Points came so easily for the Mavericks in their series against the Clippers until suddenly they didn’t, a torrent of offense reduced to a trickle. The freewheeling drives of Luka Doncic turned arduous over the last two games; the first-round series may have swung with the neck strain Doncic suffered Friday night during Game 3, as since we’ve seen the joy of his do-it-all game come out only through gritted teeth. Without the fullest effect of his creativity and vision, Dallas pinned its scoring hopes to a streaky supporting cast in the midst of a jarring and dramatic correction. In the first three games of the series, the Mavericks stayed one step ahead of every Clipper adjustment by moving the ball and hitting 50.5 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. In Game 4, they made just 16.7 percent, erasing any hope of a comeback in what would be a 106-81 defeat, knotting the series at two games apiece.
That performance registers as one of the worst offensive showings of the Mavericks’ season, and one of the least productive of any team in the playoffs thus far. More harrowing, however, is the reality that all those missed jumpers might not have mattered—and that Doncic’s injury might have kept Dallas only from losing by a slightly narrower margin. While the Mavericks ebbed and flowed with their perimeter shooting, the Clippers dominated with the clarity of a team that has begun to realize the extent of its advantage. One of Rick Carlisle’s greatest strengths as a coach is his ability to close the gap on more talented teams by disguising his roster’s limitations, but even the most clever misdirection can get you only so far. The Mavs’ best chance at an upset bid in this series was to hold the Clippers at bay just long enough to overwhelm them. That formula built Dallas a 2-0 series lead and a double-digit advantage in Game 3 before it all fell apart.
The most obvious change by the Clippers was the decision to start smaller and move Ivica Zubac (whom Doncic has tortured at every opportunity) to the bench, but the most meaningful change was a matter of disposition. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have scored well throughout this series, but in Game 4 they attacked as if their assigned defenders didn’t exist—generating whatever shots they liked and compromising the Mavericks’ objectives at every turn. During the regular season, Dallas had one of the best defenses in the league against top-10 offenses, a testament to the habits fortified through its midseason reversal. But what works broadly can still fail in the harsh lights of specificity. Dorian Finney-Smith is a good, hard-working defender on balance, but he looks completely out of sorts trying to contain George:
Maxi Kleber is a mobile big with great defensive range, but he’s tasked with one of the league’s most unforgiving matchups in Leonard. He’s also playing through an Achilles injury, and thus far has had no shot of keeping Kawhi in front of him whenever the Clippers star decides to drive:
Over the past two games, Leonard and George have combined for 114 points on 41-of-66 (62 percent) shooting. So many Clippers possessions were as simple as their two stars deciding they would like to get to the rim and all but walking there. The issue isn’t game planning or scheme so much as personnel. Finney-Smith and Kleber match up with superstars because they are legitimately the best of the Mavericks’ limited options. The fact that they’ve been regularly erased by a quick first step or a single crossover speaks to the challenge Dallas faces going into Game 5. Clearly, the Mavs’ ball containment is a liability. Yet whenever the Clippers go small to space the floor around their stars, it negates whatever rim protection the Mavs might hope to get from Kristaps Porzingis; guarding a shooter in the corner just puts too much distance between the 7-foot-3 big and the drives he’s supposed to contest. All of which means someone like George can drive without concern for a second defender. His every move and read has been simplified.
Pulling Zubac from the starting lineup was an effort to take away some of the fish-in-a-barrel points Doncic (who averaged 38 points in the first three games of the series, but scored just 19 in Game 4) was getting out of the pick-and-roll, but it also left Dallas without much room to troubleshoot its defensive issues. An incendiary Clippers offense has been tepid with Zubac on the floor in this series, seeing as the benefits of his size are undone by the cover he gave Mavericks defenders to hang closer to the basket. After getting a feel for the series, Tyronn Lue has sussed out which Clippers can play in this matchup and under what conditions. The Mavericks wouldn’t guard Patrick Beverley, so Reggie Jackson took his starting job in Game 3 and Terance Mann picked up most of his regular minutes. Nicolas Batum’s passing and defense do more good alongside the Clippers’ stars than other role players, so he moved in to fill Zubac’s spot. The longer the series goes on, the more it tilts toward the team with the deeper, more flexible roster.
Dallas doesn’t have that same luxury. In effect, the Mavs made their first playoff adjustment a month ago when Carlisle moved Tim Hardaway Jr. into the starting lineup, which paid off when Hardaway notched 49 points over the first two games of this first-round series. Beyond that, their hands are somewhat tied. A Dallas team that scores 81 points is dead in the water regardless, but even one carried by a healthier Doncic and sustained by its shooting would need to offer some kind of defensive resistance to close out the series. Carlisle could give Hardaway a shot at defending Leonard or George just for a change of pace, but it’s not as if we haven’t seen that look; Hardaway has seen possessions on both as a result of switches and cross-matches and fared about as poorly as everyone else. Switching Finney-Smith’s assignment could be worth a shot, if only to see whether he’s stylistically better suited to the cadence of Kawhi’s play. But could any coach feel optimistic about the idea that a defender who couldn’t slow George in the slightest would somehow find more success against Leonard?
If Dallas wanted to explore that option, it would likely involve bringing Josh Richardson back into the starting lineup to replace Kleber, who no longer has a natural matchup if he’s not stretching himself to contend with Kawhi. Lining up Richardson (a fringe All-Defense candidate in previous seasons) against George is one of those ideas that likely works better in theory than in practice. What little the two have crossed paths in this series so far has felt frantic for Richardson, as he’s struggled to stay attached while George winds around screens and slinks into the paint. For as much as the Mavs could use some kind of change, there’s a question—especially after winning two games with the existing formula—of what the defense really has to gain from cycling through iffy alternatives.
The more nuanced path forward would be to keep the matchups as they are but change the way they’re played, nudging Leonard and George to make reads and forcing their teammates to hit what could be series-defining shots. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Doncic completely unraveled a similar strategy when the Clippers attempted to pressure him at the start of this series. Outright double-teams probably aren’t wise or even feasible for Dallas given all the different ways their defense is breaking down, but positioning Porzingis further away from his mark and closer to the basket could at least allow him to more consistently challenge the Clippers’ highest-value attempts. Any strategic shift the Mavs make toward Leonard and George would likely rely on shifting away from open shooters, funneling make-or-break shots toward Marcus Morris (a 47 percent 3-point shooter in the regular season who’s shooting just 33 percent in the playoffs) or Batum (40 percent in the regular season; 39 percent in the playoffs) and hoping for the best with a late challenge.
When playoff series are said and done, they’re often discussed in broad, certain terms. The trick of the narrativization of sports is the way it makes what was precarious seem like it was always inevitable. In reality, most competitive matchups are decided by something between a calculated risk and a leap of faith. Every winning team dared someone on the other team to beat them—with semi-open 3s, tricky runners, or pull-ups in the midrange—and got away with it. Now it’s on the Mavs to find the gamble they can put into practice, the gamble they can live with.