Last year, when the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks faced off in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the series was exciting but not exactly up for grabs. There might have been some worry after Luka Doncic’s overtime gamewinner in game 4 tied the series at 2-2, but the Clippers had been the better team overall and crushed Dallas by 43 points before closing out the series in a more-competitive-but-still-decisive 14-point game 6 victory. Not unlike the current iteration of the matchup, some outrageous role player shooting helped lift the Mavs last time around (Seth Curry shooting 59% from the field and 48% from three comes to mind), but it was also very clear that Doncic was a postseason force to be reckoned with, averaging an efficient 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists. It wasn’t surprising that the former Euroleague Final Four MVP would thrive on the NBA Playoff stage, but that series nonetheless marked his official arrival as an NBA superstar.
This time around, anyone who called the series anything but up for grabs would be lying through their teeth. It’s been an unprecedentedly tumultuous series, with the Clippers at multiple times seeming dead in the water–like when they were down 0-2 after two home losses and began game 3 in Dallas down 30-11, or Wednesday night when LA’s third home loss gave the Mavericks a 3-2 series lead. Granted, some pretty random stuff (like the percentage of wide-open threes each team is hitting) has swung unexpectedly and wildly in Dallas’ favor, but as the saying goes, that’s why they play the games. The Mavericks have had some of their best collective performances of the year in the last two weeks, and they’ve put themselves in a position to pull off a fairly surprising upset in the NBA playoffs. Despite many of the names and faces being the same, this Dallas team is a scarier, hungrier, sharper beast than they were last year.
Still, the Clippers have just felt… better. Of course, whenever someone asks whether one team is “better” than another, I ask them what they mean by “better,” so I guess I should explain: the Clippers have felt to me like they have a wider margin for error in this match-up than the Mavericks have. It’s just that the Clippers are committing, well, lots of errors and Dallas, particularly in games 1 and 2 in LA, is playing fantastic basketball. That margin for error factor, as it’s felt like the Clippers have generally improved as the series has gone on and Dallas has generally slowed down a bit, has made it feel throughout this series that if LA could just extend the series and get back on level footing, they’d have the upper hand. It certainly felt that way after game 4, when a lot of folks seemed to think that the series was essentially over. And I think the Clippers will revert to being a strong favorite to win the series again now that they’ve pulled it back to 3-3.
But Game 7s are different. In these one-off, single-elimination outings, weirdness reigns supreme. Unpredictable is expected, unique is normal. Last year, four series went to a seventh game. Five of the eight teams involved had their lowest-scoring game of the series. In Denver-Utah, the Jazz scored 78 points after averaging 119.3 for first six games, while the Nuggets scored 80 after averaging 115. Individual box scores are weird. In game 7 between Oklahoma City and Houston, Lu Dort scored 30 points on 6-12 shooting from deep despite the Rockets abandoning him on the perimeter as a non-shooter all series. In the Clippers’ game 7 vs Denver, Kawhi Leonard had one of his worst playoff games ever, scoring 14 points on 6-22 shooting. Yeah, the same guy we just saw get 45 on 18-25 in an elimination game last night. And teams generally do not shoot well, whether due to fatigue from the long series or the pressure of the big moment. Just one of the eight game 7 team shooting performances last year was better than 35% from deep, while five of the eight were below 30%. In the smallest of sample sizes, concerns about sustainability and process go out the window and results are king.
The Big Picture
Someone, at some point leading up to this game 7, is going to call it the biggest game in Clippers franchise history. I will roll my eyes at them again, just as I did when it was thrown around contantly before game 3 (I feel like I heard it before games 5 and 6 as well, though not as widespread). Let’s get it straight: the Clippers losing this game would be catastrophic, not because they should be guaranteed victory in a one-off elimination game, but because losing in the first round would be a severely disappointing outcome for a team that by any metric should be on the of the league’s premier championship contenders. Losing in 7 is more respectable than getting swept, but both outcomes are similarly positioned squarely as “unacceptable.” And even if the Clippers win, they won’t really have accomplished anything concrete. A win Sunday gets them out of the first round. So what? Nobody ever really doubted that this team could and would achieve that. Frankly, they’ll need to win Sunday and four times against the Utah Jazz in the second round before it will feel like they’ve really accomplished anything noteworthy at all.
But whether the Clippers win on Sunday and are looking for meaning in this series as the first step in their 2021 playoff journey, or they lose and are left searching for solace following a devastating and unequivocal failure, there’s one pretty significant subplot here: this team was mentally tough. The Clippers have not put forth their best performances in the last two weeks of games against Dallas, but they have been undeniably resilient. To go into Dallas down 0-2 and face a barrage of early threes but insist that your season will not end tonight, or to head back to Dallas down 2-3 and grit out your best team defensive performance of the season to survive another day–that’s just not something that was in last year’s team’s identity. If the Clippers are eliminated in the first round, growth in that category probably isn’t enough to save this core from wholesale changes over the off-season. But particularly if they do survive and advance, overcoming adversity and proving to themselves that they can rally under pressure and stage the comebacks, instead of wilting under pressure and conceding them, would be a particularly huge step mentally for a team that is very much still carrying the baggage of last year’s collapse.
All of a sudden, people are asking: “wait, just exactly how good are the Mavericks?” There’s no denying that the vast majority of that reckoning are with the individual talent of Luka, who has been one of the league’s most electric players this postseason, but I would say that several of Dallas’ role players have also earned a bit of respect around the league in this series–even as the resounding consensus is that Kristaps Porzingis lacks the consistency or shot creation ability to really be a reliable second star. In particular, Tim Hardaway Jr. has been electric in this series, averaging 18 points per game and posting unbelievable shooting splits. NBA.com’s tracking data charts shots as facing defense that is “very tight,” “tight,” “open,” or “wide open.” Players rarely take “very tight” threes, but in the other categories Hardaway posted regular season splits of 35.7/40.6/38.8, and in this series those marks are up to 45.5/46.7/44.4 (yes, if your take is “of course he’s shooting well, he’s getting open shots, that’s completely disproven by the data). Overall, the Mavericks are hitting 40.7% of their threes after shooting 36.2% in the regular season–and they’ve hit a truly staggering 46.2% of their threes at Staples Center, up from 36.5% in regular season road games. (Just for fun, the team-wide tracking data: 30.4/41.7/45.5 through 6 games of this series, 29.7/36.9/37.0 in the regular season.)
But of course, the centerpiece is Dallas’ star, already one of the league’s most unstoppable offensive geniuses at 22 years old and truly in a class of dominance as a young star that he shares only with LeBron James in this century. While Luka’s stardom is undeniable, some of what he has done in this series has been shocking, even by his already-lofty standards. Normally shooting 38.5% on three pointers after taking 7 or more dribbles (those back-breaking, shot-clock draining stepback threes we know all too well), he’s hit 53.3% of them in this series. When he does drive the ball and gets walled off by a defender, he’s fully capable of hitting unguardable turnaround fadeaway shots–it’s just that normally he makes 47.9% of his tightly guarded twos from 10 or more feet away, and in this series he’s making 61.5% of them. Has Luka taken another leap under the bright lights of his second postseason? Is he simply the type of generational talent that is even better and more locked in during the playoffs? Or are these statistical anomalies simply a hot shooting stretch? If he leads the Mavs over the Clippers with an individual game 7 masterpiece, it will be an amazing accomplishment regardless of how sustainable his shooting is in that game or was over the course of the series.
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
When: 12:30 PM PT
How to Watch: ABC
Projected Starting Lineups:
Clippers: Reggie Jackson – Paul George – Kawhi Leonard – Marcus Morris – Nicolas Batum
Mavericks: Luka Doncic – Tim Hardaway, Jr. – Dorian Finney-Smith – Kristaps Porzingis – Boban Marjanovic
- Boban: Rick Carlisle made an adjustment in game 5, inserting 7’4″ backup center and former Clipper Boban Marjanovic into the starting lineup in an attempt to dissuade the Clippers from continuing attacking the rim relentlessly on offense while also punishing the team’s extremely small, switchable defensive lineup. I won’t say that it was a failure–Boban’s presence slowed down LA’s rim attack in games 5 and 6 and the Clippers had some trouble adjusting to the zone defense Carlisle built around his slow-footed, giant center. But despite losing game 5, the Clippers did win Boban’s minutes, and while they lost Boban’s minutes in game 6, I think they really figured out how to consistently create great shots against the zone… they just didn’t hit them.
- Shooting: Speaking of, it’s time for the Clippers to hit some threes. The best regular-season three-point shooting team in NBA history, LA has seen their average drop from 41.1% on the year to 35.4% in this series, with some brutal cold streaks at inopportune times. The team is making 39.2% of their “wide open” threes, down from 44.4% in the regular season, which is really impacting their ability to consistently punish Dallas for defensive errors. In game 6, the Clippers were just 1-8 on corner three point attempts. A lot of times, the later you get in a series, the more games become rock fights as teams become exhausted and start to figure out how to stop each other. It sure would be cathartic if the Clippers could finally have a breakout three-point shooting game on Sunday.
- Scoring Support: Paul George’s 20 points on 6-15 shooting in game 6 was good enough, in part because he was brilliant defensively and added 13 rebound and 6 assists, but mostly because it was simply enough–the Clippers won the game. But in addition to the obvious team-carrying by Kawhi Leonard (45 points on 25 shot attempts), Reggie Jackson chipping in with some high-efficiency volume (25 points on 15 shot attempts) helped ease the gurden on Paul. If the Clippers had lost game 6, Paul’s relatively muted offensive impact would have been a major site of criticism. Kawhi’s great, but he might not go “historically” dominant again after 36 hours. Paul will need to provide more punch offensively, as will 64-million-dollar-man Marcus Morris, who had 4 points on 1-10 shooting, and, probably some random Clipper–the bench put up a total of 4 points in game 6.
- Rotations: Ty Lue made two rotational adjustments in game 6: he played his starters a shit ton of minutes, and he threw a curveball with Luke Kennard’s inclusion. I expect we’ll see a similar dose of the former on Sunday, with each of the starters reaching at least the mid-30s and multiple extending into the 40s if they have the stamina for it and can stay out of foul trouble. George, Leonard, Morris, and Batum all essentially have to play as much as possible because of how important their switchability is to defending Doncic. Jackson is currently Lue’s preferred guard to accompany them, which makes sense because he’s improved from “catastrophic” to “competent” defensively as the series has gone on and he’s provided a much-needed scoring punch. But if things go off the rails with Reggie, I wouldn’t be shocked to see proven veteran Rajon Rondo play a much bigger role than his 10 game 6 minutes. Kennard, for what it’s worth, was plagued by the same issues as in the regular season: he was passive offensively, indecisive on the ball, and looked like a scared puppy when asked to make any decision… but, he executed his defensive hedge-and-recover actions well and he won’t miss 3 open corner threes again if he’s given the opportunity.
- Clipper Birthday: David Michineau, who the Clippers took with the 39th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, turns 27 today. Happy Birthday, David! Let’s get a win on his behalf.
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