DALLAS - After taking a 2-0 series lead, the Dallas Mavericks fell to the LA Clippers in Game 3 with 118-108 being the final score. Now, it's back to the drawing board for the Mavs.
It's difficult to envision there being a better start the Mavericks could have gotten off to than what they put together in this game. Luka Doncic came out of the gate firing with Ivica Zubac being the main target of his attack.
The Mavericks managed to build a 30-11 lead in the first quarter in front of a home American Airlines Center crowd that featured 17,705 fans. Problems arose for Dallas after the Clippers went small, in fact, Los Angeles outscored them 52-31 for the remainder of the opening half.
While the Mavericks went from leading by 19 points at one point to trailing 63-61 at halftime, they still held firm initially. Dallas was outscored by just one-point in the third frame and trailed 89-86 entering the fourth quarter.
Dallas never quite managed to put together a run to take control of the game in its final stages. The Clippers made a few key adjustments and managed to out-execute the Mavericks en route to a victory.
Here are some key observations from the Mavericks' Game 3 loss to the Clippers:
The Hunter Became The Hunted
One of the themes of the Mavericks' success in the initial two games, and even early in Game 3, was their tendency to hunt Ivica Zubac out in space. Luka Doncic was able to attack him out in space in iso situations and when getting downhill in pick-and-roll against drops.
The Clippers decided that enough is enough and opted to keep Zubac's minutes in Game 3 limited to just 11. Los Angeles went with a small ball lineup that moved Zubac to the bench in favor of options like Rajon Rondo and Nicolas Batum.
Instead of the Mavericks targeting Zubac and achieving strong success, it became the Clippers hunting Kristaps Porzingis out in space and making him legitimately unplayable.
The only problem...the Mavericks did not sit Porzingis after it became apparent he wasn't going to be able to keep up. The Clippers' superstars wreaked havoc on Dallas' defense repeatedly while Porzingis was unable to provide much value offensively.
Initially, the Clippers used an 'indirect' approach to exploiting Porzingis' lack of mobility out in space. This was achieved by using Rajon Rondo as a ball screener with Kawhi Leonard as the ball handler, who was commanding double teams and heavy attention, in general.
The advantage to having Rondo as a ball screener is that he's able to make quick passing reads as a short-roll playmaking threat. With two defenders often being sent to Leonard before the pass, Rondo is then in a situation where he has numbers against a scrambling defensive unit, which is where Porzingis became a disadvantage.
With a need to put the Mavericks away for good in the game's final stages, the Clippers reverting to directly involving Porzingis' man as a ball screener. This only further exacerbated Dallas' defensive woes between being unable to contain dribble penetration and the unit being out of position to contest pivotal jumpers.
It's not necessarily fair to chalk up Game 3's loss to a mastermind adjustment from Tyronn Lue, though. There were plenty of blunders from Porzingis defensively throughout this game that simply should not have occurred.
There were a few plays that stood out most from Porzingis, in particular. Between allowing a putback from a perimeter play spacing from above the break, ball watching and allowing a backdoor cut and finish, and allowing a slipped pindown to result in a dunk...there were some genuinely costly errors.
Regardless of any potential implications on trade value, the Mavericks need to be prepared to bench Porzingis early and often whenever the Clippers shift to small ball. He's a major liability defensively and isn't going to be a help counter offensively despite being 7-foot-3, either, so what's the point?
At the very least, the Mavericks cannot continue to send double-teams to Leonard and allow Rondo to facilitate while having numbers on the backend of the play.
Paul George Is An X-Factor
With how the Mavericks have begun blitzing Kawhi Leonard, their half-court defense has already become stretched quite thin at times. This was put on full display when the game was winding down and execution in clutch time was vital.
What made the Clippers such a daunting matchup entering this series isn't just the fact that Leonard is a special player. It's the fact that Los Angeles has two elite wings with George also being a dynamic threat with both being surrounded by high-level shooting.
A pivotal way George made his mark in Game 3 was by being aggressive early and often in semi-transition. This was key in him scoring 22 of his 29 points in the first half. The Mavericks never made him feel the presence of a rim protector and failed to contain him 1-on-1 out on the perimeter.
There is one pivotal area for George to still improve in this series. So far, he's 1-of-9 (11.1%) overall on dribble jumpers out of pick-and-roll. Dallas has reverted to switching ball screens to force these takes as opposed to allowing him to drive and get to the rim against an on-ball defender going over with the big in drop coverage.
When the Mavericks used the big man in drop coverage earlier in this series, George was getting downhill and picking them apart. He's not able to do this when Dallas chooses to switch the ball screen as they did in Game 3. If that approach changes, it would be the result of George converting on those off-the-dribble jumpers.
The Mavericks would all of a sudden face a reality where they are overwhelmed by facing the level of execution many expected the Clippers to have provided from the start. Unless a player like Tim Hardaway Jr. is firing off all cylinders, Dallas would struggle to keep up.
Clippers Going Small Took Away Luka's Favorite Target
The level of momentum Luka Doncic had established to begin Game 3 was nothing short of incredible. He came out firing and was hunting Ivica Zubac as much as he could through using ball screens to force the switch. When the switch didn't occur, he took full advantage of the drop coverage by getting downhill.
While Doncic has taken far fewer finishes at the rim with Zubac on the floor, his shooting execution has become just too great for the Clippers to afford letting him have those switching situations to exploit. So Los Angeles opted to go small, as a result.
In the fourth quarter when the Clippers had their small unit on the floor, Doncic did not get to the rim for a clean finish attempt once. Instead, Los Angeles made it a point to prompt him to take his step-back three-pointers or foul him when he did try to attack downhill since he's been struggling on free throws.
Doncic relied on his off-the-dribble shooting from beyond the arc down the stretch and it wasn't until the game was out of reach that his shots started to fall once again. Attacking in semi-transition before the extra pressure came was key.
The Clippers likely will look to go small even more than they did in Game 3 and will look to pre-rotate the low-man from the weak-side. Doncic will need to shoot exceptionally well from beyond the arc, shoot better than the 7-of-13 (53.8%) he achieved, and receive strong shooting support from teammates.
Keep in mind, the Clippers shifted to this approach even when the Mavericks shot 20-of-39 (51.3%) from beyond the arc overall. Los Angeles was leaving Maxi Kleber one pass away in the clutch despite him being 4-of-7 (57.1%) from deep.
If Tim Hardaway Jr. has another big game left in him during this series, Game 4 would be an ideal time. The Clippers are beginning to find an offensive rhythm and Doncic could get worn down the longer this series progresses.