The Clippers wanted to be here. They tanked their final two games against the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder to ensure they face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round and avoid the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers until the conference finals. Of course, they avoided the Lakers altogether in last year’s playoffs, because they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round.
That led to Tyronn Lue replacing Doc Rivers on the bench. The Clippers also reworked their roster around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who again played at All-NBA levels. Gone are the dynamic bench duo of Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, replaced by the steadier veteran hands of Serge Ibaka and Rajon Rondo. Additions of Nicolas Batum and Luke Kennard, along with the development of Terance Mann, give Lue more wing options to mix and match. There is even an occasional DeMarcus Cousins sighting.
It added up to the Clippers once again being one of the West’s best teams all season. Their 47-25 record belies a +6.1 net rating that is second only to the top-seeded Utah Jazz. Those numbers rise to 32-11 and +17.6 per 100 possessions in 43 games and 1,028 minutes shared by Leonard and George this season.
The Mavericks clawed their way to fifth place after a 9-14 start that could largely be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. Only the Boston Celtics lost more games to COVID-19 health and safety protocols than Dallas. The Mavs have since reestablished themselves as a legitimate challenger to the West’s elite.
With 22-year-old phenom Luka Doncic at the helm, the Mavericks continue to operate as one of the most efficient offenses the game has ever seen, scoring 116.6 points per 100 possessions this season. He is surrounded by shooters — from co-star Kristaps Porzingis to Tim Hardaway, Maxi Kleber, Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith, who shot a combined 39.4% on more than 1,500 3-point attempts this season.
The Mavericks swapped Seth Curry’s shooting for Josh Richardson’s toughness in the offseason, and then made a deal for more shooting from J.J. Redick, who has played sparingly with a foot injury since the deadline acquisition. The healthy returns of Brunson and Dwight Powell from season-ending injuries that cost both last year’s playoff run have rounded a Dallas rotation that ranks among the deepest in the league.
Head to head
The Mavericks won their season series with the Clippers, 2-1, but the two teams have not played since splitting a pair of games in Dallas on March 15 and 17. L.A. was without Leonard for a 51-point loss to a Mavs team that was missing Porzingis on Dec. 27. Ibaka did not play in either of the most recent meetings.
Doncic has been the best player on the court against the Clippers this season, averaging 30.3 points (48/37/83 shooting splits), 11 assists and 8.3 rebounds in their three meetings. By contrast, Leonard and George averaged a combined 40.3 points (40/31/77 splits), 12.8 rebounds and 11.3 assists against Dallas.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers boast one of the most flexible closing lineups in the league. Leonard, George and Marcus Morris allow Lue to play any combination of players around them, depending on matchups, and Batum — a fourth versatile forward with size and skill — has played more clutch minutes than any of them this year.
Because Leonard, George and Batum can all facilitate the offense, the Clippers can comfortably field Ibaka or Zubac in the middle of a massive lineup. Rondo, Reggie Jackson or Patrick Beverley give Lue a trio of point guard options in smaller lineups, and that doesn’t even account for Kennard or Mann getting hot.
Lineups with Leonard, George and either Batum or Morris are outscoring opponents by more than 16 points per 100 possessions this season. Lineups with all four have been rarely used and never with Ibaka. With so much versatility, expect Lue to try anything and everything to gain an edge down the stretch of tight games.
Expect Mavs coach Rick Carlisle to do the same with his deep roster. He has closed games with 15 different players in clutch situations this season. Doncic, Porzingis and Finney-Smith are mainstays. Carlisle can go even bigger with Kleber or Powell. He can go small with Brunson. He can go offense-first with Hardaway or defense-first with Richardson. The chess match will be a fascinating aspect of this series.
Matchup to watch
In Leonard and George, the Clippers feature two of the best possible options to defend Doncic, and they have more long-armed choices to throw at a budding superstar who is sure to produce, regardless of his opposition. Doncic is going to see 48 minutes of attention. If he can dominate against this group, he can dominate anyone, and at this young age that would be a frightening proposition for the rest of the league.
George did the bulk of the work during the regular season, defending Doncic for a total of 8:37 and limiting the wunderkind to 17 points on 16 shots, per the NBA’s admittedly less-than-perfect tracking data. Doncic enjoyed significantly more success in smaller sample sizes against Leonard, Batum and Morris. The sheer number of options the Clippers have to throw at Doncic makes hunting matchups in the pick and roll all the more difficult, which limits the advantage he enjoys as arguably the league’s best pick-and-roll playmaker.
BetMGM series odds