DALLAS - Entering Game 5 with a 2-2 series tie, the Dallas Mavericks managed to get yet another road win at Staples Center with a 105-100 win over the LA Clippers.
It appeared as though the tide had turned in the series after the Clippers went small with Nicolas Batum at center and defeated the Mavericks by a staggering 25-point margin. Dallas had lost back-to-back home games in front of thousands upon thousands of fans...
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle got creative with his approach in Game 5 by inserting Boban Marjanovic into the starting lineup alongside Kristaps Porzingis. After not having the speed to match up with the Clippers' small ball group, they deliberately chose to get slower.
The Mavericks opted to roll out a 2-3 zone defensive scheme with Marjanovic and Porzingis sharing the floor. While it resulted in plenty of open 3-pointers for the Clippers, it prevented Kawhi Leonard and Paul George from getting easy finishes.
Luka Doncic put together a massive first-quarter performance with 19 points while going a staggering 5-of-6 (83.3%) from beyond the arc. This came after concerns about his health playing through a neck injury in Game 4. He went on to finish with a staggering 42 points, 8 rebounds, and 14 assists.
Dallas largely neutralized Kawhi Leonard in Game 5 by containing him to 20 points on 7-of-19 (36.8%) from the field and 1-of-7 (14.3%) from the perimeter with 5 turnovers. Meanwhile, Paul George and Reggie Jackson combined for 43 points.
Here are some of the factors that played a role in the Mavericks pulling off the Game 5 victory over the Clippers.
Mavericks Countered The Clippers' Defensive Adjustments
The Clippers' small-ball lineups with Nicolas Batum at the five spot have caused the Mavericks problems on both ends of the floor during this series. On offense, Dallas faces switching on ball screens and it makes it difficult to create dribble penetration.
An adjustment the Mavericks made in Game 5 was to keep a traditional big on the floor in order to make the Clippers pay for switching. Boban Marjanovic was the perfect option since he has the height to catch high-arching passes on the roll before finishing.
There also is the option of posting up Marjanovic close to the restricted area on the rim roll. If it's Kawhi Leonard or Paul George that switches onto Marjanovic, they risk picking up a foul or simply having to work to prevent the finish.
Having Kristaps Porzingis as the lone big man on the floor against the Clippers' small-ball personnel was practically a bail-out for the opposition from the Mavericks' perspective. He would take turnaround jumpers with inconsistent results while Marjanovic uses his strength in the paint.
Earlier in the series, the Mavericks experienced substantial success involving a perimeter player like Tim Hardaway Jr. as a ball screener early in possessions. In Game 4, the Clippers adjusted to this by using a 'show-and-recover' approach to prevent the initial drive from Doncic.
The Mavericks displayed an intriguing counter to the Clippers' 'show-and-recover' strategy in Game 5. Instead of only having a perimeter player set a ball screen, bringing a big man up like Marjanovic to screen the recovering defender would create a window for a rim roll.
Going with either Boban Marjanovic or Dwight Powell as a screener in pick-and-roll situations prevents the Clippers from going small and getting away with it. Doncic's passing to both bigs as rim rollers makes them too great of threats to not have a big on the floor.
Doncic made the Clippers pay for blitzing him with Marjanovic as the screener in such a way that it's just simply not viable going forward. Marjanovic has the height for Doncic to lob a pass over the blitz and simply turn his shoulder into a finish after the catch.
The finishing ability that Powell provides makes him a real threat for Doncic to rely on as a relief option. Between being able to euro-step in transition into an inside underhand finish and being a shot fake and pivot maestro on catches as a roll man, not having a big back in the paint to counter him is a troubling proposition.
One of the advantages of having Powell on the floor is that he has real synergy with Doncic in handoffs. The opposition has to fear the threat of a lob so the big has to drop, which allows Doncic to attack the on-ball defender based on if he goes over or under.
When the big defender begins to play up in anticipation of a handoff, Powell is savvy at reading the contact before turning to explode to the rim. That's yet another way to keep the Clippers' defense honest without having to rely on incredible perimeter shooting results.
The energy that Powell provides throughout his minutes on the floor is a real asset in itself. Most defenders end up ball-watching when a shot goes up but Powell instead aggressively pursuits it and has a real skill to create putbacks from behind the defense.
A more layered factor to take into consideration is how the Clippers' tendency to have the closing out defender leak out in transition can be exploited with Powell's offensive rebounding. On this play, he crashed from the corner and was able to shovel the ball to Tim Hardaway Jr. for another attempt with the defender out of the frame.
All of the subtle advantages the Mavericks gain from either Boban Marjanovic or Dwight Powell being on the floor makes it a far greater advantage than simply combatting the Clippers with Kristaps Porzingis as the five in this series.
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Porzingis isn't firing from deep well enough to hunt those kinds of attempts for him and he's not consistent enough against mismatches to use him inside as a post-up threat. That's why Marjanovic and Powell have the advantage.
Luka Doncic Took Advantage As A Scorer
From the outsider's perspective, there were questions about how effective Luka Doncic would be in Game 5 after he looked clearly impacted by a neck injury in his previous outing. Well, he dispelled any of that...rather quickly, too.
With the Mavericks prompting the Clippers to involve Ivica Zubac more in Game 5, Doncic was able to continue the regularly scheduled programming for this series by taking advantage of it.
Doncic and Rick Carlisle have already seen it all when it comes to whatever coverage the Clippers can throw out when defending ball screens. Whether it was against a small lineup or with Zubac on the court, Doncic was patient and had a counter to take advantage.
By prompting the Clippers into playing Zubac on the court to better match the Mavericks' size and interior presence, it brought back the advantage that Doncic had early in this series when getting downhill in pick-and-roll situations.
The Clippers have no choice but to go over ball screens against Doncic because he will make them absolutely pay for going under. With a big dropping, Doncic is able to use his hostage dribble and slow down the pace to create a window for his floater or finish.
Even when Zubac decides to step up to engage Doncic when he gets into the gap after dribbling off the pick, he has a counter to get a bucket. There's nothing the defender can do when Doncic is pulling up from mid-range and knocking it down.
Doncic made some superstar plays in tough situations to keep the Mavericks battling throughout the game. How many players can take a post-up against Paul George and turn it into a step-through finish all the while drawing a foul call?
When the finish on the initial drive was not present for Doncic, he was able to use some impressive counters that showed how special of a player he is. Between his turnaround jumper when driving right, step back in short-range after going left, or simply using deceleration in the paint to get the help defender in the air, he made special plays.
The Clippers simply aren't going to contain Luka Doncic, especially with Rick Carlisle making adjustments to counter the strategies that have been deployed. All that can be done is hope that tough shots do not end up falling on the right day...
Zone Defense Create More Problems Than It Solved
It's clear something needed to change in the Mavericks' approach when considering how often Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were getting to the rim earlier in the series, and how little resistance they faced when they got there.
With Boban Marjanovic in the starting lineup alongside Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks opted to go with a zone defense. This would help to load up on Leonard and George at the initial point of attack and prevent finishes out of pick-and-roll and iso.
The Clippers made it a point to force the Mavericks to have to swarm within the half-court in their zone. With Boban Marjanovic and Kristaps Porzingis on the floor, this would create windows to drive-and-kick for favorable shots, and it did.
Moving the ball around with quick passing to force the Mavericks to make rotations and create windows to exploit was a successful strategy for the Clippers, as it is for a team at any level against a zone. That's a real problem when the result is an elite shooting team being able to take standstill catch-and-shoot jumpers.
A particular strategy the Clippers found to be successful against the Mavericks' zone was to use the corner spot-up threat near Luka Doncic's responsibility as a baseline cutter. These are sequences that must be fixed if Dallas runs zone again in Game 6.
Simply put, the Mavericks are gambling with a zone defense, as any team is when using it. It's going to lead to open shots from deep and if they aren't falling, it's a genius move. If those shots are going in, then it's 'dumb to use a junk defense.'
Luka Doncic's explosive offensive outing and passing to Marjananovic offensively outpaced the Clippers executing well against Dallas' zone defense. Bottom line, Dallas needed Marjanovic's size and strength on rim rolls and it is the easiest way to hope to get away with playing him alongside Kristaps Porzingis.
Mavericks Neutralized Kawhi Leonard
Containing Kawhi Leonard to an underwhelming outing was a vital element to the Mavericks achieving this victory. He was ripping them apart in previous games in this series by being able to attack single-coverage without the need to worry about help defense.
The Mavericks made it a point to prevent Leonard from having a clean path to the rim within the half-court. The zone scheme made him take pull-ups in mid-range. Meanwhile, Dallas funneled him to the big defender in man-to-man situations due to being able to drop with Zubac being the screener.
Between the Mavericks running a zone scheme during a large share of Leonard's minutes and the team pressuring him on man-to-man possessions, he only registered one shot attempt out of isolation. Dorian Finney-Smith got in front of his drive to contest a pull-up on that one sequence.
Leonard spent far more of his possessions spacing the floor and taking spot-up jump shots than in previous games. He came up empty on all of his attempts in such situations, giving the Mavericks a perfect payoff on their gamble.
And now comes Friday’s Game 6 at the AAC. It will be challenging to contain Kawhi Leonard in an elimination game. He's surely going to take matters into his own hands far more often, regardless of whether the Mavericks are running zone or are sending extra pressure to him in man-to-man.