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The Clippers and Mavericks Continue to Confound

The most back-and-forth series of the first round has kept everyone on their toes, with countless moves and countermoves dictating the outcomes. How will L.A. respond after Dallas seized the latest advantage?

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

If an NBA fan ever needed proof that momentum doesn’t exist, they’d find it in this postseason’s Clippers-Mavericks clash, the strangest series of the 2021 first round, which continued in kind Wednesday night. Luka Doncic—wait, wasn’t he injured over the weekend?—poured in 42 points and 14 assists to carry Dallas to a 105-100 win and a 3-2 series lead.

L.A. had seemingly wrested control of the series in Dallas over the weekend, an impressive feat given its lackluster showings in games 1 and 2. But now that control is gone once again.

The only other best-of-seven series in league history to start with five consecutive road wins was Spurs-Rockets in 1995. That oddity, which came in the Western Conference finals, ended in Game 6—though the Clippers had better hope it continues now, or else a long and painful summer awaits the onetime Western Conference cofavorites.

Game 5 began with the latest move in a tactical chess match between coaches. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue had switched his starting lineup before Game 4, embracing a small-ball look with the 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum in place of 7-foot Ivica Zubac. (Reggie Jackson also replaced Patrick Beverley, last seen being repeatedly bullied on Doncic’s way to the rim.) That lineup cruised, so Lue kept it in place for Game 5—thus catalyzing a wrinkle from counterpart Rick Carlisle.

Instead of fighting small ball with small ball, the typical response in these situations, Carlisle veered in the other direction and called on Boban Marjanovic for his first career playoff start. To call the ensuing lineup the opposite of small is an understatement: Between the 7-foot-4 Marjanovic and the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas started two of the three tallest players in the entire NBA. (Quick, with Boston eliminated, someone get Tacko Fall on a plane to Dallas for Game 6.)

The change worked—sort of. The stretch that won Game 5 for Dallas— a 25-5 spurt to end the third quarter—came mostly with Dwight Powell in place of Boban next to the Mavericks’ four other starters. Powell is a unique player on this Dallas roster, adding elements of athleticism and vertical spacing that no other big can match, and his solid screens and buzzy activity helped precipitate the Mavericks’ crucial run.

Powell’s performance also epitomizes the tactical ebb and flow of a long playoff series, as various moves and countermoves, adjustments and counter-adjustments, determine which players see the floor in the most important moments. Powell had played just 18 minutes total in games 1 through 4, before logging 22 minutes in Game 5. Marjanovic also saw his playing time more than double, with 15 total minutes in the first four games and 20 more Wednesday night. Meanwhile, shorter role players like Jalen Brunson (10 minutes) and Josh Richardson (six) played much less than usual.

Now it’s Lue’s turn to scramble to find the right rotation once again. The regular season is about strengths, the saying goes, while the playoffs are about weaknesses, as a series progresses and an opponent figures out how to exploit a player’s deficiencies mercilessly. Depth disappears quickly, especially when injuries (see: Serge Ibaka) and matchup peculiarities (see: Zubac) mean otherwise cromulent members of the rotation are rendered unplayable.

In theory, the Clippers boast an enviable amount of depth, with 10 players who logged at least 800 minutes this regular season plus midseason acquisition and two-time champion Rajon Rondo. But in practice, the rotation has already effectively shrunk to eight members with Ibaka’s injury, Beverley’s hellacious start to the series, and Luke Kennard’s disappearance. (The $64 million sharpshooter has played four total minutes this series, taking one shot and scoring zero points.)

And even among those eight, Rondo hasn’t recaptured full Playoff Rondo form, and Zubac still hasn’t found a comfortable fit in this matchup. On Wednesday, the Clippers were outscored by 19 points in Zubac’s 20 minutes on the floor—suggesting that if Lue has another change to make to stave off elimination, it might be embracing small ball even further and eliminating the burly center’s role entirely.

Or Lue’s team could just shoot better. In the regular season, the Clippers shot 41.1 percent on 3-pointers, within range of the best single-season mark ever, but they haven’t been able to take full advantage of their floor spacing against Dallas. The Mavericks have had the three best single-game performances from 3-point distance this series:

3-Point Shooting in the First Round

Game Mavericks Clippers
Game Mavericks Clippers
1 47.2% 27.5%
2 52.9% 39.4%
3 51.3% 41.9%
4 16.7% 39.4%
5 38.9% 36.8%
Total 42.3% 36.6%

The Clippers are shooting 36.6 percent overall from 3-point range this postseason, in line with the league average of 36.7 percent during the regular season. But there’s a sizable gap between a near-historic high and just average, and that gap accounts for much of L.A.’s underperformance in this series. Through five games, the Clippers and Mavericks have each attempted 175 3-pointers—and Dallas has made 10 more, the equivalent of an extra two makes, or six points, per game. Sometimes, analysis is that simple.

That deviation is especially surprising given Dallas’s defensive strategy in its super-sized lineup, as every middle schooler in youth leagues across the country knows that a 2-3 zone is soft against spread shooters. During his brief coach’s interview between quarters on the TNT broadcast Wednesday, Carlisle acknowledged, “You’re going to have to live with some 3s” playing a zone, and indeed, during Marjanovic’s first stretch in Game 5, the Clippers attempted nine 3s, canning five.

But the Clippers’ average performance beyond the arc means Dallas can live with those shots. L.A. was the best regular-season team on wide-open 3s, at 44 percent, but has fallen to 39 percent on those looks this series.

Dallas can also live with the Clippers’ shot distribution in Game 5, which saw a deviation from games earlier in the series, when the Clippers’ main offensive problem was a lack of scoring from sources other than their two stars. Kawhi Leonard was averaging 33 points through Game 4, Paul George 25, and no other Clipper more than 12.

Yet on Wednesday, while their teammates shouldered much more of the offensive load, the box score suggests an excessively egalitarian selection: Leonard and George combined for 34 shot attempts, while Jackson and Marcus Morris combined for 29, leading to complaints that the stars weren’t commanding the ball enough down the stretch. As long as the team is losing, the Clippers’ role players are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

For as bizarre as this Clippers-Mavericks series looks on first blush, it serves as an apt microcosm of broader playoff trends. Home-court advantage is gone. Momentum doesn’t matter. Depth dwindles to just a few trustworthy players per team. And above all else, ill-timed shooting slumps or fortuitous hot streaks can dictate the final outcome—and all the narratives that follow, because no matter how a team gets there, a win is a win, and a devastating loss can alter the trajectory of a franchise all the same.