DALLAS - After a hard-fought regular season full of ups and downs, the Dallas Mavericks will take on the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA playoffs.
Last season, the Mavericks showed some genuinely intriguing signs of potential despite losing to the Clippers in six games. Luka Doncic showcased why he earned All-NBA First-Team status while Dallas was able to see how far they were from contention.
Both teams have made changes to their roster since facing off in the NBA Bubble. The Mavericks swapped out Seth Curry in favor of Josh Richardson and have Jalen Brunson and Willie Cauley-Stein healthy.
The Clippers have been aggressive in their pursuit of an NBA championship. Los Angeles signed Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum in free agency and acquired Luke Kennard and Rajon Rajon via trade.
There are more immediate contention expectations for the Clippers but the Mavericks will have a genuine chance to pull off an upset. It projects as being one of the most competitive series in the opening round.
Here are three keys for the Mavericks when they take on the Clippers:
3. Mavericks Must Contain Clippers' Shooting
One of the main strengths of this Clippers team is their ability to make the opposition pay for helping on drives. Their output of 1.237 points per possession (PPP) on spot-up plays was substantially higher than any other team in the NBA this season.
It's not just a few players getting it done, either. Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr., Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, and Luke Kennard each shot above 40% from deep with many of them substantially exceeding that mark. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley were just a shade below the threshold.
The offseason addition of Serge Ibaka makes the Clippers an even tougher team to handle compared to last year's team. He thrives in a small ball center role that provides five-out spacing while being able to swarm the opposing team's offense on the other end.
Handling the Clippers' elite wings is crucial in order to keep their shooters in check. Los Angeles made it a point to be able to make teams pay for leaving shooters open and not falling victim to that is far easier said than done. This leads us to the next key...
2. Josh Richardson's Defense Must Produce
When the Mavericks pulled off the trade to acquire Josh Richardson, it was made with the playoffs in mind. Dallas is simply going to need to receive a strong impact to justify this decision.
A particular deficiency the Mavericks faced in the playoffs last year was the lack of on-ball defensive options to use at once. Dorian Finney-Smith can get the job done against high-level wings, but they lacked another defensive stopper, which is where Josh Richardson needs to come into play.
Finney-Smith is best suited to take on the Kawhi Leonard assignment while Richardson will be important to slow down Paul George. Staying in front of George in iso situations while being able to navigate both on and off-ball screens will be vital from Richardson.
There is a real trade-off that the Mavericks experience offensively with Richardson - making it especially important for him to make a real impact. Shutting down George won't happen but slowing him down is key.
1. Complementary Talents Need To Elevate Their Game
The Clippers are going to put up a lot of points and there is only so much that can be done to contain their shooting. If either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George goes off for a big scoring performance, that makes it all the more troubling. The Mavericks must be prepared to keep pace offensively.
It's no secret that opposing teams frequently trap and blitz Luka Doncic when he has the basketball in his hands. This means that other players need to be ready to attack off-the-catch in order to make something happen.
Involving Kristaps Porzingis more as a ball screener will be important. He can pick-and-pop at a high level while also being more than capable of getting downhill in the short-roll game. He needs to be ready to win iso matchups and exploit mismatches in the post, too.
Other complementary talents like Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, and Jalen Brunson must continue to execute when they catch-and-shoot and attack off-the-catch. Achieving results in such circumstances would neutralize the Clippers' impact when trapping Doncic.