¡¡¡¡LA Clippers defend Luka Doncic (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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¡¡¡¡How the LA Clippers saved their season in Game 3 against the Dallas Mavericks.
¡¡¡¡The LA Clippers saved their season with a 118-108 road victory on Friday night in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks.
¡¡¡¡At first glance, it appears that they still have zero answers for the Luka Doncic-led Mavericks¡¯ attack. After all, Luka dropped 44 in Game 3, and the team amassed a 134.8 offensive rating with him on the court (higher than in Game 1 and Game 2).
¡¡¡¡But following the initial 28-11 first-quarter outburst, Dallas managed just 61 points in its next 51 Doncic possessions, good for a 119.6 offensive rating. That¡¯s still not good from the Clippers¡¯ perspective; however, it¡¯s definitely manageable. So what can we take away from Game 3?
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¡¡¡¡Whenever Ivica Zubac or Serge Ibaka have been on the floor, Luka has gone at them relentlessly ¨C inspiring panic in the Clipper defense. In Game 1, they toggled between switching (including sending a late double), dropping, and trapping in the pick-and-roll; and executed none of them particularly well. Watch here as Paul George¡¯s indecision about doubling lets Melli sneak in for the offensive rebound. It was like that restaurant that has everything on the menu.
¡¡¡¡In Game 2, it was a more simplified approach against Doncic (drop coverage in the first half, switching in the second half), but the same incoherence followed. Here Kawhi Leonard and Zubac play two separate defenses in the pick-and-roll, likely because they had just played it a different way with Hardaway a few plays earlier.
¡¡¡¡Zubac played sparingly in Game 3 ¨C aside from the disastrous two minutes and 13 seconds to begin the contest, all of his run was tied to Willie Cauley-Stein. Serge Ibaka was out with the same back injury that cost him two months in the regular season. Going smaller has (somewhat) quelled the potent Mavericks¡¯ offense.
¡¡¡¡Not only does this change give Luka a less logical target to exploit, but it also added more clarity for a Clippers team that desperately needed to just get out of its own way. They switched every on-ball screen with Doncic *EXCEPT* when Reggie Jackson¡¯s man was the screen-setter. In those instances, it was a hard hedge.
¡¡¡¡Less off-ball mistakes
¡¡¡¡Relatedly, the Clippers finally seemed to be on the same page in off-ball defense. As Zach Lowe has repeatedly said, ¡°part of switching is knowing when not to switch.¡± Look how they don¡¯t needlessly switch with Josh Richardson handling. The guards (Jackson, Terance Mann, Rajon Rondo) are mostly fighting through screens, while the forwards can switch amongst themselves. And when they do switch, it¡¯s cleaner and more forceful rather than passive.
¡¡¡¡The first two games (Game 2 in particular) was a comedy of errors on the part of Los Angeles; simply cutting these out is huge. Dallas attempted just 12 shots at the rim in Game 3, tied for its second-lowest mark of the season.
¡¡¡¡Downsizing against Luka
¡¡¡¡The change in match-ups was another factor that contributed to the Mavericks¡¯ lack of rim forays. Doncic is going to seek out the weak link anyway, so why waste the energy of the two stars? In Game 3, Mann, Rondo, and Nicolas Batum got the vast majority of Luka duty. Rondo ¨C probably to the dismay of the Dallas organization ¨C actually did a fine job of being a pest and forcing Luka to fight hard for position; something original starter Patrick Beverley was unable to do.
¡¡¡¡This diversion also worked to fortify the interior defense of the small-ball Clippers. In prior games they were small on the back-line; now it¡¯s often a bigger forward there. In general, the team was more equipped to play the gaps and wall off the paint using (increased) size/length.
¡¡¡¡Are any of these adjustments a silver bullet to shutting down Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks? Probably not, as the Slovenian wunderkind is always a few steps ahead, which is particularly scary to a Clippers squad defined by discontinuity. It¡¯s hard to consistently get stops without a beefy rim protector.
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¡¡¡¡The transition defense was still¡shaky. But merely slowing him down a tad may be enough. As these nine playoff games have shown, Rick Carlisle¡¯s team has zero answers for Kawhi Leonard on the other side.