The Los Angeles Clippers' stated strategy in their first-round NBA playoff matchup against the Dallas Mavericks?
Amputate "the head of the snake.''
“We know we’re playing a guy who controls the whole tempo of the game, in Luka [Doncic], by scoring, rebounding, passing, making his teammates better,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said before the start of the series. “We know he’s the head of the snake. ... We can’t let him be comfortable.''
But Doncic, the MVP-caliber 22-year-old Slovenian sensation, was astoundingly "comfortable'' in Saturday's Game 1 of this matchup, pushing his underdog Mavs to a 113-103 victory at L.A.'s Staples Center.
Said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle of Luka: "This is his time of year, and he's one of the smartest basketball players you will ever meet at any age, at any level."
Doncic's final numbers (31 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) are evidence of just how befuddling the Clippers found him to be. And yet there was nothing mysterious about how he would do his business; Doncic this season averaged 27.7 points, 8.6 assists and eight rebounds per game and was even better than that a year ago when the Clippers endured him to win a first-round series 4-2.
"I forgot,'' said Luka, now the only player in NBA history with three triple-doubles in his first seven appearances, "how much fun it is to play in the playoffs."
At the same time, there were no secrets in L.A.'s defensive game plan, either. As Lue had said: "Just keep mixing it up throughout the course of the game. Blitz him a little bit ... switching on him a little bit. We want to keep him off-balance as much as possible.”
The only thing that troubled Luka here was a bit of foul trouble; he accumulated his third in the third quarter but it was otherwise a non-issue. But the "blitzing,'' the "switching,'' the double-teams, the efforts to even pick him up full-court? The use of L.A.'s smallest defender (waterbug Pat Beverly) and L.A.'s biggest defender (7-footer Ivica Zubac)?
Nah. Nah to all of it.
"It means a lot, but we've got three more [wins] to go,'' Doncic said.
Dallas won the first quarter (and is now 28-0 when it does so) and by halftime, Doncic had 21 points, six assists and four rebounds. As the end of the third quarter neared, he'd achieved his fourth 30-point playoff game in just seven appearances, along with seven boards and seven dimes, the Mavs taking an 86-80 edge into the final quarter.
And in the fourth? "The head of the snake'' got help, as Tim Hardaway Jr. (21 points) and Dorian Finney-Smith (18) hit huge 3-pointers, and Maxi Kleber and sub Jalen Brunson, especially, played ruggedly, to hold off Kawhi Leonard (26 points) and Paul George (23) and the Clippers.
"Amazing,'' Doncic said of Hardaway. "He's been doing this all season.''
This marks the first time the Mavs have won a Game 1 since the 2011 NBA title team did so—and that's also the last time Dallas won a playoff series. Dallas will likely be the underdog again in Game 2 (Tuesday at L.A.) but Saturday provides evidence that the Mavs have closed the gap that existed in the bubble a year ago between these two teams (the Clippers being the West's No. 4 seed, Dallas the No. 5 seed).
One difference: Kristaps Porzingis missed three of those six games back in the bubble due to a knee injury. Porzingis was excellent when available in last year’s series, averaging 23.7 points and shooting 52.9% from three. Here, he was something shy of that. But he played 36 minutes without incident, totaling 14 points punctuated by a dunk from a Luka "hockey-assist'' pass with a minute left to put Dallas up seven and out of L.A.'s reach.
Said KP, who shot just 4-of-13: "I had an off night, and we were still able to get the win. ... I'm sure they're going to make some adjustments, but we're also going to get better."
Next up? Naturally, the Mavs will want even more from KP and the helpers. And, yes, the Clippers will talk of "adjusting.'' But in Game 1, they already "adjusted'' in every possible way to the brilliance of Luka Doncic.
And "the head of the snake'' remains firmly attached to the series-leading Mavs.