I noticed something interested while doing research for a column I was writing on the Dallas Mavericks' playoff chances: Since January 16th, when the Clippers and Mavs last met, Los Angeles owns the league's best net rating at +9.3 per 100 possessions (the Rockets are second at +7.2). Though the Mavs played the Clippers well in their previous two meetings, Los Angeles was dealing the Chris Paul injury (he was injured in their first matchup and missed the second) and ever since then the Clippers have risen to another level, firmly planting themselves into title contention. Thus, I wrote that I didn't think the Mavericks would have a chance against the Clippers in the post-season because they'd have no shot to slow down Los Angeles' elite offense.
Well, if the Clippers played like they did tonight in a post-season series with the Mavs, then maybe Dallas would have a chance afterall. That's because, despite a glacial size gap in offensive talent compared to what Dallas offers on defense, the Clippers neutered their biggest advantage, falling victim to the Mavs' aggressive gameplan by living on the perimeter for most of the game.
Luckily for LA, they realized just how easily they could score if they drove aggressively to the basket just in the nick of time, allowing them to overcome a three-point deficit in the final 1:34 behind two interior baskets by Blake Griffin and drives by Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford. This sudden shift in philosophy was coupled with a strong defensive stance, spearheaded by Griffin's incredible work on the game's premier one-on-one scorer in the post, and the result was a much needed win after the Clippers carelessly dropped one against the Pelicans on Wednesday.
You have to hand it to the Mavericks and Rick Carlisle, though. I think Carlisle masterfully outcoached Doc Rivers in this game. The Mavs were quick and fierce with their double teams on Griffin, which forced the ball out of his hands and made the Clippers swing the ball around the perimeter in an attempt to get clean looks. And while the Mavericks are a woefully incompetent defensive team because of their inability to guard the rim, they are very good at creating turnovers and they take pride in being the best 'scramble' team in the league, and they seduced the Clippers into playing a style that rendered their weaknesses irrelevant.
Speaking of turnovers, this was a really sloppy game for the Mavs and the Clippers, which is pretty uncharacteristic for both of these teams. Dallas and Los Angeles rank 5th and 6th in turnover rate (lowest to highest), respectively, but they combined for 38 total turnovers tonight (20 for the Mavericks and 18 for the Clippers). The second half was also sloppy because of how the game was called. I was pleased with the way the first half played out because I thought the refs were allowing both teams to play solid, physical defense, but once Matt Barnes and CP3 took turns shoving Shawn Marion in the third quarter, the refs panicked and started calling the game tight, policing every little incident as if it was going to start a brawl.
Even still, this was a pretty compelling game that had drama down to the final buzzer. The only thing that was missing was a vintage performance from Dirk Nowitzki, who looked worn out when it came time for him to make a play with the game on the line. Other than that, Griffin and Paul were tremendous, Brandan Wright provided some highlight plays on both ends of the floor, Vince Carter had a throwback game and added 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting and DeAndre Jordan put up 16 points and 15 boards, including two huge free throws in the final five minutes.
This could prove to a hurtful loss for the Mavericks, who are now a game back of the Phoenix Suns in the loss column for the eighth and final playoff spot, but even if they drop their next game against the Clippers during this final stretch, they've still got four games against lottery teams and two huge end-of-season matchups against the Suns and Grizzlies that can help bolster their resume. Still, though, it must be tough for them mentally to have now had three games against the Clippers in hand before ultimately coughing up each one of them.
For the Clippers, thanks to Dallas' win over the Thunder on Tuesday, they move within three games in the loss column of Oklahoma City with one head-to-head matchup remaining. Los Angeles would be in really good position to make a push for that second overall seed had they not lost to New Orleans on Wednesday, but with such a large homestand to finish out the season, there's still a small chance that they can earn homecourt advantage in a potential second round battle against the Thunder.
Some other notes:
- It's not a major insult to Doc to say that he was out maneuvered in this game. Just as players have poor outings throughout the season, coaches do too. Carlisle himself was not very good against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. It happens. But I do think Rivers did a poor job of imploring his players to stop settling for perimeter shots and to start taking the ball to the basket. If the Mavs were going to get the ball out of Blake's hands no matter what, you have to be able to find another way to get the ball into the paint, particularly against a team that can't do anything once you get in there.
- There was one instance where the Clippers were able to break Dallas' rotations out of double teams by bypassing one of their swing passes and making a direct pass from the strongside wing to the weakside corner, but for the most part the Mavericks were able to get out to the shooters. Of course, they were broken down of other ways throughout the night that resulted in open looks, but Dallas did a good job flying around the perimeter to make sure their doubles never cost them.
- I know it's weird to say as the team struggles to find a consistent bench line-up that works, but sometimes I think this team could do without Jamal Crawford, and I found it puzzling that he was playing in crunchtime over Collison in this game. We all know that Crawford is a sieve defensively and almost all of his offense is predicated on really bad or really tough shots. I know he can win you a game when he gets hot, but I'm not sure that's something I'd want to rely on if I were a championship contender.
- Early foul trouble for Blake forced two interesting combinations: Glen Davis playing alongside Jordan and Griffin as the smallball center with the second unit. It got me to thinking about playing Griffin as a smallball center more and staggering his minutes so that the second unit could always have a goto scorer. Just an idea, and we may see a modified version of that concept in the post-season when the starters start playing a bit more.
- I really liked the 1/3 pick-and-roll that the Clippers ran for Paul and Danny Granger. The Mavs switched it and Granger got an elbow isolation on a smaller defender.
- Can we all agree that watching Matt Barnes has been significantly less fun ever since his hot streak? Not only in a basketball since but also because of the ancillary stuff?
- Blake's 20-point streak ended tonight, but I don't think it was because he played poorly. The Mavs clearly schemed to take away his one-on-one opportunities and Griffin still nearly reached the mark. 18/13/4 on 57% shooting is a mighty fine 'off night". Oh, and his individual defense on Dirk was phenomenal. I continue to believe that Griffin will always struggle to be an elite defender because of his wingspan, but he sure can use his athleticism and strength to make it tough on people in the post. There's quite a difference in the way that the broader Griffin bothers Nowitzki compared to the narrower, longer Serge Ibaka, who rarely gives Dirk fits. Of course, on some nights it doesn't matter who is on Nowitzki, but tonight wasn't one of those nights.
- Not a bad rebound game for Chris Paul, huh? 31 points on 50% shooting from the field and from deep (4-of-8 on threes) with nine assists, four rebounds and three steals. He scored in a variety of ways and his shooting stroke looked really good for a guy that couldn't buy a basket against the Pellies on Wednesday.