DALLAS - For the second consecutive NBA ostseason, the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers will face off in the first round.
The Clippers came out on top in six games during last year's playoff series against the Mavericks. While the series did feel close at times due to Luka Doncic converting on a game-winner and Dallas winning a couple of games, the point differential was still substantial in Los Angeles' favor.
It certainly did not help the Mavericks that Kristaps Porzingis was ejected in Game 1 of the series and was sidelined for the back half of the six games. Now, Dallas will get their chance to see what could have been if he manages to stay healthy this time around.
Luka Doncic had an incredible series last go-around with averages of 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 8.7 assists while going 50.0% from the field. He did have issues with turnovers (5.2) and free-throw shooting efficiency (65.6%), but was very impactful in his first playoff series.
Paul George sorely struggled while Kawhi Leonard was routinely carrying the Clippers. Now, Los Angeles has arguably the most potent cast of shooters in the league and George will look to bounce-back now that he's not playing in the NBA Bubble.
The series begins on Saturday afternoon (3:30 CT) at Staples Center, but before tipoff, here are some film-study keys to watch in the series.
Clippers Have Become A Sharpshooting Team
What makes the Clippers an elite offense is the fact they are build around two elite wing players who are surrounded by elite shooting that makes the defense pay for helping. That's a problematic matchup for this Mavericks squad, as well as any team.
There isn't a team in the NBA that managed to shoot at a more efficient clip on spot-up plays this season than the Clippers. Los Angeles understood that spreading teams out and knocking down shots was crucial, so they went out and added talent to do so.
The Mavericks will need to be careful using the low-man to rotate to help on drives to the paint. The Clippers have capitalized on making spray outs to the weak-side corner in order to exploit the opposition's inability to contain dribble penetration.
The Clippers are far from limited to just standstill weak-side shooters. Los Angeles is able to capitalize on quick kick-outs to the strong-side and can convert despite facing contests. This will make handling dribble penetration exceptionally challenging.
It's going to require a lot of activity defensively in order to get out on shooters to avoid giving up clean looks from deep. The Mavericks will need to embrace having speed on the floor in order to do so, but will need to communicate and make quick decisions.
Slowing Down Kawhi Leonard & Paul George
The Clippers' offense starts with the pick-and-roll and iso scoring of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. When both players have it rolling, the team's spot-up shooters become activated by making the defense pay for helping.
Leonard was able to rip the Mavericks' defense apart getting to the rim for finishes and using short-range jumpers. As Shane Young of Forbes Sports noted, Leonard went 20-of-27 (74.1%) at the rim and 24-of-34 (70.6%) from floater range against Dallas. He was attacking using ball screens, iso, and after receiving the ball off-the-move as well.
There doesn't appear to be much the Mavericks will be able to do in terms of deterring Leonard from getting to the rim. The rim protection capabilities are still underwhelming while no on-ball defender is going to bottle him up.
Even when a defender does cut off Leonard's drive, his short-range jumper is a go-to option that can counter. The Mavericks will need to decide between making Leonard face a crowd of defenders when he gets to his spot or staying home on shooters.
There is also the risk that Leonard will draw fouls at a high rate as he did last time against the Mavericks in the playoffs. Shane Young also noted that Leonard's free throw rate was .423 in the series against Dallas and that's uncharacteristically high.
Leonard struggled to consistently convert on pull-up three-pointers last series and only shot 32.8% this season. However, the threat he poses making the defense pay with his mid-range jumper is something that will be important in this series.
The Mavericks do have the size to make things difficult on Leonard in the post but there is only so much that can be done when he catches post entry passes and takes face up jumpers. The defender can't play him too closely to avoid the blow by, so forcing these takes and living with the results is likely the answer.
Dallas must avoid allowing Kristaps Porzingis to get caught having to guard Kawhi Leonard or Paul George out in space. He lacks the necessary quickness to be able to slide his feet and cut off an initial drive attempt.
Paul George has been the Clippers' most frequently utilized pick-and-roll scoring threat while also narrowly trailing Leonard in isolation frequency. While he struggled during last year's matchup, it wouldn't be wise to count on that happening again.
There is a considerable reliance on pull-ups from George when he's attacking as an initiator. He's highly effective at these sequences but the knock over the last few years on him has been that his consistency has dropped in the playoffs.
With Leonard not being a robust pull-up three-point shooter, it becomes daunting when George is able to convert up to his potential on his attempts. Defending ball screens becomes particularly challenging.
Getting downhill will not be an issue for George in this series. The Mavericks have no choice but to respect his pull-up from deep by going over screens. With little reason to fear the interior defensive capabilities of Dallas, he should finish with effectiveness.
George has substantially improved his efficiency as an isolation scorer this season. This has been a combination of improved consistency as a pull-up shooter coupled with more aggression getting to the rim.
Against the Mavericks, George primarily looked to create an off-the-dribble jumper out of iso. The most that can truly be done to stop him in these situations is just to contest and disrupt his rhythm. He struggled to convert last series but again, counting on that happening again is not a winning strategy.
It's not just about when Leonard and George have the ball as initiators since they are each shooting incredibly well on spot-up jumpers this season. This is a regular feat for George but Leonard has elevated his game in this regard. Leaving them open off-the-ball risks allowing them to build a rhythm.
It's particularly challenging with George because he's a legitimate threat to come off a pin-down and quickly raise up for a jumper. Additionally, he can get downhill for a finish, especially when the defense plays him in a way to prevent the jumper.
This series will be a constant determination of picking the preferred poison of the moment. If George or Leonard is not converting and has gone cold on pull-ups, staying home on shooters more may be a good choice. If they're hot, then...there's not much that can be done to counter.
The Scoring Prowess Of Luka Doncic
There was little the Clippers found to be successful when it came to containing Luka Doncic. He was able to make big plays and counter their strategies in order to get to the rim and finish at a high-level while also creating off-the-dribble jumpers from deep.
In last year's playoff series, Doncic was heavily reliant on his off-the-dribble shooting from beyond the arc, whether out of pick-and-roll or iso. He attempted only 7.8% of his jump shots from mid-range (17" to <3 point line) and 11.8% from short-range (<17").
Needless to say, Doncic was quite effective getting to his step-back and pull-up from beyond the arc during last year's playoffs. He was able to break down the on-ball defender, regardless of who the defender was, and get what he wanted in iso.
The pull-up from deep will be an important option for Doncic as it was in last year's series. When the Clippers switch a ball screen, he will need to capitalize quickly. It will also be important to come off wide on the wings when using a ball screen to combat drop coverage. Getting to it in iso when it's the right play is helpful, too.
Doncic has taken 30.6% of his jump shots within the half-court from either short-range (22.4%) or mid-range (8.2%) this season. Being willing to take these shots and knocking them down will be crucial in giving the Clippers different looks.
Against the Clippers in the regular season, he showed a willingness to hunt the open space for a mid-range pull-up and also used a step-back to clear space from inside the 3-point line. Both sequences are quite challenging to guard and will be important.
The use of short-range jump shots was key for Doncic in the regular-season matchups with the Clippers for a variety of reasons. Getting to the middle of the floor makes it challenging for help defense to send pressure without being left vulnerable. Also, these plays create opportunities to draw fouls.
It's likely that Doncic will need to get to his turnaround jumper as he has done throughout the regular season. The Clippers' wings will be eager to cut off the initial drive attempt and he will find himself in a position to be able to create a clean look using this approach.
Getting to the rim is something that Doncic thrived doing against the Clippers in their previous series. When the defense would send a trap, he'd counter by rejecting a ball screen to get to the rim, which often created a clean lane.
The Clippers' lack of a forceful rim protector enabled Doncic to be aggressive getting to the rim even against drop coverage in pick-and-roll situations. His ability to decelerate and use his soft touch around the rim made the most of these situations.
It wasn't a challenge for Doncic to get to the rim out of iso, either. The Clippers had to respect the Mavericks' floor spacing options and Doncic's ability to make accurate and quick passes to capitalize on where the additional pressure was arriving from.
The Mavericks will need Doncic to continue to be the aggressive scorer he was during his first playoff matchup with the Clippers. Throwing lobs to the roll man and making spray-outs to shooters is important, but he will undoubtedly be needed to take over.
Supporting Cast Help Needed
It's bound to happen: The Clippers will blitz Luka Doncic and make him give the ball up and it will be up to his teammates to make a play. Top options like Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jalen Brunson, and also Dorian Finney-Smith will need to be ready.
The Mavericks were able to wreak havoc in last year's series when the Clippers outright trapped Doncic. That's partly why they only did so on 13 possessions because the results just weren't there. Dallas scored a made field goal on eight of those plays.
Using quick ball movement and the final recipient of the pass being capable of knocking down the catch-and-shooter jumper or take a one or two dribble pull-up helped the Mavericks in last year's series to combat trapping. The only question, will Josh Richardson be a problem in this area?
One of the issues the Clippers encountered when trapping Doncic was the Mavericks' ability to use Boban Marjanovic as a recipient of the pass after the screen. His massive catch radius makes it easy to just throw it over the top. Then he can take a floater or pass it to a cutter. Porzingis will need to be ready to do the same.
Using a perimeter player like Tim Hardaway Jr. as the screener is another method that can work quite well for the Mavericks. He's a threat to take the pull-up in mid-range if needed but has the ability to quickly read when to make the proper pass.
Kristaps Porzingis will be important in both trapping situations, but also against more neutral defensive approaches. He needs to be ready to shoot the lights out on spot-up attempts, be a roll man presence, and serve as a relief option on cuts.
Porzingis was thriving in the NBA Bubble during the Mavericks' playoff series against the Clippers. Statistically speaking, there actually wasn't a more efficient scorer than him with at least 50 possessions during the postseason.
The main way that Porzingis was doing damage was off-the-catch out of spot-up plays. He allowed the flow of the offense to work the ball to him and he made the most of his opportunities. He primarily took the 3-pointer, but also showed he can pull-up from mid-range to mix it up.
Doncic thrived using Porzingis as both a relief option on rim rolls and as pop threat after setting the ball screen. Being able to mix it up and make the Clippers make decisions within the flow of the game will be important. When he gets it going in both areas, there isn't anything a defense can do given his height.
The Clippers like to go with small-ball lineups throughout games and when they do, Porzingis will be a prime relief option threat as a cutter around the basket. As the help defense commits to a drive, he's got the size and length to finish a play before the recovery.
Porzingis struggled on post-ups in last year's playoffs and there's little reason to expect that to change. That's why he and the rest of the Mavericks' supporting cast need to thrive when playing off-the-ball and execute as complements. If they do, they will have a real chance to win the series.