After 28 teams played on the MLK holiday, there is only one game on the NBA calendar Tuesday, which means the L.A. Clippers get the full national spotlight against the Dallas Mavericks.
The Clippers went through a brief rough patch to start the calendar year, at least "rough" for a championship contender given that L.A. still sits in a three-way tie for second-place in the Western Conference at 30-13. The team has looked much more focused in recent games, and newly-minted Western Conference Player of the Week Kawhi Leonard has led the charge on both ends.
Leonard will have to continue to be the alpha on both sides of the ball given that Paul George remains out for the sixth consecutive game with a strained left hamstring. He has re-joined the team on the road, however, after staying in Los Angeles during the first leg of the trip, when the Clippers won a nail-biter in New Orleans.
The Clippers will also likely welcome Moe Harkless back to the lineup. Harkless exited Thursday's win over Orlando early with a sore back and missed the subsequent game with the same nagging injury, but is probable to return against the Mavericks.
L.A. isn't the only team in this matchup hoping to regain full health. Dallas has been without the services of Kristaps Porzingis for ten games due to what head coach Rick Carlisle termed a "glitch" in his left knee. It is worth noting that Porzingis tore his right ACL in early 2018, causing him to miss the entirety of last season.
However, after 22 days on the shelf, Porzingis could be ready to go against the Clippers provided he doesn't feel any soreness early in the day. That would certainly help the Mavericks' chances of redeeming themselves after a blowout loss to the Clippers when the two teams met for the first time in November.
In that game, L.A.'s defense shut down what was then — and what remains — the number one offense in the NBA. The Clippers limited the Mavericks to a 90.0 offensive rating before garbage time, well below Dallas' season-long offensive rating of 116.7. The long-armed Clippers kept the Mavericks out of the paint and forced them into contested jump shots all night, which proved to be a successful formula for the road team.
L.A. executed one of the best defensive game plans of the season on Luka Doncic, a presumed All-Star starter and all-NBA candidate. Doncic was held below his scoring average and his usual assist total as the Clippers forced other Mavericks to beat them. Spoiler alert: they could not.
That defensive effort will be harder to replicate without George in the lineup. If Harkless is healthy, he should return to the starting five to provide another lengthy defender against Porzingis and Doncic. However, in George's absence, Leonard will have to take a more active role defending Doncic instead of roaming as a help defender.
Even though the defensive end may prove challenging, Leonard should have no trouble against the Dallas wing defenders. Dorian Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. lack the size to meaningfully affect Leonard's forays into the post; both of them are also shorter than Leonard, making it unlikely they'll be able to contest his jumpers once he gets there.
The Clippers play Dallas only three times this season, meaning they can take the season series and earn a potential postseason tiebreaker if they win tonight. After embarrassing themselves the first time around, the Mavericks will presumably put up a better fight, but the Clippers have consistently risen to the challenge of marquee games with Leonard in the lineup. Even though Dallas isn't a top-tier contender, the Clippers need to take this game seriously from the start.