Clippers vs. Mavericks Preview: LA's defense gets its biggest test in Luka Doncic
The LA Clippers are finally mostly healthy, and they've had three home games with both of their superstars in the lineup to prepare for arguably their biggest test of the young season: a road date against the league's newest darling, Luka Doncic.
In his second season in the league, Doncic has put together a statistical output unlike almost any other player his age in NBA history.
He is averaging 30.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game while ranking second in PER behind the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Doncic has led Dallas in points and assists for each of the team's last 12 games.
"I think what’s impressive is his skillset at his age. He’s a scorer, he’s a playmaker, he’s a ball-handler. I think he’s close to averaging a triple double, so he’s doing it in all aspects of the game and doing it at his age is remarkable," Paul George said. "He’s constantly a threat all night. He’s the head of the snake."
Meanwhile, the Mavericks are cruising along behind their 20-year-old leader. They have the best offensive rating in the league, per Cleaning the Glass, at 118.3 points per 100 possessions, though that undersells just how dominant they have been scoring the ball. The gap between Dallas and the league's second-best offense (Washington) is equivalent to the gap between Washington and the 16th-best offense in the NBA.
The Mavericks have the second-best point differential in the league at plus-9.0, again behind Milwaukee, and they've been even better recently. Ever since a dispiriting loss the New York Knicks in Kristaps Porzingis' return to Madison Square Garden, Dallas has reeled off five straight wins with an average margin of victory of 23.8 points per game. Admittedly, that margin is beefed up by blowout wins over the Warriors and the Cavaliers, but the Mavericks also beat the Raptors and the Rockets during that span.
The Clippers have been tested by dominant offensive players during their recent home stretch. Trae Young and Brandon Ingram are 6th and 8th in scoring, respectively, but LA held both to inefficient nights. James Harden also presented a stiff threat, but late-game stops from up and down the roster allowed the Clippers to emerge victorious down the stretch.
How LA chooses to match up against the Mavericks is perhaps the most interesting question to start. Dallas has been starting Doncic alongside Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell, and Porzingis. The Clippers have settled in to a new starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, George, Kawhi Leonard, Moe Harkless, and Ivica Zubac.
The surest bet is that Zubac starts on Powell. More than likely, Leonard/George will guard Hardaway and Finney-Smith because neither of them are fit enough to handle a prime defensive assignment for 48 minutes. That leaves Doncic and Porzingis for Beverley and Harkless.
Recently, Harkless has been tasked with defending a smaller guard, including Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook in back-to-back matchups, because Harkless' length is a challenge for those guards to overcome. If he guards Doncic, though, that leaves Beverley on Porzingis, which is untenable. As a result, Beverley should start on Doncic; Beverley prefers to get underneath bigger wing-sized players, anyway.
Porzingis isn't a great matchup for Harkless because of his size, and Harkless likely won't be able to affect the Latvian's jumper at all. Doc Rivers mentioned preseason that he would consider deploying a sliding starting lineup with Leonard and George as the lone locks. This game might be a good opportunity to start JaMychal Green to put a bigger body on Porzingis, and also force Porzingis to defend in space against Green's range.
Ultimately, LA's success on the defensive end will come down to how the team handles Doncic. He uses 40 percent of his team's plays and assists on nearly 50 percent of Dallas' baskets when he is on the floor. His offensive burden exceeds that of perhaps any other player in the league.
The Clippers have been willing to mix up their coverages and use doubles and traps liberally, forcing other players to beat them. Their scheme against Harden is perhaps most instructive for what Doncic figures to face.
"I just know that no one is stopping him so far," Rivers said about Doncic. "And if you don’t, they’re going to win. That’s going to be our challenge. I don’t if you’re going to stop him, but make him inefficient somehow."
The Clippers are 1-4 on the road thus far, but this is the first time they'll have George and Leonard in an away game together. They'll need all of that defensive firepower in Dallas.