Luka Doncic's Dallas Mavericks Embracing 'Physical' Defensive Battle Against Clippers

The LA Clippers continued to target Luka Doncic defensively in Game 2, but he helped the Dallas Mavericks to set the tone on that end in the victory.
Apr 23, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) reacts after
Apr 23, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) reacts after / Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS — The Dallas Mavericks were led by hard-nosed defensive execution in their 96-93 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series. For a Mavericks team that used to rely heavily on 3-point shooting success while being one of the lesser defensive units, Game 2 displayed significant growth, with franchise cornerstone Luka Doncic being an essential element of it.

“Both teams were under 100. It was 90s basketball at its best," Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said.

Apr 23, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) reacts after
Apr 23, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) reacts after / Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers experienced success by bringing Doncic into screening actions in Game 1 while making the Mavericks' defense pay for trying to shrink the floor by rotating early off of weaker perimeter shooters after getting beat in space. In Game 2, Dallas tightened up more, including having Doncic switch when targetted, holding his own, and pre-switching to reduce disadvantaged situations.

"I think his defense has been great this whole series," Kidd said of Doncic. "We know they're going to put him in pick-and-roll. A couple of years ago, we saw this, and we had to tell him to participate. But I think he's participating at a high level on both ends. He's leading not just on the offensive end but also the defensive end."

Whether he was containing Kawhi Leonard in the post, resulting in a poorly missed baseline jumper, or holding his own in isolation against James Harden or Paul George, Doncic got a significant amount of defensive stops, only being tracked by Synergy Sports as giving up three total points in Game 2.

In the series, opposing players have generated only 0.167 points per possession in isolation against Doncic and have gone scoreless on three post-ups. Overall, the Mavericks have allowed only 0.765 points per possession, with Doncic involved in possession. The Clippers have tried to hunt him by bringing his man into screening actions, but he's more than held his own.

"I accept it," Doncic said of being targeted defensively. "It gets me going on the defensive end, too. That's fine. I think I played good defense today. I've just got to stay locked in."

With Doncic being every bit of 6-foot-7 while having a strong frame, he can slide his feet and take contact when a player is trying to break him down off the dribble. With the NBA dialing back foul calls since the NBA All-Star break, Doncic has embraced being physical on both ends to his advantage.

“For sure, it’s more physical, refs not calling that many fouls,” Doncic said. “It’s the playoffs. I think they’re just letting this play, which is fine. It’s just got to be the same on both ends.”

It goes a long way when superstars like Doncic and Irving can be counted on to gear up defensively to make a postseason impact. It enables players on the wing like P.J. Washington or Derrick Jones Jr. to dial more into containing players like Leonard or George. Meanwhile, it's easier for a rim protector like Dereck Lively II to anchor the paint, leading to more significant overall results.

"Just how physical the game was, obviously they punched us in the mouth coming into Game 1, so we just wanted to respond tonight, and I feel like we set the tone defensively and with our aggression out there," Washington said. "I feel like we did a great job and I’m just glad we came in here and got a win."

As Game 2 wore on, Irving felt the Mavericks' physicality had taken a toll on the Clippers. He praised the collective embrace of coming into the season prepared conditioning-wise and continuing to sustain it throughout their campaign—an effort he championed after last season's shortcomings.

"Once that third and fourth quarter hit, I feel like our physicality wore them down a little bit," Irving said. We can just take some of those positive notes into the next game. I think it comes from the pre-season preparation, being well-conditioned, pushing ourselves, and knowing what we have left in the tank.”

With the Mavericks facing a Clippers squad led by four highly experienced future Hall of Fame players, the team must stay focused and locked into the details of the game plan instead of giving officiating decisions too much headspace. Instead, using physical aggression as an advantage has seemingly become the approach.

“What stuck out to me most just imagery-wise or memory-wise is just we got a warning from one of the refs telling us we were complaining too much," Irving said. "Once you hear that, it’s a pretty physical game, and we’re not a big complaining team. We’re not a big complaining team. I think sometimes, obviously, emotions can get a little high, but that’s all part of it.

"I think you kind of saw me out there trying to make sure that we kept our heads on straight. We didn’t allow that to affect us or impact us in a negative way," Irving explained. "It’s a physical game both ways and we know what to expect for the rest of the series. We’re going against some potential Hall of Famers who play the game at a high level; they know personnel very well, so you have to give them respect, but also you gotta go at them, and that’s a competitor’s dream.”

While Leonard is working his way back into rhythm in Game 2 after missing over three weeks due to right knee inflammation, the Mavericks did benefit from Washington's continued defensive impact through his efforts containing the superstar wing while having Jones check George frequently.

"Just understanding what P.J. [Washington] means to us on the defensive end," Kidd said. "For his first series, when you talk about the playoffs, he’s been big for us. He’s been big since we got him in the trade. We really rely on him defensively to be able to guard those guys from the Clippers, because it’s not just one, it seems like he’s guarding everyone.”

The Mavericks have collectively embraced the league-wide shift in officiating, enabling teams to play more with physicality and allowing them to play through it instead of being quick to call fouls. After being disappointed by their Game 1, Kidd felt his team played a complete performance in Game 2, with tone setting on defense being a crucial element of it.

“Ever since March, we could see there was a shift in the officiating,” Kidd said. “There were less whistles and physicality had stepped up, so we embraced it. And that’s who we are.

“We’re not afraid of the physicality. I think that’s what we were a little bit disappointed about in Game 1, is that we weren’t physical," Kidd explained. "Maybe the rust, or maybe the time off, but tonight we played 48 minutes of physical basketball and found a way to win.”

Part of the shift in the Mavericks' defensive execution occurred when they had a preparation process and trusted that the payoff would come. Irving highlighted the impact of the team's practice habits for the payoff defensively. Dallas ranked 13th in defensive rating after the NBA All-Star break until the end of the regular season, including a 16-2 stretch over an 18-game period of being the league's most impactful defense.

“I think we’re prepared for this time of year; we’ve been practicing pretty hard against each other consistently throughout the year," Irving said.

After adding players like Washington and Gafford, Dallas never looked back. After acquiring them in midseason trades, the team benefited from a run of predominately favorable health circumstances, helping the Mavericks build a defensive rhythm and prepare for the playoffs after previously having stretches of being significantly impacted by mounting injuries.

"We’ve, obviously, had some injuries, and we weren’t able to kind of grow as a group as much as we would have liked," Irvng said. "But I think toward the end of the season we really took practice serious and we knew what we were getting ready for in the playoffs... and I think we have to use that to our advantage to a certain degree."

Fueled by Doncic's leadership, the Mavericks have evened the series at 1-1 after the two games in Los Angeles. Doncic, who played 46 of the 48 minutes, was instrumental offensively with a team-most 32 points and nine assists but also helped to set a defensive standard. His influence helped his team contain a squad featuring four future Hall of Famers to under 100 points, providing confidence to the team entering Game 3.

"When he's playing at that level, they have to step up to they understand the responsibility of their leader when he's going to play defense and participate, they have to be able to do the same thing," Kidd said. "And so again, he's leading not just on the offensive end, but the defensive end, he's made some great plays, coming up with steals and then rebounds and then being able to guard the ball.

"We know that teams are going to put him in the pick-and-roll, and he knows that, so he's been able to pick his spots and understands that we need those stops," Kidd explained. "Again, when you can hold the Clippers because they're a great offensive team under 100 points, that shows we're playing defense at a high level."

The series heads to Dallas for the next two games, entering Game 3 in a 1-1 series tie. If Doncic and Irving continue to make impactful defensive contributions for a much-improved unit while guiding the team offensively, there becomes a very realistic outlook of winning their first playoff series as a duo.


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Grant Afseth

GRANT AFSETH

Grant Afseth is a Dallas Mavericks reporter for MavericksGameday.com and an NBA reporter for NBA Analysis Network. He previously covered the Indiana Pacers and NBA for CNHI's Kokomo Tribune and various NBA teams for USA TODAY Sports Media Group. Follow him on Twitter (@grantafseth), Facebook (@grantgafseth), and YouTube (@grantafseth). You can reach Grant at grantafseth35@gmail.com.