With a familiar opponent on the docket, let’s take a look back at the recent Clippers – Mavs matchups, both in the bubble and during the 2021 regular season. Going into last Sunday’s regular-season finales across the league, there were several possible outcomes that could determine the first-round series’. With both the third and fourth seeds as the only attainable outcomes for the Clippers, specifically, the palette of games still offered many if/then scenarios to land the Clippers one of Dallas or Portland. Denver’s tank against Portland to avoid a 3-6 first-round matchup with the Lakers was inevitable, so the Clips ultimately controlled their own destiny — beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to jump to the No. 3 seed and face the Trailblazers, or out-tank the Nuggets to set a first-round date with Dallas. LAC chose the latter as they’ll face a familiar foe in what will be a fascinating watch — for many reasons. With that, Let’s rewind.
2020 Playoff Rewind
Tabbed as the championship favorites, the Clips landed a round-one matchup with an inexperienced Dallas Mavericks team that was led by sophomore guard Luka Doncic. With L.A.’s elite top-end talent and veteran supporting cast, the series was figured to be fairly one-sided. Dallas, instead, had other plans — their playoff-inexperienced 21-year-old was occasionally the star of the series, while Trey Burke and a crop of other role players carved up the Clippers’ defense. Yet, that was only one of the multiple factors in what prolonged the series.
Even with its ineffectiveness, the Clippers kept going to the “drop” coverage when defending the Luka pick-and-rolls. Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell sat helplessly in the paint as Luka had his pick of the litter time and time again — opting for floaters, nifty finishes at the rim, and collapsing the defense to find an open teammate. And of his 64 made field goals, 45 of them came in the paint at an efficient 62%. Although, his numbers dipped a bit starting around game 5 when the Clippers began switching ball-screens — Zu included, which seems to be the best answer to slowing Luka down.
However, the most visible faults of the Clippers — even from the eye of a casual viewer — was their inability to utilize appropriate personnel. Dallas matched Boban Marjanovic’s minutes off the bench with Trezz’s and the Clippers’ staff failed to recognize how much the size disproportions negatively impacted both Harrell and the lineups that featured him. As a result, he only managed 20 rebounds across six games and had a negative plus-minus in all but one. If that wasn’t enough, Reggie Jackson spent a lot of time guarding Luka. Yes, the Clips were without Patrick Beverley for the majority of the series, but there were better options to choose from as Doncic’s primary defender — especially with the game on the line. It ultimately cost them a game.
Despite everything that could have been corrected schematically, Paul George enduring possibly his worst stretch of playoff basketball as a professional player takes the cake for why this series went past five games. In games 2-4 he shot just 10-47 (21%) from the field and 4-25 (16%) from distance.
The Clippers eventually made the necessary changes, though, and dominated games 5 and 6 to close out the series. After a public admission of mental struggles, the team rallied around Paul as he began to perform more in line with the player all-NBA-level of player he had become known as over the course of his career. Doc leaned away from the Boban-Trezz minutes and kept Zu on the court longer to deal with both he and Luka. Lastly, more equipped defenders spent time guarding Luka — forcing him into a tougher end of the round — including a 6-17 outing in game 5.
2020-2021 Season Rewind
It seems like forever ago, but it was just this season that the Clippers lost by a franchise-worst 51 points — and it was at the hands of their playoff opponent in waiting. A shellacking of such proportions is rare and never excusable, but to be fair, it was just one loss — a loss that occurred without two starters (Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Morris Sr.) and one potential closer (Rajon Rondo). There actually wasn’t too much to take away from that game other than the fact that Clippers went down big early and just accepted their fate. They made just 26 shots total for the game and made 4/33 shots from deep. So, let’s throw that one out of the window. A more accurate depiction of what this playoff series might look like can be drawn from the latter two games between these teams, which came in a two-game mini-series after the all-star break that each team split.
In those two games, Ty Lue implemented some new wrinkles into the starting lineup; he made the decision to replace Batum with Morris Sr. as the starter going forward, and Zubac filled in for the injured Serge Ibaka — which would become permanent as the season unfolded. The games went like this: Game 1, an effort-infused Clippers defense caused Luka to struggle, while L.A. made 14/32 threes on their way to a 109-99 victory, and in Game 2, the Clippers fell to Dallas 105-89 as Doncic got hot to the tone of 42 points while the Clippers couldn’t buy a bucket — two things that are always going to determine the outcomes of these matchups.
What these two games showed was that Zubac is the answer at center for this matchup — something that’s been clear dating back to the seeding games during the 2020 NBA bubble. His size and length at the rim have made life more difficult in the paint for the Mavericks, and he does a good job of forcing Luka into contested stepback threes after being switched onto him. Now, Luka is an elite talent and with his volume in shot attempts, he’s bound to see some go in. But, those low-efficiency shots are what you live with as opposed to his immense amount of paint touches and the many options that are created from it. Offensively, the Mavs proved not to have anyone capable of keeping Zu off the offensive glass or disrupt him from his usual efficiency at the rim.
Significantly less definite, but potentially important was the Clippers going big. After being hunted and exploited by Luka on a string of possessions to open the third quarter of the final Mavs-Clippers game this season, Ty Lue subbed in Nic Batum to bolster a PG-Kawhi-Morris-Batum-Zu lineup — a tall and switchable defensive lineup that immediately created problems for the Dallas offense. The circumstances were rare, however — no Pat Bev or Rondo (not yet on the team), which could be what led to the lineup choice. Nonetheless, it was something that had brief success and was one of our first indications that Ty Lue will get funky if need be.
While the Dallas Mavericks have presented their share of issues for the Clippers over the past two, there aren’t as many that are of extreme concern. Luka having huge scoring nights has been, and will likely remain, consistent in this series — his combination of skill, size, and usage all make the outputs normalities. But keeping the other supporting players fairly pedestrian is something the Clippers have been able to do decently throughout the course of this season. Similarly, some of the Clippers’ poorest three-point shooting games came at the hands of the Mavericks. Whether that is coincidence or not is perspective, but in watching the games it appeared to me that the Clips generated open looks that just didn’t go in — anomalies, perhaps.
That being said, it’s hard to imagine this series going past six games, with ideally a healthy Clippers team having enough talent to overwhelm Dallas in five. But stranger things have happened — as we are all well aware of — so nothing is ever completely shocking.
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