The Clippers will take on the Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs for the third time in five years. Here’s a look at how these teams shake down both in the big picture as well as more granularly for a full series preview of Clippers vs Mavericks, 2024 edition.


Game 1, Clippers Home: Sunday April 21, 12:30 PM PT – ABC

Game 2, Clippers Home: Tuesday April 23, 7:00 PM PT – TNT

Game 3, Mavs Home: Friday April 26, 5:00 PM PT – ESPN

Game 4, Mavs Home: Sunday April 28, 12:30 PM PT – ABC

Game 5, Clippers Home: Wednesday May 1

Game 6, Mavs Home: Friday May 3

Game 7, Clippers Home: Sunday May 5

The Clippers’ Big Picture

Zooming way out, this is an immensely important series (and playoff run) for the Clippers. We all know why. The Clippers have gone all in on this team, doubling down on the core with the James Harden trade and the Kawhi Leonard extension. Their three best players are all in their mid-30s, and two more of their top seven in minutes played are also over 30. It’s now or never for this iteration of the team.

And it’s not just the age factor. James Harden is a free agent after this season. Paul George has a player option for $48.7M that he might pick up, but could decline to become a free agent. If this team does not get out of the first round, even against a tough Mavs team with one of the five best players in the NBA in Luka Doncic, changes will be made. Those changes would probably include not just players, but coaching staff and front office executive turnover as well. Even making the 2nd round, while not the result this team wants, could be enough to get the band back together.

Zooming back in, despite all the concerns regarding this team down the stretch of the season and their forgettable March, they finished 4th in offensive rating in the NBA, just a hair behind the Thunder, and 7th in Net Rating (3.4) behind only true contenders and the Pelicans. Their 16th ranked defense is worrisome – but their defense with Kawhi Leonard on the court was top 5 equivalent.

And of course, the main item remaining on the big picture is the health of Kawhi Leonard. He seems like he will be a go for Game 1, but will he be 100%? Will he be able to play a full minutes load? Will he be rusty after three weeks off? The Clippers need Kawhi not just playing, but at full Kawhi mode – their defense will not survive without him. If Kawhi is not fully healthy, the Clippers almost certainly will not win this series.

The Antagonist

This series is not quite as meaningful for the Mavericks, who are younger and have most of their core pieces under contract for longer than the Clippers, but this is still a vital run for the Mavs, who have traded just as much of their future away as the Clippers have. Of course, the Mavs have more insulation because Luka Doncic is just 25 years old and is under full contract for two more seasons, yet another first-round exit might push the Luka “exit scenario” back into existence. The Mavs need to optimize every season with Luka, and there’s not much of an excuse to keep losing early with a player of his caliber.

The Mavs finished 8th in offensive rating and 18th in defensive rating, placing just behind the Clippers in both categories. If you break it down to post All Star Break (and thus after their trade deadline acquisitions of starters PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford), the Mavs were 7th in offense and 13th in defense with an 18-9 record to boot. In short, this is a dangerous, good team that has been trending in the right direction for multiple months and has been the hottest team in the entire league over the past few weeks.

The Mavs are a somewhat traditionally built team with a clear lead superstar (Luka), a secondary creator/scoring dynamo (Kyrie Irving), 3 and D wings (PJ Washington, Dante Exum, Derrick Jones Jr.), and rim-rolling big men (Daniel Gafford, Dereck Lively Jr.). They are not revolutionary, but they are very good and can beat you in a variety of ways.


Series X-Factors

For the Mavericks, I think their X-Factor will be PJ Washington. Washington was their biggest acquisition at the trade deadline, and while he was disappointing on offense he has been better than expected defensively. If he can do a credible job on Kawhi and PG and hit a high rate of his threes, the Mavs’ ability to play both sides of the ball goes up significantly. If he continues to misfire from three and the Clippers can feel confident helping off him, it will help them contain Luka and Kyrie.

For the Clippers, you could name just about any one of their role players. I’ll go with Terance Mann. While he’s not developed into the player that fans may have hoped for on either end after his 2021 postseason, he’s still the Clippers’ best bet on Kyrie at the point of attack and has been lights out from three the past few months. The Mavs are going to help off him, and he needs to make them pay by knocking down open threes, cutting to the rim, and hitting the offensive glass. If he’s up for the challenge on defense and is active and aggressive on offense, he should be getting significant minutes in this series. If he’s passing up shots, the Clippers will have to play Amir Coffey (a worse defender) in his place, or go even smaller with Norm/Russ.

Who Goes Small

The Clippers under Ty Lue have gone small a lot. Against the Mavs, they have gone small a ton. This year, their small-ball usage has diminished significantly, and when they have gone small, it has not worked very well. Luka Doncic has notoriously killed Ivica Zubac, the Clippers’ best big man by far. It does not seem realistic to expect to play Mason Plumlee or Daniel Theis while Luka is on the court, though the Clippers could play either in the very scant minutes when Luka is out. Unless Zubac plays 44 minutes (he won’t), that means the Clippers will play small, either with Kawhi at center or PJ Tucker at center.

The Mavs have also gone small in the past with Maxi Kleber at center, but they have done so much less since they traded for Gafford mid-season. The question is whether the Mavs will be forced to go small to counter the Clippers’ own small-ball units and to get another switchable defender on Kawhi and PG, or whether their athletic big men will punish the Clippers’ small-ball units and prevent the Clippers from going small much. Whichever team can go small and survive will probably have an edge. If the Clippers can’t go small, they need Ivica Zubac to have a huge series.

For my money, by the way, the small-ball units on the Clippers are not good enough on the glass or defense to survive much, and I do think Zu will legit have to play 35+ minutes in a lot of this series for the Clippers to have a chance on defense.

Defense Will Swing It

As mentioned in the numbers above, both the Clippers and Mavs are offense-first teams with only decent defenses. Luka Doncic is impossible to stop and extremely difficult to slow down and Kyrie Irving is one of the best one-on-one scorers in recent NBA history. The Mavs will score. The Clippers have three stars (if Kawhi is healthy) with enough shooting and spacing to drive offensive flow.

Ultimately, I think this series will come down to which team has more answers defensively. The Clippers, at least theoretically, have more answers to throw at the Mavs than the Mavs do at the Clippers. Kawhi won’t be given the Luka assignment all the time, but he’s an option as needed. Paul George is a solid option. Terance Mann, Amir Coffey, and even Russ are not horrible options either (though Mann and Russ will probably guard Kyrie more). PJ Washington is probably the only real guy to put on Kawhi (Maxi Kleber used to be a good option but seems somewhat cooked) and is a decent defender but not a stopper. Ditto for Derrick Jones Jr., who will be the PG defender, I’d guess. Realistically, the Mavs do not have the personnel to stop the Clippers’ stars. That said, I don’t love Mann, Russ, or even PG on Kyrie, who is just a little too shifty and quick, so I think he could have a huge series too.

Defense at a high level in the playoffs comes down to a ton more than just one-on-one defending, of course, but whoever can get at least somewhat consistent stops and/or wear down the other team’s stars will probably get the win.

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