were on the defensive end, where Hardaway Jr. made two deflections to force Paul George to turn the ball over. The third play was a crazy long-contested three-point make.
- Dončić hunted the Clippers' smaller guards at the end of the games in guard-guard pick and rolls for most of the series. To counter that Lue played Terance Mann as the only guard for long stretches during the fourth quarter. This worked on defense against Dončić, but the Clippers' offense suffered because of the lack of playmaking that Rajon Rondo provided in previous games.
What didn’t work for Dallas
- Mavericks struggling on offense in the fourth quarter is becoming a theme now. This was another game where Dončić carried the Mavericks on offense for three quarters, then ran out of gas in the fourth. The Mavericks scored only 16 points on 23 percent shooting in the fourth quarter.
Final Score: Dallas wins 105-100
People who said Rick Carlisle will win one game in this series with his adjustments were right. The Clippers were comfortable and in control after two wins in Dallas. Carlisle’s adjustments and out-of-the-box thinking threw the Clippers out of their comfort zone. Lue had to play catch up from the opening minute and had to do it all night long.
Of course, the X & O stuff looks great, when Luka Dončić shoots 50 percent from three, scores 42 points, and has 14 assists. Dončić was in full control for most of the game. Dončić scored or assisted on 31 of 37 Mavericks’ total makes in the game.
Playoff basketball is fun. Especially when the Mavericks win. Off to the next one!
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.