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How the Clippers Can Slow Luka Dončić Down

Dončić and the Mavericks beat the Clippers in Game 1, but L.A.’s defense didn’t lack the effort.

There’s no more fascinating chess match already underway in the first round of these NBA playoffs than Luka Dončić–led pick-and-rolls vs. the Clippers’ dynamic defense.

During the regular season, whenever Kawhi Leonard and Paul George shared the floor, L.A. allowed just 104.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that’s nearly two whole points lower than what the first-place Lakers finished at. In Game 1, the Clippers’ defensive rating in 33 minutes together was 132.3. (The Mavericks generated an egregious 130.8 points per 100 possessions in Luka’s 41 minutes.)

Clippers coach Ty Lue wasted little time throwing several coverages at one of the league’s preeminent playmakers. Switches, blitzes, drops, hedges. They ducked under screens and fought over them, with Leonard, George, Nicolas Batum, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris and Rajon Rondo all spending at least a few possessions as Dončić’s primary defender. No stone was left unturned. Everything was let loose by a swarming unit that features some of the smartest, longest and most intimidating individual defenders in the entire sport.

The Clippers lost, of course. But that doesn’t mean their various strategies didn’t work. Los Angeles executed Lue’s plan well enough to put them in position to win. They were adaptive and aggressive. Sometimes the other team just makes a bunch of really difficult shots and you get ready for the next game.

For the Clippers, trouble mostly started with their decision to switch early and often. Ivica Zubac, the Clippers’ large yet nimble starting center, repeatedly found himself on an island against Dončić, where he fell victim to some truly miraculous step-back threes and one-legged turnaround fallaways that have been made to look routine.

Notice how clean everything is off the ball, with Leonard and George on a string, communicating a switch and ultimately forcing Dončić to launch an inefficient shot. In the small sample size of a single playoff game, though, even tactics that are carried out to perfection still can’t get the job done.

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The Clippers tinkered with matchups throughout the game, moving Zubac onto Dorian Finney-Smith and off Maxi Kleiber—while Leonard mostly shadowed Kristaps Porziņģis to neutralize that pick-and-roll partnership—but despite how difficult L.A. still made most offensive possessions feel (as help defenders shrunk the floor and forced contested looks)—switching still yielded poor results. They don’t need to abandon this approach to win the series, but, as taxing as it tends to be, the Clippers may want to double Dončić even more than they did in Game 1. It shouldn’t be so reactionary.

There were several possessions in the second half where another Mav (especially Tim Hardaway Jr.) made a tough shot after Dončić gave it up, but the Clippers will live with that. More often than not, blitzes and double teams worked in their favor, whether deployed early in the clock or near midcourt.

Their odds to win dramatically rise when anyone else on the team is forced to make a play or create their own shot. (Dončić scored just one point in the fourth quarter.) Watch below: Serge Ibaka abandons Porziņģis to corral Dončić out on the perimeter, knowing Leonard will rotate off his own man on the weakside and pick Porziņģis up. With Kawhi in his airspace, Kristaps throws it back to Luka. This time, without any screen, Leonard just doubles Dončić before he can go one-on-one against Ibaka. Rondo rotates over to the open Porziņģis, who eventually bricks the late-clock three.

Here it becomes clear why Finney-Smith isn’t paid to take five dribbles in isolation with the shot clock winding down. When the Clippers trapped and recovered, that’s exactly the situation he found himself in, more than once.

This aggression also led to a missed elbow jumper by Dwight Powell, a couple of plays where Porziņģis challenged Kawhi and was embarrassed for trying, Kleiber driving closeouts that went nowhere, and even a few dribble handoffs involving Nicolò Melli that were vaporized immediately. It’s not that Dallas was clueless whenever Dončić had to give the ball up. They were overmatched by a group of defenders who have “best defense in the NBA” as a ceiling on nights when everyone is locked in to the task at hand.

The Clippers weren’t perfect in Game 1, but if they stay the course and perform on defense as they did in the series’ opening 48 minutes, that side of the ball won’t be why they lose, if, in fact, the Mavs manage to pull off what should be considered—Luka Magic and all—a major upset. 

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