The Los Angeles Clippers are a bad matchup for just about every team in the NBA, but among the teams in the Western Conference playoff picture, they present a particularly daunting challenge for the Dallas Mavericks. They demonstrated as much once again Thursday night, pulling away late to win 126-111 and complete a sweep of the teams' regular-season series.
The Mavs had a chance to play their way out of the nightmare matchup during the seeding stage in Orlando, but they likely squandered it by collapsing in crunch time and losing winnable games against the Rockets and Suns. Dallas is now all but locked into the No. 7 seed, which means a first-round date with the bad kind of destiny.
It wasn't all bad for the Mavs on Thursday. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis - who experienced their share of struggles in the first two games against L.A. this season - both had strong outings, and the game was actually tied 101-101 with under seven minutes to play. But it always felt like the Clippers had the game under control and could land the knockout punch when they needed to. In the fourth quarter, they did just that, laying Dallas out for the third time this year and showing why they're the last team the Mavs want to see in the playoffs.
A few things that stood out:
Doncic's abilities to penetrate and finish at the rim have been huge components of his superstar leap this season, but he has a difficult time getting downhill with the Clippers' premier perimeter stoppers stapled to his hip. He's averaged about two fewer paint shots against L.A. than he does otherwise.
He did manage to rack up an efficient 29 points in this one, but very few of them came easy. Checked by Paul George and Kawhi Leonard for most of the night, Doncic resorted mostly to contested step-backs, unable to burrow into the lane with the frequency he's accustomed to. That he was held to just six assists and six free throws shows you that he wasn't wreaking his usual brand of havoc from the middle of the floor.
When he was able to shake loose, it was often because the Clippers willingly conceded unfavorable switches on ball screens - he got to see plenty of Reggie Jackson and Landry Shamet - scenarios in which L.A. may prefer to blitz him in high-leverage playoff moments. Patrick Beverley, who sat out this game with a calf injury, will also presumably be taking a bunch of Jackson's minutes, so that will be one fewer place for Doncic to attack.
There's going to be a lot of anticipation around Doncic's playoff debut, but if this matchup holds, he's going to face a monumental task in the first round against arguably the best group of perimeter defenders in the league. Whether he's seeing aggressive traps or smothering single coverage from Leonard, George, and Beverley, it's going to be difficult for him to get comfortable.
Leonard can also make Doncic's life pretty miserable at the other end of the floor, and while he didn't bully him all that much in this game, he did seek him out and drill a pair of triples in his eye. Doncic finished the game a minus-21.
Though he'd struggled tremendously in the first two games against the Clippers, Porzingis was actually the more impactful of the Mavs' stars Thursday. The change had a lot to do with his emphasis on attacking the basket after spending the previous meetings camped out on the perimeter.
That doesn't mean he entrenched himself in the post, as the "Inside the NBA" crew implored him to do on the broadcast (never mind that Porzingis ranks in the 28th percentile in scoring efficiency on post-ups). What he did do was roll hard to the basket more often than he typically does, rather than relying on spot-ups and pops to the 3-point line. In doing so, he was able to find seams in the softer underbelly of the Clippers' defense.
The Clippers defend the pick-and-pop well; most of their guys can corral the drive and recover to the arc, but if one of their slower-footed bigs is involved in the action, they're really good at contesting the shot with a rotation from the top - just one of many ways having an army of long, agile perimeter guys comes in handy. The pick-and-pop three is always going to be a staple for Porzingis, as it should be, but mixing things up and exploring his roll gravity as a means of punching holes in the Clippers' defense was a nice adjustment.
He cut, slipped screens, and attacked closeouts. He was aggressive looking for seals when the Clippers switched pick-and-rolls, and when they "scrammed" their smaller guys off of him, he attacked before the arriving defender (in this case, Ivica Zubac) could get fully set:
He took eight shots in the paint - which is as many as he attempted in the first two games against the Clippers combined - and nearly doubled his season average with nine free-throw attempts. He finished with 30 points on 65.3% true shooting, and also tied a season high with five assists in part because of the extra attention he attracted when he slipped underneath the first layer of defense.
Putting pressure on the rim is one of very few ways to exploit the Clippers, and in order to do that, Dallas needs Porzingis to keep doing a healthy portion of his damage inside.
For all the problems the Clippers' perimeter defense can pose, Dallas' offense was just fine in this game. At the other end, though, the Clippers are perfectly constructed to lay bare the Mavs' biggest weakness: their lack of capable perimeter defenders. Try as they might, the Mavs can't plug the gaps.
Dorian Finney-Smith is easily their best option on the wing, but Leonard had no issue driving through him or creating separation for jumpers. Finney-Smith taking the primary Leonard assignment also left a host of unsavory options for George, the most palatable of which was an overmatched Tim Hardaway Jr. Doncic is stronger than he gets credit for and isn't liable to get trucked, but he doesn't possess the combination of quickness and physicality to contain those guys. Justin Jackson isn't much better. Leonard and George combined for 53 points (on 48 shooting possessions), 11 assists, and just two turnovers.
Porzingis and Maxi Kleber did a decent job staying in front on switches, and Kleber actually spent long stretches as the primary defender on Leonard, doing a passable job. The Mavs weren't really any worse off with their bigs on Leonard or George than they were with their wings. The issue was that Zubac absolutely went to town on the other end of those switches and in the pick-and-roll.
Capitalizing on the magnetism of his star teammates, Zubac slipped into open space and rumbled to the rim en route to a perfect 10-for-10 shooting night. Seven of those field goals were assisted by one of George or Leonard, and the other three were all putbacks off of "Kobe assists" from those two - misses in which George and Leonard drew Dallas' bigs away from the rim and left the glass exposed. Zubac finished with six offensive rebounds in total. None of Dallas' smalls made the slightest impact rotating over on the back end.
All told, the Clippers posted a 131.3 offensive rating for the game, shooting 54.3% from the field and 45.2% from deep.
At the end of the day, the Mavs just don't have many advantages to leverage in this matchup. They own the best offensive rating in recorded history, and the Clippers are still far better equipped to defend them than vice versa. From everything we've seen, it looks like the first trip to the postseason for Doncic and Porzingis is going to be short-lived.