Luka is hurt and Kawhi cooking — what’s next in Clippers-Mavericks?


The Western Conference quarterfinals between the #2 LA Clippers and #7 Dallas Mavericks is headed to a Game 4 on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), with the Clippers leading the Mavericks 2-1 following Friday night’s 130-122 Game 3 win by the Clippers.

This matchup has pitted the top two offenses in the league against each other, but it has been an eventful series featuring comebacks, technical fouls, and injuries. The Mavericks will be trying to tie the series Sunday with or without All-Star point guard Luka Doncic (sprained left ankle), while the Clippers have seen two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard hang 100 points on them through three games.

Our experts assess what to look forward to for the rest of the series.

What happens if Doncic is sidelined?

The sight of Luka Doncic hopping on his right leg up an incline inside the bowels of the bubble was devastating, both for a Mavericks team that built a league-leading offense around him, and anyone who has been dazzled by his exploits. But that was the scene after Doncic turned his ankle guarding Kawhi Leonard on a drive in the third quarter.

“It’s hard to say how this is going to be,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, “But we’ll see. We’ve got every advanced treatment modality that you can have, as every team here does, and we’ll see how this responds in the next 36 hours.”

Doncic tried to return in the fourth quarter, but lasted less than three minutes as the Mavericks dropped Game 3 to the Clippers. If he’s unable to play on Sunday in Game 4, his absence would represent more than just a mid-series adjustment for Dallas — it would be an overhaul.

Through the first two games of his playoff career, Doncic rendered a Clippers defense featuring two of the best two-way defenders of their era toothless. Not only did Doncic average 35 points and eight assists with a true shooting percentage of 70.2, but he dictated the terms of each Mavericks offensive possession and, often, manipulated which Clippers defender he’d face off against.

If Doncic is able to go in Game 4, expect more of what he encountered from the Clippers on Friday in Game 3, when they ratcheted up their defense against the best young playmaker in the game. The Clippers, who feature a platoon of strong, like-sized defenders, like to switch those defenders when confronted with a pick-and-roll. Too often in the first two games of the series, that meant Doncic hunting more favorable matchups.

On Friday before his injury, Doncic encountered more resistance from the Clippers. Not only were his primary defenders — most commonly power forward Marcus Morris Sr. — less inclined to passively pass Doncic off, but the Clippers’ defenders behind the play were eager to help. When Doncic pressured the defense, he was met with physicality. A brawny Clippers squad will have to maintain that physical advantage if Doncic goes in Game 4.

For Dallas, there simply is no replacement for Doncic if he’s unable to play. Nobody on the roster can create the hefty diet of shots he can for himself and his teammates. Yet, the Mavericks generated 112.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season when Doncic was not on the floor.

With a healthy Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks feature one of the league’s most prolific screeners in the league — an agile 7-foot-3 center with soft hands and a sweet stroke. Porzingis can pick-and-pop from long range (he’s 9-for-17 from beyond the arc in the series), and attack the rim off a screen or off of a pass.

That production is more easily attained if Doncic is his dance partner, but two-man actions with Porzingis and Seth Curry were extremely efficient this season. The pair is certain to be in heavy rotation in Game 4 if Doncic isn’t. In a perfect world, Jalen Brunson would be able to pick up some of Doncic’s minutes at point guard, but he’s recovering from shoulder surgery in the NBA diaspora. Those minutes are now Trey Burke‘s.

Apart from his dynamic playmaking and scoring, Doncic’s greatest attribute in his young career is his ability to elevate the performances of NBA roleplayers. If he’s unable to go in Game 4, those roleplayers will be tasked with elevating their games with Doncic as an onlooker. –Kevin Arnovitz

Time for Mavericks to give Kawhi Leonard another look

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle discovered a starting lineup weeks before the season was suspended that maximized the potency of the most efficient offense in NBA history.

The Mavs were pretty much unguardable playing small with knockdown shooter Seth Curry at shooting guard and Kristaps Porzingis as the lone big man. That five-man lineup that also featured superstar Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith averaged 119.8 points per 100 possessions, a significant boost from even the Mavs’ record-setting norm.

But the presence of Kawhi Leonard convinced Carlisle to scrap that lineup for the Mavs’ first-round series.

That’s how much the Mavs fear Leonard, who has won Finals MVPs with the San Antonio Spurs (2014) and Toronto Raptors (2019) and has a pretty decent shot of adding the Clippers to that list in the bubble this October. For good reason, too.

With all due respect to Finney-Smith, who is Dallas’ best defender, he doesn’t have much hope of slowing down Leonard. He simply doesn’t have the strength to keep Leonard, who is built like an NFL tight end, from bullying his way to wherever he wants to go. Leonard proved that during the Clippers’ three regular-season wins over the Mavs, averaging 31.0 points in those games, his highest against any West playoff team this season.

So Carlisle made a drastic move for the matchup against the Clippers, bringing Curry off the bench and replacing him with 6-foot-10, 240-pound Maxi Kleber, considering him the Mavs’ best bet to defend Leonard. It’s a starting five the Mavs used exactly once during the regular season – to defend New Orleans Pelicans rookie phenom Zion Williamson. (Dallas won that game in overtime, but the starting lineup was outscored 14-7 in 5.5 minutes.)

It hasn’t exactly been a huge success in this series. Through three games, Leonard is averaging 33.3 points on 51.5% shooting in the series, the primary reason the Clippers have a 2-1 lead despite Paul George playing his way to punchline status. Leonard has also been an effective passer, particularly when double-teamed, averaging 5.3 assists, including eight dimes in Game 3.

It’s asking a lot of a power forward such as Kleber to chase a go-to guy like Leonard who is so smooth off the dribble. All things considered, Kleber has actually done a decent job. Leonard has scored 48 points on 17-of-38 shooting from the floor, plus 15-of-15 from the line, against Kleber as the primary defender in this series, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But the Mavs have been outscored by 15 points in Kleber’s minutes over the three games. That’s in part due to the fact that the native of Dirk Nowitzki’s German hometown has provided next to nothing offensively, averaging only 4.0 points on 26.7% shooting in 34 minutes per game, perhaps because his legs are jello from guarding Leonard.

So … time for Carlisle to make another adjustment?

“You play a team like the Clippers, you’ve got to be ready to throw the kitchen sink at them,” Carlisle said when asked if perhaps he needed to search for other solutions to the Kawhi problem. “If you’re referring to double-teams and other matchups, we’ll look at all that stuff and study it.

“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping him from getting layups. The difficult two-point shots, fading away – he’s a great player, he’s going to make his share of those. The layups are the ones that really get us, so we’ll look at that. We’ll look at everything.” –Tim MacMahon

Will Rivers’ adjustments keep working?

After the Clippers’ Game 2 loss, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers responded with two notable changes. First, he promoted Landry Shamet to the starting lineup ahead of point guard Reggie Jackson, filling the void created by point guard Patrick Beverley missing his second consecutive game with a calf strain.

Shamet, who’s had an uneven sophomore campaign, provided the Clippers better floor spacing around Kawhi Leonard. He got the team going with a rare drive and dunk — plus a foul on Boban Marjanovic — in transition early in the second quarter of what was then a tie game. The play was out of character for Shamet, who had previously dunked just twice all season according to Second Spectrum tracking data.

More typical for Shamet were three makes from beyond the arc, highlighted by pulling up and banking in a long 3-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer. With Kawhi effectively operating as the Clippers’ point guard, Shamet spotted up and served as an on-ball screener in plays that tested Dallas’ perimeter defense. He finished with 18 points in one of his higher-scoring outings this season.

Rivers’ other adjustment was to give more minutes to a player who’s started all but two games this season. Because he plays the same position as the league’s likely Sixth Man Award winner, Montrezl Harrell, center Ivica Zubac has always been something of an afterthought in the Clippers’ starting five. But during his fourth NBA season, Zubac has developed into a quality two-way role player.

With Harrell still working his way back into game shape after leaving the NBA campus for the death of his grandmother, Rivers gave extended run to Zubac. Having played 41 minutes total in the first two games of the series, Zubac was on the court nearly the entire second quarter and for nearly 30 total minutes Friday, providing effective finishing in the paint. Zubac scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting as all five Clippers starters reached double-figures.

To some extent, Rivers might hope these adjustments are short-lived, which would mean that Beverley is back in the lineup and Harrell nearing full conditioning. For now, however, Shamet and Zubac showed the ability to thrive in bigger roles as the Clippers took the upper hand in the series. –Kevin Pelton

Load management: Clippers need to give Leonard relief

The playoffs have begun, which means this is Kawhi Leonard’s time of the year.

Through his first three postseason games for the Clippers, Leonard is on a tear, scoring 100 points already and averaging 33.3 points against the Mavericks. Leonard scored 36 points in the Clippers’ Game 3 victory and is shooting 34-for-66 (53%) for the series.

“I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again,” Paul George said of his All-Star partner. “He’s one of the most if not the most reliable guy.”

Leonard is in playoff form. But the two-time Finals MVP is expending quite a bit of energy, and he can use help to make this first round against Dallas easier and save all this playoff juice for the next opponent or two.

In other words, Leonard needs George to rediscover his shooting touch and snap out of his 7-for-33 shooting slump he’s been mired in over the last two games. And he needs Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell to get their Sixth Men of the Year mojo working again.

Leonard is averaging 39.3 minutes per game. He’s driving hard to the basket, working tirelessly to get to his mid-range spots, hitting the glass for 10.3 rebounds per game and finding teammates for 5.3 assists. He also continues to be an elite defender, holding Mavericks he guarded to five points and 1-for-6 shooting in Game 3.

Yes, there’s no travel to worry about in the bubble. But there are games every other day. With Luka Doncic hobbled, the Clippers need to take care of business. That means giving Leonard more help and not relying on him to carry them in every game in the playoffs. Leonard is capable of that, but he joined forces with George on a deep Clippers team with the best bench in the league for a reason.

Williams and Harrell are still finding their rhythm together after both left the bubble in July due to family emergencies. The lack of practice time, and game time in Harrell’s case, is clearly showing. But, in his third game back, Harrell had 13 points as the Clippers gave him the ball inside trying to let him muscle his way back in form.

“This is the first game that I thought Trez played at Trez speed,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought yesterday he got a lot of one-on-one in practice, which game speed, we played a lot of one-on-one with him. I thought that got him a little bit of rhythm.”

Williams is averaging 15.7 points, 5.7 assists and is shooting 40% from behind the 3-point arc. But once he and Harrell get their pick-and-roll chemistry running again, the Clippers will be even more formidable. So far, Dallas’ second unit has outscored the Clippers in two of the three games.

And when George starts shooting again and if Patrick Beverley can come back healthy, the Clippers hope to be running on all cylinders alongside Mr. “Reliable.”

“I don’t think we’re far,” George said of the Clippers reaching the level they believe they can play at. “I don’t think we’re far. Offense is going to come. Where we got to really be effective and show who we are is on the defensive end.”

“He’s a leader, he’s stepped up, he’s been a leader all season long,” George added of Leonard’s play. “He picked me up tonight as did everybody else and he put this game on his back and won the game for us.” –Ohm Youngmisuk

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