DALLAS - At the start of the Dallas Mavericks' series with the LA Clippers, Luka Doncic was getting whatever he wanted. He could get elite defenders switched off of him with a simple screen or exploit the opposing big man dropping in pick-and-roll.
The Clippers figured this out, too. Instead of allowing Doncic to continue to pick on Ivica Zubac over and over, they have swapped him out in favor of Nicolas Batum in the starting lineup.
While some may not view Batum as a 'game-wrecker' level of defender who should strike fear into the opponent as an individual, it's a big deal. Without a big man on the floor, the Clippers now can switch one through five and have great speed in team defense to make rotations.
Doncic was limited by a neck injury in Game 4 but the Clippers deserve a lot of credit for strategic adjustments made, too. He was held to 19 points in 36 minutes while going 9-of-24 (37.5%) from the field, 1-of-7 (14.3%) from deep, and 0-of-5 (0%) on free throws.
"I don’t think that matters right now," Doncic said. "We lost by 20. The injuries are part of basketball. I wasn’t 100 percent but I played terrible. We’ve just got to move onto the next game.
"The pain is like neck and nerve down. It felt way better today than yesterday. I just keep doing massages and ice it down and be ready for Wednesday."
And now comes Wednesday’s Game 5 at LA, a 9 CT tip that is all about Luka’s health … and lessons learned.
The start to Game 4 seemed to be going in the Mavericks' favor. Kristaps Porzingis converted on a pair of post-ups to put Dallas up 4-0 and if he has it going early, what can go wrong?
Well, just about everything else...
Clippers Use 'Show & Recover' P&R Coverage
One of the main problems for the Clippers' defense in this series was their willingness to just 'soft switch' screens. Luka Doncic was able to get whatever matchup he wanted and essentially spammed that to monster outings.
After having enough of that, the Clippers have begun using a strategy called 'show and recover' when Doncic uses a ball screen. The on-ball defender cuts off the drive direction for the ball handler when they come around the screen and delay enough for the original on-ball defender to get back onto their assignment.
Doncic went from being able to get an elite defender like Kawhi Leonard switched off of him in favor of Ivica Zubac, to having to deal with Leonard even after using a ball screen. That alone is a significant game changer.
Not being able to dribble off the ball screen makes it exceptionally challenging to get downhill, especially when it's Leonard that is the one in on-ball defense. As a result, Doncic has been prompted to pass out of plays or settle for tough step-backs at an increasing rate.
Kawhi Leonard As P&R 'Big Defender'
One of the main objectives when using a high ball screen is that it traditionally pulls a slower footed defender with length away from the basket and forces them to have to execute out in space. That's helpful when the screener's man is a big...not when it's Kawhi Leonard.
The Clippers threw out a different look defensively in Game 4 that could be used more in this series going forward. Instead of having Leonard be the on-ball defender, he was deployed as the big defender to switch onto Doncic after a high ball screen.
Doing so is made a more viable strategy by the Clippers having Nicolas Batum as an option to throw onto Doncic on-ball. Batum, who stands at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, has ideal physical intangibles to switch onto Porzingis to hold his own, or at least deter the ball handler from driving to the rim.
The advantage of this particular strategy is that Leonard doesn't have to bang bodies with the on-ball screener since he's switching onto Doncic. This can help to preserve Leonard throughout the course of the game to stay fresh enough to keep cooking the Mavericks on the other end of the floor.
Turning The Water Off On Clear-Outs
Most teams are not as deep in the wing defender department as the LA Clippers. Having options to deploy between Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Nicolas Batum can wear down on an opposing superstar as it did for Luka Doncic.
Doncic has increasingly turned to trying to back down the defender on clear-outs more given how high screen-and-roll went from being a massive advantage to being a disadvantage. The Clippers have the size to handle these sequences 1-on-1 without even having to always have Leonard be the matchup.
The Clippers have made it a point to apply substantial pressure on Doncic when he is attacking in these situations. The nail defender is often positioning himself at the elbow to reach at the ball to prompt Doncic to spin baseline. Meanwhile, the low-man is aggressively committing to help to pressure the finish.
The Clippers even sent a hard double-team against one of Doncic's post-up attempts when Zubac was on the floor. Somehow, Doncic managed to get the ball out and on-target to Willie-Cauley Stein, but Rajon Rondo was there to rip the ball loose.
Even with the circumstances stacked against him, Doncic made an admirable effort to counter the Clippers' attempts to contain him on these clear-outs. He began making it a point to not spin baseline and reverted to his tough one-legged jumper.
The degree of difficulty required for Doncic to overcome what the Clippers' defense is throwing at him is too high to reasonably expect consistent results. However, the fact that he can still get it done at times is highly impressive.
Fewer Opportunities To Attack Ivica Zubac
There was a clear effort from the Clippers to minimize the number of minutes that Ivica Zubac shared the floor with Luka Doncic in Game 4. The results were mixed for both sides and the execution was a bit situationally dependent.
While there's only so much that can be done defensively when Zubac is on the floor, the Clippers made it a point to switch ball screens when he wasn't, and it worked. The drives that Doncic was previously getting against more neutral coverages weren't there anymore. Instead, he was prompted into taking tough shots.
The step-back jumper was not falling for Doncic in this game. The strategy did not change from the Clippers when Zubac was switched onto Doncic. In fact, it was the exact same...force him to take the stepback or fallaway jumpers. All that changed was Doncic's execution on these looks.
Now, where Doncic did experience his success was when Zubac dropped in pick-and-roll coverage. Doncic most frequently was able to get to a clean floater attempt but this was also another route to get to a contact finish against verticality.
Doncic was able to establish a rhythm for himself early in each of the prior games in this series. That was mostly done by hunting Zubac on switches knowing that he wasn't going to be able to alter the release, even if the attempt was a tough off-the-dribble look.
By taking away those opportunities, the Clippers prevented Doncic from building momentum for himself. He was worn out and out of rhythm it felt like by the time he was able to get those cross-matches against Zubac out in space.
Now comes Game 5. More adjustments. And, the Mavs hope, more Luka.