Playoffs basketball is fun. Even if the Mavericks lose like they did Friday 104-97 to the Clippers. Playoff basketball is fun because the deeper we go into the series, the more things get exposed. We get to see what the players are capable of and what are their limitations.
I wrote an observation article with quarter by quarter break-down for the previous games in this series. But Game 6 of this series was a microcosm of the strengths and weaknesses of this Mavericks team. So, instead of a break-down by period, let’s see what this game revealed about this team.
This is what tough playoff games come down to
The Clippers were on the brink of elimination, so they went all-in in this game. Paul George played 46 minutes. Ivica Zubac played five. Kawhi Leonard was defending Luka Dončić for most of the 42 minutes he was on the floor. The Clippers knew they can not afford another supernova game from Dončić. They started with extreme loading on Dončić in Game 5. In this game, they put even more pressure on him and forced other Mavericks to beat them. The Clippers were not fooling around in this game. Even with Leonard guarding Dončić, the first double-team came on the Mavericks' third possession. From there on, the Clippers double-teamed or trapped Dončić on most possessions throughout the game. Heck, the Clippers would load on Dončić, even when they put pressure on him with two players on the ball.
See Reggie Jackson on this play in the third quarter. Leonard and Marcus Morris Sr. blitzed Dončić, yet Jackson is still preventing the drive and helping off Dorian Finney-Smith.
On rare possessions when Dončić managed to get a favorable matchup and attacked early, the Clippers would pack the paint, with three, sometimes even four players. Here is a play where Dončić managed to get by Rondo, but there were three Clippers waiting for him in the paint.
The Clippers were helping on Dončić drives from all directions. Here is a play in the clutch, where the Clippers built a wall in the paint, and Morris helping on the drive from the strong side.
The Mavericks won Game 5 because Leonard gambled on a strong side help and left Porzingis open for a crucial three-point shot. Lue’s game plan was nothing unusual. It’s what most teams would do in the deciding games, especially against such heliocentric offense, where everything is centered around one player. Dončić went off in four games in this series and made incredibly tough shots on a consistent basis. He’s still 40 percent on threes for the series, even after going 2-of-9 from three on Friday. That’s not normal, that is an outlier.
On nights when Dončić isn’t playing out of this world, when he’s not shooting 50 percent on step-back threes, the Mavericks need to make plays and punish teams for collapsing on him. When they do, they win. When they don’t do it enough, they lose. It comes down to making plays off the gaps and space that Dončić creates. It comes down to making quick decisive plays. No hesitation.
But playoff basketball is tough. In elimination games, rotations are super aggressive, and you have half a second less for every decision. On Friday, the Mavericks failed to make plays in the fourth quarter, and Leonard made some incredible shots. Actually not some, rather plenty of them. Leonard made 18-of-25 shots and scored 45 points. the Mavericks lost, but they did some good things on Friday. Game 7 will come down to making more of the good things happen, and trying to minimize the bad stuff. It sounds simple, but this has been the case the whole season. To borrow a phrase from Kristaps Porizngis to describe this Mavericks team, “it is what it is.” They won’t change it in Game 7 of the playoffs. We can only hope the good version will show up on Sunday.
When things go well
It starts with Dončić. It’s not rocket science that when Dončić is making shots it puts extra pressure on the Clippers. All of the stuff the Clippers did on defense — loading, doubling, blitzing — looks way worse when Dončić is in a superstar mode and hitting his step-backs.
The other thing that will need to happen in Game 7 is that Mavericks’ role players will need to make shots. Even more, they’ll have to make quick decisive plays. We saw this on Friday in the third quarter when the Mavericks’ offense was clicking. Dončić was making the right reads and punishing the Clippers out of the double teams. Boban Marjanović (yes, we came down to expecting Boban to make key plays in a playoff elimination game) was finishing on his rolls to the basket. Tim Hardaway Jr. made pull-up shots and attacked close-outs. Finney-Smith punished the Clippers for helping off him by making open threes in pick and pop actions.
The same thing happened in all the above plays. Dončić being patient, waiting for the defense to commit with a double team or help, then making the right read. And the Mavericks role players making quick decisive plays. Dallas’ offense generated several similar good looks in the fourth quarter but the Mavericks couldn't make the shots.
When flaws get exposed
Things get a bit more tricky for the Mavericks when the gaps are smaller. The Clippers were much faster in their rotations on Friday, which forced the other Mavericks to put the ball on the floor and make plays. Coach Rick Carlisle talked about this aspect of the game on Friday after the game.
“One of the things about the way today’s game is played, it turned every guy on the court into the playmaker,” he said.
The Mavericks role players are trying, but the lack of a true secondary playmaker who could consistently attack the gaps was evident on Friday. Hardaway is the most consistent secondary scorer and shot maker in this series. The problem is the Clippers know this. Lue put his best two defenders, Leonard and George, on Dončić and Hardaway in Game 6. Dončić would often search for a mismatch with pick and rolls that would involve Hardaway at the end of the games, but with George and Leonard on them, the Clippers can simply switch.
This puts pressure on the other Mavericks' role players to make plays out of the Dončić double teams and ball screen actions. Most of them are playing way over their heads in this series. This is not their problem, it’s a problem of roster construction. Marjanovoć should not be making decisions on the short roll and have 36 percent usage in a key playoff game. Finney-Smith was used as a Dončić pick and roll partner a lot on Friday. Dončić used Finney-Smith as a screener to attack the Clippers' weakest link on defense. But the Clippers trapped Dončić and dared Finney-Smith to make decisions on the short roll. They forced Finney-Smith to put the ball on the floor and attack close-outs. Finney-Smith improved as a playmaker this season, but asking him to do it consistently and on this stage is too much. Maxi Kleber's confidence is shot again in the playoffs. The deeper we get in the series, the more hesitant he was.
What is the common theme in all the above plays? It’s hesitancy and players forced to make decisions under pressure. If you follow my analysis on Twitter this season you know I preached about zero-second decisions all season long — it’s because of this. The pace in the playoffs slows, so if the Mavericks don’t take advantage out of the initial Dončić double, it usually results in a tough shot at the end of the shot-clock. In the Playoffs, there aren’t many second chances.
The challenge for Carlisle is that he has no good alternatives. Dwight Powell is good on the roll and is also a good passer. But the Clippers go at him on defense the first second he steps on the floor. Powell can’t stay in front of George or Leonard on their drives. Powell’s, foul rate, which was high in the regular season, skyrocketed in this series. On Friday, in the second quarter, George scored or was fouled on three consecutive possessions by Powell, and Carlisle had to replace him with Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein is very good on defense in this series but is a bad fit when the Clippers double Dončič. Cauley-Stein is another hesitant and bad decision-maker. Brunson was good when Zubac is on the floor, attacking his drop coverage with mid-range pull-up shots. Otherwise, this series has been rough for him, he struggles against the Clippers' length. Brunson's size makes him another target for George and Leonard on defense. I won’t even go into Porzingis. Based on how the last two games unfolded, and how both Porzingis and Carlisle talk about the Latvian role on offense, it’s obvious Carlisle lost all hope that Porzingis can score consistently in this series.
What to expect in Game 7?
We’ll see if Carlisle will stick to the super big lineup with Porzingis and Marjanović going into Game 7. The Mavericks’ defense conceded more points playing zone, both in Game 5 and in Game 6. The surprise element is gone, the Clippers used different things to attack the zone. They attacked it with early pick and rolls, baseline cuts, and playing with more pace. On the other hand, I expect the Clippers to use the same tactics on Dončić as they did on Friday. Double team, pressure, and load on Dončić from the start and from all sides, to prevent him from going off. They will want to make the other Mavericks beat them again. The good news is that both Carlisle and Dončić are good at adjustments, and will be ready.
Regardless of what the Clippers and Mavericks do lineup and scheme-wise, Game 7 will come down to two things: the first one is which of the two superstars will have a big game. So far, Dončić had four great games in the series, and Leonard had three. However, even if Dončić goes supernova again, the Mavericks’ role players will have to make quick decisions under pressure and hit their shots. For most of them, this will be the biggest game of their careers. Not only will they need to be ready, but they will also need to be ready from the start. The scenario for Mavericks’ wins in this series was to build a lead going into the fourth quarter. The Mavericks are struggling in the last period in this series, they’re shooting 34 percent from the floor and have been outscored by 29 points in the six games. Dončić ran out of gas in most of the games in the fourth quarter.
Dončić’s first half usage in this series is 43 percent, which makes some of his struggles down the stretch understandable. The Mavericks will need to be sharp and put the pressure on the Clippers early. They proved they can do that three times in this series. This was such an up and down season and playoffs for Dallas, so everything is possible. After every loss, we talk about the lack of talent and the limitations of this roster. Then they go and prove us wrong.
This is why I’ll stick to my series prediction — Mavs in 7!