When the Los Angeles Clippers drew a first-round rematch with the Dallas Mavericks, it’s not like they were expecting it to resemble a beatdown. It wasn’t a matchup they felt could be scoffed at, or an opponent they could enter cruise-control against, only to destroy them when it mattered.
Did they underestimate the potency of this year’s Mavericks group, and miscalculate the enhanced strengths of Luka Dončić in his third season? After the first two games of this series, it appeared to be the case.
Falling into a 2-0 deficit, while handing Dallas homecourt advantage and showing no sense of urgency to begin either game, the Clippers were unprepared for battle. Based on their approach and lack of coherent decision-making on the defensive end, it was almost as if they didn’t do enough homework to realize this wasn’t the same Dončić. Or, Ty Lue and company simply believed they could give Dončić many different coverages, including full doubles and traps, and nobody else would make them suffer.
After all, the Clippers did come out victorious in two separate games in last year’s (bubble) series with the Slovenian mastermind scoring north of 38 points on high efficiency.
However, what L.A. did not account for is the immense step forward he took this season in various departments. As a mid-range creator, ball-screen manipulator, and relentless post-up hunter against smaller guards, Dončić has improved his own traits at a quicker pace than the Clippers anticipated.
The reality is, Dončić should probably already be mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James and peak Chris Paul when listing the players who have shown little-to-no weaknesses as an offensive engine. If they want to control the pace of a game, they will. If they want to force you into a cat-and-mouse attack, they will. If the defense is selling out to make them hit open teammates, they will.
In first two games, the Clippers’ fatal blows resulted from their inability to choose a path. From quarter to quarter – sometimes after every timeout – their defensive strategy was shifting. The focus wavered between playing Dončić straight up in switch-heavy coverages and electing to sell out defensively to get the ball out of his hands.
Effectively, they were allowing Dončić to thrive in certain moments as an individual scorer, only to overreact to his shot-making talent a few possessions later and allow everyone else to break free. The Clippers were trying to plug every hole in their defense at once, rewarding Dončić for his own scoring by continuously leaving shooters open. It was often one-pass away, as defenders with smart reputations kept making blunder after blunder.
The Mavericks’ role players, notably Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, and Josh Richardson, capitalized on nearly every mistake. Not only were the Clippers staring in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, but they were also gifting Dončić the cleanest passing angles and daring him to be a playmaker. Considering his background in Europe and experience with passing out of traps, that was also a disaster.
L.A. compounded the errors by willingly soft-switching Patrick Beverley and Reggie Jackson onto Dončić in the crunchtime minutes of Game 2, which ultimately led to their demise.
Heading into Game 3, it was supposed to be adjustment time for Lue and the Clippers. If they kept pounding their heads against the wall and welcoming an open world of terror, it would lead to a quick playoff exit and a summer full of questions for the organization.
Lue mentioned before Game 3 that being physical with Dončić was the major emphasis moving forward, along with “simplifying” their gameplan against him. He also decided to make a change to the starting lineup, inserting Reggie Jackson and removing Patrick Beverley. While the reasoning was largely due to an increased tempo Jackson could provide, it didn’t exactly solve the Clippers’ problem of handing Dončić another small defender to repeatedly toy with.
Yet, despite all of the conversation surrounding their poor starts to Games 1 and 2, the Clippers once again found themselves in a severe danger zone to begin Game 3.
Only this time, it was on the road, at the center of more than 17,000 energetic fans – all dying to see Playoff Luka continue his magic.
If the team trailing 2-0 in the series didn’t immediately jump out in desperation mode, you would have to question what could possibly wake them up.
Sure enough, the Mavericks pounced early.
In stunning fashion, Dallas continued to defy normal shooting probability and was clearly the aggressor in the opening stretch. In just three and a half minutes, it was an 11-0 lead for the Mavs, spearheaded by three step-back jumpers by Dončić and one tightly-contested wing triple by Hardaway Jr.
All three Dončić step-backs were generated off a switch with Ivica Zubac getting pulled into the action. It doesn’t matter if it’s the slower Zubac or a smaller guard, Dončić is licking his chops when he gets those matchups.
The Clippers should be doing everything they can to deny the switch, force Dallas to burn the shot clock hunting for it over and over, and only switch if there’s no avenue to recover.
Still, even with the Mavs getting the switches they want, the Clippers would argue these are just superstar shots being drilled over solid defense. They wouldn’t be wrong:
It’s inherently demoralizing for a team – especially the players individually – to enter a matchup feeling comfortable with conceding these type of looks, then glancing at the scoreboard to see a quick 11-0 hole.
For the third straight game, Dallas punched first. They swung haymakers from long-range, while the Clippers’ offense looked disjointed and indecisive.
Things didn’t exactly improve for L.A. after Lue called timeout to stop the bleeding. The lead for Dallas grew to 30-11 by the 4:38 mark of the first quarter, as Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer appeared as if he wanted to melt in his courtside chair.
If the Clippers somehow win this series and perhaps a title, the run after Lue’s second timeout in Game 3 will be the moment that changed everything.
Down 19 in the loudest road environment this Clippers group has collectively been a part of, they proceeded to go on a 14-0 run to cut the margin to just five points. It was sparked by three quick buckets from Kawhi Leonard and culminated with Paul George putting in two of his own.
For now, it was the run that saved their season. Considering how Dallas shot for the rest of the game, it was highly unlikely the Clippers would have crawled out of the hole any later than the first quarter.
So, while they didn’t exactly “set the tone” like Lue had been searching for, they showed a real desire to swing after taking so many on the chin.
“Just being resilient, like we’ve been all year,” Lue said about the first quarter run. “Our backs are against the wall, we come out, we fight and compete. I thought early on, they made some shots, and we still had some gameplan mistakes. But overall, it was better. There weren’t a lot of slips to the rim for dunks and open threes. They made some (threes) because we were helping a bit on Luka – a little overhelp.”
Lue’s rotations in Game 3 proved to be a meaningful adjustment in this series. He understood that a heavy dose of Beverley and Zubac wouldn’t be beneficial. Both of them get tormented by Dončić for different reasons.
He decided to split the lead guard role between Jackson (34 minutes) and Rajon Rondo (26 minutes), while also playing them together for 12 minutes. With Rondo’s veteran expertise, he was able to make life more difficult on Dončić when the Mavs tried to pull him into the action. When Rondo is on the floor, there is also a greater chance the Clippers can avoid soft-switching or getting themselves into ill-advised matchups.
Lue also rolled with Terance Mann off the bench for 19 minutes. After getting a DNP in Game 1 and playing 15 minutes in Game 2, Mann’s services were needed to a larger degree on the road. Since the Clippers are a much older roster than the average fan realizes, there’s often a lack of offensive juice to get downhill or create transition opportunities.
Mann has provided that in the last two games, while also serving as a defensive pest and creator of chaos when he zips into passing lanes and uses his length to disrupt the Mavericks’ ball-handlers.
“He’s another guy that plays scrappy and brings energy,” Leonard said about Mann after the game. “He can attack the paint, very athletic, and can shoot. He’s not afraid of the moment.”
After the initial spurt by Dallas and the subsequent answer by Leonard and George, the Clippers were able to get a consistent rhythm offensively. They matched Dallas at every turn, and eventually went into halftime with a two-point lead.
George, who has constantly been ridiculed since 2017 for his lack of playoff advancements, scored 22 of his 29 points in the first half. He was absolutely lights-out by shooting 10-of-13 from the field in those first two quarters, attacking the rim more frequently than we’ve seen him do in a Clippers uniform.
Here’s the crazy part, though. Dallas didn’t stop applying pressure. The Mavs had another high-volume, absurdly efficient shooting performance. They shot 20-of-39 (51.3%) from three, taking over 45% of their looks from deep. If you remove Dončić’s shooting, which was even more insane in Game 3 than the first two performances at Staples Center, his teammates combined to shoot 13-of-26 (50.0%).
Much like the first two games, Dallas refused to cool down. It was the only way to explain the Clippers being unable to pull away with Leonard and George scoring nearly every trip up the floor.
Ultimately, the Clippers’ halfcourt brilliance prevailed in the fourth quarter and lifted them to victory in what some viewers dubbed as the most important game in franchise history.
Leonard and George combined for 65 points on 80.7% true shooting. Out of their 16 total playoff appearances together since joining forces, it was their greatest.
“It was a total team effort, and Kawhi and PG really put us on their shoulders,” Lue said.
After the first quarter avalanche by the Mavericks, Lue decided to eliminate a lot of the minutes with Zubac sharing the floor with Dončić. He went small, riding with Marcus Morris at center with different guard variations.
“We just decided to (play small) so we could switch more, try to make (Dončić) play more one-on-one, and just try to wear him down,” Lue said.
The lineup of Jackson-George-Leonard-Batum-Morris got the most burn, totaling 12 minutes and shooting 11-of-16 from the field. However, it was outscored by 8 points in those 12 minutes, largely because the Mavs wouldn’t miss a shot.
The real nightmare for Dallas came in the six minutes Lue trotted out a Rondo-Jackson-Leonard-George-Morris lineup, giving the Clippers an expert playmaker in Rondo, and surrounding him with four shooters. That lineup shot 7-of-8 from the floor and outscored the Mavs by eight points.
The defining stretch for this lineup started with 7:18 left in the fourth quarter.
Similar to the opening period, when the Clippers were on the verge of being humiliated, Lue sparked a turnaround with a timeout. After the Mavs trimmed it to 97-94 with another contested three, it was time for Leonard to manipulate the Dallas defense.
The main hallmark of the Clippers’ offense since Leonard and George joined the team? Guards screening for their wings.
Doc Rivers loved to utilize guards as their screeners last year, whether it came from Beverley or Lou Williams.
This year, Lue has operated the same way. Only this time, he has different options. One of those is Rondo, who is perhaps the best fit for this role. Since being traded to the Clippers, Rondo has excelled as the screener in pick-and-roll (particularly with Leonard), and granted the Clippers a major advantage.
The two main objectives of using your guards as screeners would be the following:
- Force a smaller player to switch onto the ball-handling wing (Kawhi)
- Force a hedge or brief trap, which allows the guard (Rondo) to flash to the middle of the floor. He is then serving as a release-valve once the wing passes out of the trap
Nine times out of 10, one of those options will present itself.
And here’s the thing about the Clippers. When they find something they like, they will spam the hell out of it.
So, that’s what happened.
Rewatching the tape, the Clippers called for the Kawhi-Rondo screening action on SEVEN consecutive possessions. It started at the 7:18 mark of the fourth quarter and lasted until there was only 3:33 left.
Over and over again, cooking the Mavericks’ defense by forcing them to pick their poison. We’ll look at a few of them.
Notice how Rondo slowly walks to the nail, as Maxi Kleber prepares to defend Leonard. He immediately sprints up to set a screen on Kleber, which puts the responsibility on Jalen Brunson to react. Brunson has to hedge or completely switch onto Leonard. From there, Dallas can either choose to live with Brunson defending a huge wing, or send help:
Once the soft double comes from Kleber, the onus is on Leonard to get rid of the ball quickly. That’s where Rondo comes in, as the veteran point guard flashes down the lane. It’s up to him to make a play. Before you know it, there’s a swing-swing pass to Morris in the corner.
Like most decisions in the NBA – if it works once, you call it again.
This time, once Leonard gives up the ball to Rondo, you’ll see how Dončić has stepped up to crowd his space. Instead of passing it, Rondo knows he can burn Dončić off the dribble:
You thought I was kidding about the Clippers spamming this down the stretch, didn’t you?
On a third straight possession, Rondo comes up to screen for Leonard. Only this time, Leonard uses the screen to go left instead of right. Rondo simply pops into open space on the right side, sees wide-open real estate in the lane, and takes advantage.
The subtle – yet genius – decision to hit Jackson on the wing first, knowing the defense will rotate away from Morris, is so underrated:
On this possession, the Clippers flirt with a George screen on Leonard’s man, but quickly slip out of it. Sometimes, Leonard can just put his own strength and driving ability to use:
What virtually became the dagger in this game was yet another Rondo ball-screen, shown below – this time to create a switch for Leonard.
However, this is where you see the culmination of a single play developing over time. When Leonard gets the switch, he doesn’t choose to settle for a jumper or ISO versus Hardaway Jr. Instead, he uses a sick behind-the-back dribble to create the opening he needs.
Getting all the way to the rim, he forces help from the left corner. It’s another splash for Morris, his third corner three in this sequence:
Among the plays not shown, the Clippers also generated a trip to the foul line off this set, and a missed layup by Rondo after getting downhill.
In total, the Clippers scored 15 points on seven possessions in this guard-guard screening action over the course of four minutes. That’s 2.14 points per possession, which will destroy any late-game defense.
“I think Coach Lue made a good adjustment in the second half,” Rondo said. “I think he saw something he wanted to attack defensively. We just went with it and trusted the players on the floor. We went small and were picking them apart. It was a great team effort.”
Instead of hanging back and countering everything the Mavericks do in this series, the burden was on the Clippers to make something happen in their favor.
They couldn’t just play the role of a retaliator, especially on the road.
When the time came to leave their first impression on the series, Leonard and the Clippers brought out their secret weapon.
While the national conversation has surrounded the Clippers’ defense in this series, the problems have been on both sides of the ball.
For their sake, Game 3 highlighted that L.A. can still pull out a must-win scenario when seemingly everything is against them – including historic shooting from the opponent.
“I think being down 2-0, coming out taking their best shot early and being down 19 on their home floor … to come back and win the game we way did, it shows a lot about us,” Lue said.
The Clippers can take solace in knowing they have only been outscored by six in this series despite the Mavs being on track for the best shooting display the league has ever seen.