After a closeout victory in game 6 Sunday afternoon, LA is on their way to the second round. Here are five takeaways from the series, as the Clippers managed to eliminate the Dallas Mavericks:
Oh, that’s why he’s the reigning Finals MVP
It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that Kawhi Leonard is one of the league’s most dominant post-season performers, but it still deserves to be said after a series where his greatness felt a little taken for granted as the national audience fawned over Doncic and the Clippers fanbase focused on the frustrating play of Paul George.
Despite struggling from deep, Leonard managed a massive 32.8 points per game on 53.8% shooting, also adding 10.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.3 steals per game. He led the Clippers by a significant margin in each category. He also played a team-high 39.1 minutes per game, and (an explosive garbage-time run late in game 5 aside) the team could merely hope to survive when he was off the floor.
The Mavericks actually defended Leonard well in this series. It just didn’t matter. Even against the larger Maxi Kleber, Kawhi’s strength and composure allows him to get to his comfort spots in the mid-range, elevate, and shoot unbothered over the contest. An average of 4 times per game in this series, Leonard took a tightly guarded mid-range shot between 10-22 feet from the basket. He made 62.5% of them. That’s unguardable, folks.
Bubble offense is real
Remember that historic Mavs offense we talked about so much coming in to this series? Well, not to detract from what was legitimately the best offensive rating in the history of the NBA, but bubble basketball has changed the game a bit.
The offensive efficiency number on that Mavs record was 115.9 (the Clippers were second in offensive efficiency this year with a rating of 113.3). In August’s regular-season “seeding games,” 8 of the 22 invited teams had offensive ratings higher than 115.9–including Dallas and LA. In the first round of the playoffs, four teams have finished ahead of the Mavs’ record pace, including the Clippers as well as the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets, LA’s two possible second-round opponents.
In the regular season, the Utah Jazz led the league in 3pt% at 38.0%. In the bubble, 7/22 teams beat that mark. In the playoffs, 6/16 have shot better than 38% from deep so far. The sample sizes in Orlando are small, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that offenses are superpowered in the bubble. The Clippers won’t get much of a reprieve in the second round, as they’ll be tasked with slowing down either Utah or Denver, who have both had explosive scoring nights in the playoffs.
Ivica Zubac is the Clippers’ clear best center
I don’t want to use this space to bash Montrezl Harrell, so I’m going to discuss the ways that both Harrell and Zubac can be positive contributors going forward on this playoff run. But make no mistake: Zubac has established himself as the better player, all season and in the first round, and there’s no excuse for him to not get the lion’s share of the minutes going forward.
It’s a flawed stat for well-documented reasons, but sometimes plus-minus can be resounding. In this series, Zubac led the team in the metric, with LA winning his 149 minutes by 78 points. That’s like winning by 25 points per game. As good as he was defensively–and he was stellar–he put up strong offensive performances too, averaging 16.2 points per 36 minutes and shooting 65.8% from the field.
To maximize his center rotation, Doc Rivers needs to find better situations to put Montrezl Harrell in a position to succeed. That means taking stocks of his strengths (high-volume scoring, energy, offensive aggression) and weaknesses (playing against length, defense, rebounding) and deploying him when he can have a positive impact–the opposite of Rivers leaving him on an island against Boban Marjanovic.
Like I said, Zubac should play the majority of the minutes, but Rivers can help balance his lineups by finding Harrell his minutes anchoring lineups that feature the Clippers’ better perimeter defenders, so he’s asked to do less rim protection work (this would also mean Zubac, the superior anchor, protecting the rim behind LA’s poor second unit guard defenders). Trez also has value to infuse energy if the team is down and needs to spark a run, or to play aggressive offensively from the center position to draw fouls (think if Rudy Gobert or Nikola Jokic is in foul trouble and the Clippers want to draw one more to send a star to the bench).
Marcus Morris was so close
All in all, Morris was probably the third-best Clipper in this series. When he was on the floor, the Clippers had the second-best net rating of any rotation player in the series, behind Zubac (Leonard’s was set back by playing in worse lineups with the second unit, while Zubac and Morris played fewer minutes, mostly with other starters). He was the team’s best defender against Luka Doncic, and was the closest thing you could hope for to “good Marcus Morris” on offense: only 9 field goal attempts per game, half of them coming from three, and shooting over 50% from both inside and outside the arc.
What the Clippers need from Marcus going forward is a little more control over his emotions. Sure, a lot of what you get from the controversial forward is the result of his passion: he’s a physical player and a prolific trash-talker. But he needs to make better decisions than his hit on Doncic that earned (and yes, it was earned) a flagrant-2 foul and an ejection. For all the reasons I outlined in the first paragraph, the Clippers need Morris on the floor. Getting ejected after 11 minutes is letting the team down–and, between this flagrant and his two technical fouls this series, Morris is progressing in two separate categories that could earn him a one-game suspension later in the playoffs.
The good news is that Morris was just a couple of bad heat-of-the-moment decisions away from a truly great series in his role.
The Mavericks will be back
This one, there’s no doubt about. Leonard’s Clippers have a short-term, right-now championship window: this year, and probably next year, with the clock ticking quickly as he and George enter free agency and their 30s.
But Doncic’s Mavericks are going to be very, very good for a very, very long time. Assuming he doesn’t eventually switch teams, he’s likely to be an MVP candidate for at least the next 10-12 years. The Mavs are going to spend most of that tenure even better than they were this year (they could use a legitimate secondary creator, plus some defensive upgrades in their rotation), and it doesn’t feel crazy to say that Luka is set on a trajectory to end up one of the greatest players to ever step on the court.
There’s no way to know how high his and the Mavs’ peaks will eventually end up except to keep tuning in for the next decade, but this is going to be the first of many impressive series for the 21-year-old.