Around the league, each of the NBA’s eight first-round series have now played two games. Four are tied 1-1, while one team has firmly taken the upper hand in each of the other four with a 2-0 lead. Those four series are the 1-8, 2-7, and 3-6 series in the east–typically first-round byes in the NBA’s weaker conference, with the 6th-seeded Miami Heat the only competitive underdog on paper in that group–and the 4-5 series in the West, where the Dallas Mavericks came to LA this week and brought two haymakers with them, defeating the Clippers twice at STAPLES Center. In the post-loss diagnosis, there’s never a single cause for playoff failures. The Clippers will need to be better and luckier to steal game 3 in Dallas and extend this series.
The absolute first priority for the Clippers during this two day break has to be simplifying and clarifying what they want to force Dallas to do on the defensive end of the floor. The Mavericks’ offense, like a lot of the modern NBA’s great offenses, is built around a dynamic offensive engine running a ton of pick and rolls to create an advantage against a primary defender, and a stable of shooters spacing the floor around that primary action to punish you if you help. You have options when defending a ball screen, but they aren’t necessarily good ones.
You can switch so that the man defending the screen is now on-ball, which is the best way to prevent the screen action from creating an advantage for the offense, but this creates a quickness mismatch in most guard-big screen combinations that can be punished in a subsequent isolation after a clear-out. You can hedge-and-recover, but most of the time this isn’t viable at the NBA level because of the quickness disparity between elite playmaking guards and NBA bigs, along with the requirement that a weak-side defender check the roll man while still recovering to a corner shooter on a skip pass. You can ice the screen, where the point of attack defender positions his body to force the ball handler in the opposite direction of the screen, but this gives him a step driving in the other direction (especially worrisome against shooting bigs like Kristaps Porzingis who can pop for open threes). And you can do what the Clippers do most: play drop coverage, where a big man plays deeper defensively and the guard defender chases around the screen, sandwiching the ball handler between a rear-view defender on his back and a big blocking off his driving lane.
Playing drop also normally results in giving up threes to popping screeners, since the defensive big staying deeper inside the arc to contain driving lanes gives him a greater amount of ground to cover to contest a shot once the pass comes out to a shooter. Last season, the Clippers’ insistence on playing drop against the Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic pick-and-pop led to a bunch of easy threes for Jokic. To open game 1 against Dallas, the Clippers simply switched Zubac onto Doncic, leaving the big man to fend for himself while taking away Luka’s passing options. While Luka hit a flurry of high-difficulty shots, I’d argue that on possessions like this one, the defensive process was good:
If Luka is going to beat you by making a contested shots over a 7-footer, you have to live with it. That’s not to dismiss Luka’s ability to make tough shots–he’s an absolutely brilliant offensive player and if you play him straight and let him shoot over Zubac on switches he will keep having 30 point nights. But when you make that decision and commit to it, you’re able to take the other stuff that Dallas does away. In two of the Clippers’ four wins over Dallas last year, Doncic had 42 and 38 points–but the Mavericks as a team had just 110 and 97 in those two contests. Most of Luka’s points in the first half of game 1 came against acceptable defensive coverage. In the first quarter, he was 5-11 for 12 points and the Clippers only trailed 33-30 despite missing a handful of open threes. If you make Luka score 48 points on 20-44 shooting to beat you, he will get fatigued and the rest of the Mavericks will get frozen out enough that you can outscore them. The objective here is not to hold Luka to 0 points, it’s to cumulatively hold Dallas’ offensive output to below yours. Through two games, the Clippers seem to have forgotten that, with their defensive gameplan designed to attempt the impossible and inevitably failing.
It was the second quarter of game 1 where the Doncic panic really set in for LAC, because he hit three straight difficult three-point shots. I’ll repeat here what I said after that game: you have to weather the Luka storms. He’s a 35% three-point shooter on the season (he’d shoot better than that on catch-and shoot, but his efficiency is worsened by his high-difficulty attempts–which are the attempts we’re talking about here). If he goes 3-3 in a quarter you just have to stay true to your defensive principles and dare him to make those shots all game long (he was 0-3 in the first quarter and 2-5 in the second half to finish 5-11 from three. That’s 15 points on 11 possessions, which is both really good and a little less overwhelming to overcome than it seems). The Clippers lost that second quarter 27-25, again shooting just 2-10 from deep themselves. Going into halftime of game 1 down 5 with above-average shot-making from Luka and ice cold (4-18) three point shooting from the Clippers should have been a sign to stick with the plan, not to abandon it. Here’s what happens when you overreact to Luka in the primary action and force the help side defender to tag a role man: Dorian Finney-Smith, who was even hotter than Doncic in game 1, gets a clean look at a corner three:
As worried as you might be about Luka hitting step-back, turn-around, fade-away, one-legged shots over the outstretched arms of defenders–and sure, worry about it, cause he’s gonna make some of those shots–you should be more worried about wide open shooters. Dorian Finney-Smith is shooting 42.6% from three in 35 games since the All-Star Break. Tim Hardaway Jr. is shooting 39.7% from three since the All-Star Break on higher degree-of-difficulty shots than DFS. Kleber hits at a 41% clip for the season. Porzingis is making 40.2% of his triples since the All-Star break. Yes, Luka will hit stepback threes, and there will be games where he hits enough of them that the Mavs will win. But coming into a series, he’s not gonna hit enough of them in four games out of seven. He hit them in the first half of game 1, and instead of saying “ok, do it again,” the Clippers overreacted out of halftime and opened up new, more lethal avenues for Dallas to attack them with spot-up shooters and offensive rebounds.
I want to show three clips from the first quarter of game two that I think illustrate the overarching point I’m trying to make. While isolated plays can be seen as cherry-picking (i.e. if I only showed Clips where Luka hits his step-backs and Mavs players miss on kick-outs, I could argue that the Clippers need to overhelp and force him to kick it out to shooters), I think these are good examples of overarching patterns that we saw.
First, we see Luka Doncic hit a step-back three over Paul George in single coverage. The point of this clip: Luka is going to hit difficult shots in every single game of this series no matter what you do defensively. Him hitting a stepback 3 over Zubac is not a Zubac problem or a sign that LAC needs to go small or stop switching or overreact in any other crazy way. A Luka stepback 3 over the outstretched arm of a 7-footer is a desirable outcome when compared to the alternatives in Dallas’ offfense (which is why little guards, like Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo, and especially Reggie Jackson have less of a role to play against Luka–they don’t have the side or length to get good contests).
In the second clip, the Mavs run a pick and pop with Luka and Kleber. Because the one thing you cannot do is allow Luka into the paint, where he uses his elite size, finishing, and passing to score and distribute, the Clippers keep Zubac in contain. But because they’re scared of him continuing to hit step-back threes, a 35% shot, George also chases him around the screen, leaving neither guy on Maxi Kleber, who nails a 41% shot. You’re losing the math game.
And third, while I’ve defended Zubac’s game 1 performance because he stayed in front of Luka and Luka hit tough shots, we have the play that absolutely cannot happen–and did, repeatedly, to Zu in game 2: breaking contain. If this had happened once, critiquing Zu for it might be a little unfair, since nobody is going to correctly judge every angle or change of direction for an entire game. It happened to Zu at least three times in his first quarter shift alone. When Luka hits his step-back threes over Zubac, like he did in the first half of game 1, the Clippers should stick with their best big defender, screener, and offensive rebounder, and dare Doncic to sustain that diet of shots. When Luka (and Kleber, and Brunson, and Hardaway) turns the corner on Zubac at will to get to the rim, that’s when the big man has to sit down.
Overall, the Clippers have to be better on the defensive end than they have been, both in terms of strategy and execution. For a coach who maintained after the team’s game 2 loss that he was not concerned, Ty Lue seems to have severely overreacted to early and unsustainable shooting by the Mavericks, and in doing so actually perpetuated the problem by playing a more aggressive defensive scheme against Doncic that created a higher volume of higher quality looks for Dallas’ already-hot shooters. And on an individual basis, Zubac absolutely cannot replicate his game 2 performance, while the entire lineup needs to take a little more pride in resisting screens (the best way to blow up a pick and roll is to not let the pick create separation between the primary defender and ball-handler to begin with) and rebounding out of situations where Zubac is pulled away from the rim or taken out of the game.
Then, rotationally, I won’t belabor points that have been made repeatedly in the last few days, but it’s this simple: play your best players more. Rajon Rondo has been the Clippers’ best point guard in this series. Nicolas Batum has been the third-best Clipper in this series. Neither broke 20 minutes in game 2. Reggie Jackson, who can provide scoring in spurts but is abysmally lost on defense and prone to poor decisions, has played more than Rondo or Patrick Beverley (who is entirely miscast as a defender against the much larger Doncic, but has made an impact in spots despite only looking like 80% of himself). Serge Ibaka has played well in each of the first two games, albeit in extremely limited samples, but finds himself almost out of the rotation entirely. A series of decisions have been made here that don’t seem particularly justifiable.
Now for the short half of the post: for all the Clippers have done wrong, for the tactical overadjustments and for the individual errors and for the perplexing lineups and rotations, they would still probably be up 2-0 in this series, or at least tied 1-1, had they not gotten exceedingly unlucky in terms of shooting variance. Yes, we just detailed all of the ways in which the Clippers have facilitated good Dallas offense by making errors defensively, but there’s really no way to tell the story of the first two games of this series without addressing the elephant in the room: the Mavericks are punishing those mistakes at unbelievable levels. Seth Partnow at The Athletic wrote about the differences between each playoff team’s effective field goal percentage and the effective field goal percentage you’d expect them to have based on the shooters and shot quality taken during the game. Dallas’ game 2 shooting performance was +18.7%, miles ahead of the second-luckiest outcome… which was Dallas’ game 1 shooting performance, +11.4%. Partnow notes that NBA teams typically make 38% of their uncontested threes, and the Mavs are hitting at 57.7% so far in this series. Again, that’s uncontested shots–after you’ve already made a mistake, the mark guys hit on the wide-open looks with no hand up. Dallas is performing at 152% of expected levels on those shots.
I mentioned earlier how Dallas has a group of really good-shooting role players, which is why their offense is so potent: overhelp on Luka and these guys will torch you, much like the supporting cast of the Clippers or Utah Jazz. But even for being hot, this is a little absurd: Finney-Smith’s 42.6% since the All-Star Break is great, but his 55.6% in this series is historic. Hardaway Jr.’s 39.7% since the All-Star Break is great, but his 64.7% in this series is historic. Kleber’s 41% on the season is great, but he’s hit 75% in this series… which is less historic because it’s just 3 makes on 4 attempts, but still, the Clippers haven’t caught a break. Even Doncic, who as noted shot 35% from three in the regular season, has hit 41.7% in this series, overperforming expectations on extremely difficult shots. Then there’s the Clippers’ individual shooting numbers: Jackson, whose primary utility is as a spot-up shooter, is at 27% in the series. Paul George, despite having two really strong games inside the arc, hasn’t found his range yet and is at 20%. Marcus Morris, the Clippers’ best spot-up weapon, is shooting 18% from deep. On average, through two games, the Clippers are shooting 8.2% worse than their season average from deep while the Mavs shoot 13.8% better than theirs.
If we take a step back and look at the entire 2021 NBA season, we’ll find 116 times where a team hit 15+ threes while making 50% or more of their attempts from deep. Those teams went 107-9, winning by an average of 15.8 points per game. Of the 9 losses, 4 were in games where both teams hit 15+/50%+, and 2 were in games where the losing side hit those marks and the winning side narrowly missed them (18 makes at 49% and 23 makes at 48%). These are the “just one of those games” nights, where only 3 times out of 116 this season did a team somehow win against a barrage of three-point shots. The Mavs put up four of these performances this year and got a fifth in game 2. The Clippers put up a league-high 12 and haven’t gotten one (12 out of 72 means it’s still unlikely in any particular game, which partially illustrates the point–if the best team in the NBA at doing this is only making it happen 17% of the time, there’s some random luck involved).
Defensively, it’s even more random: it happened against the Kings, the worst defense in NBA history, a league-high 8 times–a 1-in-9 shot. If the best team in the NBA at doing it only managed it 1 in every 6 tries, and the worst team in the NBA at stopping it only conceded it 1 in every 9 tries (and Dallas only did it at 1/3rd of that rate and the Clippers only conceded it at 1/2 of that rate), what’s happening is beyond Dallas or Clippers’ control. So if you want to tell me “Lucas, the Mavs are hitting above their average from three because the Clippers aren’t playing very good defense,” then I’d agree with you, but I’d tell you that defensive breakdowns alone cannot explain the extent to which Dallas is exceeding their averages. If the Mavs were hitting 38% or 40%, up from their season average of 36.2%, I’d say you can credit that to an uptick in shot quality. Not 50%. The Clippers need to commit to a gameplan, execute it with every ounce of effort they have in what is essentially an elimination game, and hope that the storm passes.
The Mavericks string together 47% and 53% shooting nights from deep in games 1 and 2. In their 72-game season, they only shot better than 47% from three 5 times, and better than 53% from three just once. Only once this season did they have two consecutive games where they made more than 45% from deep–and then they shot 36.4%, 22.9%, 32.3%, and 36.4% in their next four games. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, there you go.
So while yes, the Clippers need a better defensive gameplan, fewer individual breakdowns, and a tighter, more sensible rotation–they also need a little bit more luck. The amount of things that have gone wrong for LAC through two games to still result in two contests that were in play in the closing minutes is somewhat astounding. Frankly, you’d expect LAC to have lost each of those games by more than they did. The hope, as the teams head to Dallas, is that the Mavericks will at least return to normal levels of shot-making… or maybe even hit a cold streak of their own.
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