Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving Lead Dallas Mavericks Into Playoff 'Chess Match' vs. LA Clippers

Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving gear up for a strategic NBA playoff showdown as the Dallas Mavericks face the LA Clippers.
Dec 20, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA;  Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket as
Dec 20, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket as / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — The NBA postseason brings out a team's highest level of intensity and strategy, fully exposing weaknesses and magnifying strengths. The Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers will look to begin putting each other to the test in Game 1 on Sunday, Apr. 21.

“The playoffs are fun, very intense, playing 48 minutes every game,” Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic said. “You just enjoy it. You never know if you’re going to come back or not. Enjoy every moment.”

The Mavericks highly respect the Clippers, a team with four future Hall of Fame talents: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. Tyronn Lue is respected as one of the NBA's best coaches, so taking down Los Angeles will be a challenge for any team.

“Physicality, paying attention to the details,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “We’re playing a really good team in the Clippers, they have four future hall of famers (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, Russell Westbrook). They’re well-coached, T-Lue is one of the best coaches in the league.”

Dec 20, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA;  Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket as
Dec 20, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket as / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

With the Mavericks thriving since making trade deadline acquisitions of Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington, along with a high level of chemistry between Doncic and Kyrie Irving, they are undoubtedly a tall task to encounter in their own right. Dallas finished with a 50-win season despite holding a 26-23 record through 49 games, led by much improved defensive execution and consistent availability of their superstar backcourt after prior injuries.

“I think our chemistry is on top,” Doncic said. “We’re playing defense great and we’re playing great basketball.”

Irving brings the Mavericks championship experience as a player who helped guide a Cleveland Cavaliers team to its one and only NBA Finals run back in 2016 with LeBron James. However, an important detail to remember is that Lue was the head coach for that squad, meaning Irving and Lue will have their unique perspectives in the typical chess match that transpires during a playoff series.

"I think it's more or less the beginning of a chess match," Irving said. "You're trying to think three moves ahead, trying to anticipate the risks your opponent will take and what they're going to show. I've been able to play on the same team as [Tyronn Lue], so I feel like I know him well enough at this point, and he knows me well enough.

"But, I'm at a different place in my life now, and so is he. I'm not the young kid, 24, that he could just throw into these predicaments," Irving explained. "I know somewhat what to expect, but I'm also intrigued to see what adjustments he's going to make."

Irving metaphorically compared the preparation and competition of postseason basketball to war, regarding both intensity and the strategic elements that go into a series. After Game 1, teams can gauge how they measure up and make counter measures going into Game 2. While the pressure to perform is there, Irving encouraged his teammates without postseason experience to lean into the fun they had as children.

“Be prepared for war, metaphorically,” Irving said. “It’s the hardest, most difficult time to win ball games because you know the other team well. You know their tendencies, their habits. After Game 1, it’s pretty much adjustments. ... You gotta be balanced, stay focused, limit the distractions, and just do what you’ve been doing since you were a kid — and have fun doing it.”

The Mavericks are prepared to see a wide range of different potential looks from Lue's squad considering the creativity he's displayed in previous matchups. Whether it involves blitzing or guarding Doncic with Ivica Zubac, Dallas understands it'll need to be prepared for everything.

“We’ve seen a lot of different things on the defensive end this year (from the Clippers and everybody else), double teams, starting with (Ivica) Zubac on Luka – so his (Lue’s) creativity is high and we’re prepared for that.”

There is already a strong sense of familiarity between Doncic and the Clippers, considering the two sides faced off in the playoffs in 2020 and 2021. While Harden and Westbrook weren't involved in the matchup previously, Doncic understands what goes into facing Leonard and George in the postseason.

“Those two play well together, and everybody knows what they can do offensively and defensively,” Doncic said. “So, every game is going to be tough. Those two guys are amazing players, and it’s going to be tough to stop them.”

What's the difference between those previous Mavericks teams and the current one Doncic has to attempt to take down the Clippers? "We have Kai," Doncic responded.

Doncic praised the whole team when following up on his thoughts, while expressing his respect for the talent the Clippers have on their roster.

"The whole team is different," Doncic said. "We're playing great together, but the Clippers have an amazing team. They have unbelievable talent, so every game is going to be really tough."

The Mavericks and Clippers were the first solidified playoff matchup of the NBA postseason well before even finishing their final regular season games. The two sides have been able to get to work in the film room to prepare for each other for quite some time.

“There’s a lot of film,” Kidd said. “Players, sometimes, get antsy watching film. But I thought the guys did a great job today of being patient and understanding what part of the season we’re at with the playoffs and understanding the details of what we’re asking them to do. There’s a combination of being able to watch film, talk about the details and then being able to get on the floor and get up and down."

The goal defensively against a team with so much talent is to make them work for their scoring chances. The Mavericks' defense takes pride in making offensive players have to use multiple moves to get to where they desire to go on the court before challenging the shot.

“We’re trying to get these guys to their second or third move, but they’re still good enough to make those shots,” Kidd said. “Just trying to get them out of their comfort zones and being able to rebound the ball. We talked about the things we’ve done in the last 20 games, continue our habits on the defensive end, and also the offensive end. We’ve shown that we can play defense at a high level. Now it’s a matter of doing it during the playoffs.”

Leading into Game 1, a few critical factors have been expressed, including the need to maintain a high pace, receive bench production, and benefit from a "one-two punch" center tandem in Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II while still having the option to go small with Maxi Kleber.

The Mavericks went from ranking 29th in pace last season to finishing seventh this season, while experiencing a major increase in transition points per game. With Irving's typical aggression pushing the pace, along with Doncic making throw-ahead passes and serving as a trailer when he isn't taking it coast-to-coast, Dallas has a tough set of personnel to account for when playing fast, with depth to sustain it, primarily driven by Dante Exum off the bench.

“The playoffs, they tend to slow down,” Kidd said. “For us, we don’t want them to slow down. We want to keep playing with that pace. Using our depth to our advantage is something that’s helped us this season.

“And that’s something we got to lean on in this series is being able to run and not letting their defense get set," Kidd explained. "They’re very good on the defensive end. They got great hands, they can swipe, come up with a lot of steals, play the passing lanes at a very high level.”

With the Clippers relying on Ivica Zubac to protect the rim and finish, the Mavericks are now better equipped to handle executing in the paint on both ends. Gafford and Lively

“To be able to have your two bigs pass the baton back and forth, we’re asking them to protect the rim, rim-run, and make plays out of the double-team,” Kidd said. “Those two have done that at a high level, and we’re going to need them to do that in this series.”

Gafford remains intrigued by the potential Lively has displayed when they competed during games and even when working together in a practice environment. Lively will be gaining his first exposure to postseason basketball to end his rookie season.

“The sky’s the limit for the young guy,” Gafford said. “He comes in and he works day-in and day-out. I’ve seen him progress, and he’s been patient around the floor and finds a way to kind of slow the game down for himself.

“He’s pretty much just doing the things that guys trust him to do on the floor, whether it’s finishing around the rim, making plays around the perimeter, and so on and so forth," Gafford explained.

Whether it's Lively's paint presence, Exum's all-around skill set, or Kleber's versatility, the Mavericks have greater depth behind a revamped starting five than they've benefited from in previous postseason runs in the Doncic era.

We need our bench to play at a high level,” Kidd said. “They’re an X factor, and hopefully it’s on our side and that the guys that comes off the bench (can) knock down some shots and come up with a big stop.”

When the postseason gets going, preparation is only so important. Having special talents like Doncic and Irving rise to the occasion goes a long way, especially when they do not relent in doing what it takes to get the job done, even if shots aren't falling.

“When the going gets tough, you know you have somebody in the foxhole with you that’s ready to shoot all their ammo out," Irving said. "We need people like that that’s not afraid to empty their clip.”

A mutual understanding and chemistry between the Mavericks' superstar backcourt enables them to bring the best out of each other in pivotal moments. It'll be tested in the postseason environment, where both players tend to elevate their game.

"I can look to Luka and be like, 'Hey man, come on, turn this up a little bit,' or he can be like, 'Come on, Kai.' He'll say it in his language," Irving said.

The Clippers' perspective has focused on not allowing Doncic's passing ability to fully engage the Mavericks' offense. This contrasts with previous postseason encounters when Lue intended to make Doncic a scorer. Still, it becomes more challenging, considering he has Irving in the backcourt and wings that are more capable of attacking off the catch to get into the paint.

“They're a tough team when Luka has 40, 15, and eight or nine, so we know he's going to score the basketball. He's that good," Lue said. "He's going to get enough attempts to score the basketball. So we just can’t let him get 40, 15 and eight.

"If he gets 40 and five or 40 and four, that's a different team. So now guys are not getting open 3s, guys are not getting shots," Lue explained. "And so you just got to kind of pick your poison and kind of see how the night’s going, see what he has going that night, and then kind of take it from there. But if he has those 40-point games but he having 15 or 16 assists, you're in for a long night.”

The Mavericks and Clippers will compete in Los Angeles for the first two games of the series before it shifts to Dallas for Game 3 and 4. With Leonard's status being questionable with plenty of additional context casting doubt on his outlook to play, the Clippers may have a different team later in the series for Dallas to adjust to facing, adding additional intrigue to the typical chess match in a series.

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Grant Afseth


Grant Afseth is a Dallas Mavericks reporter for 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