Clippers-Mavericks Series Preview: Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic and a whole lot of scoring

The Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks are two franchises at different stages of expectations. After the massive offseason of signing Kawhi Leonard, and trading away the future for Paul George, the Clippers are all in on winning a title in the next couple of years.

The Clippers prioritized the long game all season, managing a slew of injuries and limiting their players’ minutes. That compromised their standing in the regular season, but they still managed to post the league’s fourth-best record, second-best offense and fifth-best defense.

There is one goal for the team, to win a championship.

“We want to win the championship,” George said Saturday. “That’s the reason we committed to be here. It’s as simple as that. We should have one goal and we have one goal, and that’s to win it.”

The Mavericks are just at the beginning of what should be a two decade long run with Luka Doncic. Doncic, just 21-years-old, is already a superstar. This is his first taste NBA playoff basketball, but from his demeanor I don’t think he will crumble under the pressure.

Let’s get into the biggest questions both teams have, the deciding X-factor, and key matchup to watch.

Biggest Clippers question: Who Defends Luka Doncic?

Talk about a “welcome to the playoffs” scenario for Doncic.

The 21-year-old is much more experienced than most his age, having competed against elite competition internationally, both with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team.

But he has never faced menacing defenders like Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley in a seven-game series.

The Clippers are going to throw waves of length, ball pressure and physicality at him, including using tertiary options like Beverley, Marcus Morris Sr., and JaMychal Green.

The Clippers are the best equipped to slow dow Doncic because of the multiple bodies, defensive styles, and intensity they can throw his way for 48 minutes a game. But Head Coach Doc Rivers knows even with all those defensive options, Doncic is still a dangerous player.

“He has the passing of Jason Kidd but has the scoring ability of Larry Bird,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “That’s what makes him such a difficult cover.”

Even with that major compliment by Rivers, his Clippers team has done fairly well against Doncic. The Clippers have held Doncic to relatively pedestrian numbers: 29.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 5.0 turnovers on 42.6 percent shooting and 27.3 percent 3-point shooting.

Doncic’s shooting percentage against the Clippers is his third-worst against teams he has played three or more times and his seventh-worst overall against any opponent.

In the most recent matchup between the two teams, Paul George got the task of being the primary defender on Doncic. George’s tactic of defending Doncic was to mirror him, using his length to force Doncic to take heavily contested shots.

Beyond the elite on-ball defense of Leonard, George and Beverley, the Clippers’ bigs, including Green and Morris, have demonstrated an ability to switch onto Doncic in pick-and-roll actions and respectably hang with him on the perimeter.

The Mavericks are going to run a heavy dose of pick-and-pop with Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, attempting to stretch out the Clippers’ defense by making them defend in space and neutralizing some of their perimeter length.

To the Mavericks credit, this game plan has worked for stretches of games against the Clippers in the regular season. But the Clippers’ ability to switch one through four against Doncic, and even one through five in some lineups, prevents the Mavericks from fully exploiting them.

The Clippers typically use drop coverages in the pick-and-roll — i.e. dropping their bigs back toward the free-throw line — and will dare Doncic to shoot stepback and off-the-dribble 3s, betting that he won’t make enough to hurt them.

There are certain rotations that Doncic can exploit. When Lou Williams, Reggie Jackson, or Ivica Zubac are on the floor, Doncic will call for the pick and simply attack the weak defenders.

“Luka just creates a matchup,” Rivers said. “He has the ability to score. He gets to the paint. He’s strong. He’s an elite passer. There’s no great offense that doesn’t start with a great player, and he’s a great player.”

But in a 7 game series, with the coaching brilliance of Doc Rivers, the Mavericks might only get away with that for one game.

As we know the Mavericks go as Doncic goes. His ability to overcome the defense of the Clippers will determine if the Mavericks get swept, or make this an entraining series.

Biggest Mavericks question: Can anyone defend?

The most obvious difference between the Clippers and the Mavericks is their defensive personnel.

While the Clippers boast a top-five defense and an army of switchable defenders, Dallas’ 18th-ranked defense doesn’t offer near the same level of resistance, particularly on the perimeter. That is a death wish when you play against a team with multiple 3-level scorers.

To have any shot against the Clippers in the playoffs, you have to slow down one, if not both, of their superstars. Even on their best defensive night, the Mavericks probably aren’t capable of doing that. Leonard is averaging 31.0 points on 45.2 percent shooting against Dallas, while George is averaging 25.0 points on 42.9 percent shooting and 40.0 percent 3-point shooting against the Mavericks.

The Mavericks best perimeter defender is likely Dorian Finney-Smith. But as we seen in previous matchups, he is not strong enough to handle Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has bulldozed his way through and past Finney-Smith each time they’ve linked up.

Dallas’ likely strategy will be to use Maxi Kleber on Leonard and Finney-Smith on George. This has occurred in the teams’ latter two matchups.

Kleber is quick for a big and possesses the length and strength to bother Leonard a bit. He has defended him the best in the season series, preventing him from getting into the lane and to the rim. The issue, especially in the playoffs, is that Leonard is more than capable of just taking Kleber off the dribble, rising up for mid range jumpers.

Perhaps that’s the Mavericks’ best option. But we saw Leonard lead the Raptors to a championship as a midrange assassin against the league’s top defenders (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, etc.). If he can replicate that performance, there isn’t much Dallas can do given its limitations.

This may be a series that Paul George dominates. He will have the lesser of the defenders, Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. on him majority of the time. Both players are to small and lack defensive tools to bother George.

The Mavericks go to method of irritating and disrupting the Clippers offense will be the use of zone coverage. It will displace Leonard and George from their preferred scoring spots on the floor, while also making them scramble for extra passes. Traps and double-teams could also be deployed on the Clippers, but with a team so deep at scoring, I don’t know how much this will help. Leaving the likes of Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Morris, open to trap Leonard or George could be a lethal mistake.

The Clippers are 17-4 when Leonard scores 30-plus this season. The bet here is that he has at least three 30-point performances in Round 1.

Key matchup: Porzingis vs. Clippers bigs

Porzingis is the one Maverick who can change the complexion of this series. Doncic is going to get his 29 points and seven assists, albeit on suboptimal efficiency, but Porzingis is the ceiling-raiser for Dallas.

Porzingis has struggled against the Clippers this season averaging just 18.3 points on 34.7 percent shooting and 30.4 percent on 3s. But if their last meeting was a sign if things to come the Mavericks might be looking good.

Porzingis dropped 30 points on 9-of-19 shooting last time the teams matched up. If the Mavericks have any chance to instill some fear into the hearts of the Clippers, he will have to replicate that performance.

The Clippers only weakness is defending big men. They don’t have an ideal defensive matchup for a guy with this size and range, few teams do. But they do have multiple bodies to throw at Porzingis.

Morris should draw the primary assignment, with Green and Zubac also defending him. Given the Clippers’ switch-heavy defense, there will be instances in which Leonard, George and Harrell switch onto Porzingis as well.

The Clippers tend to go small in late game situations, so there is a chance that in crunch time Leonard or George find themselves defending the 7’3″ Latvian. Both are elite defenders, but maybe Porzingis can use his size and take advantage. He will have to.

Of the Clippers’ bigs, Morris has defended Porzingis the best. Zubac is too slow to hang with him on the perimeter, allowing Porzingis open looks from 3 and blow-bys from 16 feet and beyond. Expect the Clippers to go small with quicker defenders to irritate Porzingis on the perimeter, where he prefers to catch the ball and work from.

Even if Doncic outplays Leonard for a couple of games, or the entire matchup, he’s going to need Porzingis to be playing at an All-Star level — and probably better — for the Mavericks to have a shot to extend this series. This is why they got Porzingis, to step up for moments like this.

X-Factor: Crunch time Play

The Mavericks’ Achilles heel this season has been their inability to win close games.

They are 17-24 in the clutch, according to, which is the 15th-worst record among the 16 playoff teams. The only team worse in crunch time has been the Orlando Magic, the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, that is 33-40 overall.

The Clippers, meanwhile, are 19-13 in the clutch, which is tied for the ninth-best record in the league. They’re not elite in the clutch, but are significantly better than the Mavericks.

It doesn’t get any better for Dallas when looking at games decided by five points or fewer. The Mavericks are 8-19 in such scenarios; the Clippers are 11-6.

If there are multiple close games in the series, Dallas — an inexperienced playoff bunch, especially in comparison with the Clippers — will have the weight of its crunch-time losses on its shoulders.

When you consider the year long stats, the disparity in playoff experience, there is no bigger X factor in this series.

Other Clippers thoughts and questions

  • What shape is Harrell in? Does it matter in the first round?
  • Can the Clippers make this a quick series? If not it may be chemistry issues that can linger into future rounds
  • Who plays more: Reggie Jackson or Landry Shamet?


Dallas is arguably closer to being the third-best team in the West than the seventh-best. So this won’t be your typical 2 seed vs 7 seed matchup.

I expect most of the games to be close until the 4th quarter. The key differences between the two teams is defense and clutch plays, arguably the two most essential components to winning a championship.

In the end the Clippers are just a bad matchup for the young Mavericks. Had the Mavericks been matched up with the Nuggets, Rockets or Jazz, they’re might have been a chance to advance.

The Clippers win the series rather easily, and take it in 5 games.

In Case You Missed It

Lakers-Blazers Series Preview: Key Matchups, X-Factor, and Prediction

Leave a Reply