The Clippers had their ups and downs in this one, but a massive performance from Kawhi Leonard enabled them to beat the Mavs and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
The Clippers and Mavericks both came out a little slow in this one, with some different defenses being deployed by both teams to stop down Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard respectively. Doubling those players led to more shot creation from other guys, which led to more missed shots. Fortunately, the Clippers’ defense was a bit sharper than the Mavs’, and they were able to get an early lead. Unfortunately, the defense fell off as soon as the bench began checking in, and the Mavs tied it up. Then, Marcus Morris whacked Luka Doncic across his head in a clear flagrant (whether 1 or 2 is up for debate), and he was ejected. The Clippers looked a bit out of it, and the Mavs seized the lead.
Doc started the 2nd quarter with a JaMychal Green – Ivica Zubac duo in the frontcourt, and the Clippers’ defense immediately improved. Green also added a couple buckets, and the Clippers regained the lead. Things went back and forth for a little bit, with neither team really able to get going offensively. Fortunately, the defense of the Clippers’ starters was once against the most potent unit on either end, and they were able to regain the lead heading into halftime.
The third quarter was almost all Clippers. Green playing alongside the rest of the starting unit resulted in a well-balanced, long, and high-effort defenisv unit that pressured the Mavs into bad shots. On the other end, jumpers started falling, particularly for Kawhi and Landry Shamet, and the Clippers’ lead inched larger. The Mavs began to sink, looking somewhat listless and out of sorts, and the Clippers pressed their advantage. Soon, the lead had hit 23 points, and the game appeared near over. Doc Rivers, however, proving that he hadn’t learned from prior games, ran out the Lou Williams – Reggie Jackson – Montrezl Harrell unit again, and that trio was mercilessly attacked on defense. A couple bad turnovers and rushed shots later, and the lead hung at 12.
Incredibly, Doc doubled down on that lineup, and even added Landry Shamet to the mix, going small with three guards and Trez. This lineup, predictably, was dreadful on both ends, and the Mavs were able to cut the lead down to six. At that point, Kawhi and Zubac were reinserted, and the ship was righted. Kawhi nailed four midrange jumpers in a row, the Clippers’ defense tightened, and their lead hit double digits once more. Reggie Jackson hit a couple wide open spot-up threes just to top things off, and the Clippers cruised down the stretch to a 111-97 win.
Marcus Morris Idiocy: Marcus Morris had been very good (“great” is stretching it in this humble writer’s opinion) in this series. But he gave away much of that goodwill today with an absolutely ridiculous foul on Luka Doncic. While it can be debated whether the foul was a Flagrant 1 or 2, it was clearly unnecessary, and a poor look for Morris, who has been excused of other dirty plays earlier in the series. He’s too important of a player to get himself kicked out, especially on such a silly foul early in the game. That’s the exact kind of behavior that makes him a wildcard in a bad way – what if he’d done this against the Rockets, or Lakers, and not the short-handed Mavs? The Clippers were ultimately fine without him (though JaMychal Green should have played a lot more), but against better teams the margins will be thinner. This is who Marcus has been throughout his professional (and collegiate career), but it just can’t happen on a team hoping to make a championship run.
Kawhi Dominant: Kawhi Leonard just wrapped up maybe the best playoff series ever from a Clippers’ player. In this one, he had 33 points on 23 shots, 14 rebounds, 7 assists, and 5 steals. He got wherever he wanted on offense, made some beautiful plays for others, was fully locked in defensively, and closed the game out in the 4th quarter. The crazy thing is that Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist mostly played excellent defense on him! It just didn’t matter, because Kawhi’s midrange jumpshot combined with his strength simply makes him one of the toughest covers in the NBA. What a performance from him, especially in the 2nd half. When he’s playing like this, any team that he’s on will be difficult to beat.
Zu vs Trez: After a solid performance in Game 5, Montrezl Harrell was once again a vast negative in this one. Part of it was the presence of Boban Marjanovic – Bobi is just a very difficult matchup for him – but the defense was just brutal. He simply offers very little rim protection, and is not nearly as sharp on rotations as Ivica Zubac. Zu, meanwhile, was fantastic, pouring in 15 shots on 6-8 shooting and 3-3 from the line while securing 11 rebounds in 33 minutes. At this point, matchup or no, Zu should be playing significantly more than Trez. While Trez is the more skilled offensive player, Zu’s defense is so much better than Trez’s that the additional offense is lost. Zu is no slouch on offense either, especially with his ability to hit free throws and set massive screens, and he’s a great finisher around the basket in his own right. There’s really no series where Trez should be playing more than Zubac, and at this point, Zu needs to be clearing 30 minutes per game regularly. He’s been awesome. Unfortunately, Trez has not, and while part of that was the difficult of the Mavs’ matchup, and part of it was probably his lack of rhythm from leaving the bubble, his minutes need to be reduced significantly.
Paul George Iffy: Paul George had a very good 1st half, looking confident offensively and playing strong defense. The defense remained solid in the 2nd, but the offense collapsed, with some particularly egregious turnovers helping out with the Mavs big run in the late 3rd and early 4th quarters. He was still more aggressive, confident, and helpful than he had been in Game 4, and was roughly on par with Games 2 and 3, but the Clippers need him to be better going forward. He could not anchor the Clippers’ bench units, and that’s something the Clips need to keep Kawhi’s minutes in a manageable (ideally under 40) range.
The Clippers now advance to the second round, where they will face either the Denver Nuggets or Utah Jazz. The Jazz have better defenders to throw on Kawhi and Paul George, while the Nuggets have the more dangerous offense. We will have more on those opponents in the coming days (though the Jazz could advance tonight with a win). Give thoughts on the game and who you would rather see the Clippers face in the second round in the comments below.