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NBA Playoffs 2020: Clippers vs. Mavericks Series Preview

The no. 2 Clippers are heavy favorites against the no. 7 Mavericks.

LA Clippers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers finished in the top two in the Western Conference for the first time in franchise history, and as a result, will play the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs, also for the first time in franchise history. The series starts tonight at 6:00 p.m. PT on ESPN.

The Big Picture

  • LA’s record was 49-23. Dallas went 43-32.
  • The Clippers finished with the second-best offensive rating in the league, scoring 113.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Stats. The Mavericks had the best offensive rating in the league at 115.9.
  • Much has been made of Dallas having the best offense in NBA history, and purely by rating, that’s true. However, offense has been rising steadily over the past few years, so relative to league average, the Mavericks aren’t quite as special.
  • On the other end of the floor, the Clippers had the fifth-best defensive rating, allowing 106.9 points per 100 possessions. Dallas slotted in at 18th with a rating of 111.2.
  • Each team had one All-Star in Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic, though both teams also have players who have been All-Stars in previous years in Paul George and Kristaps Porzingis.
  • Leonard led the Clippers in scoring (27.1 points per game) and rebounds (6.1), while Lou Williams dished out the most assists (5.6).
  • Doncic led the Mavericks in scoring (28.8 points per game) and assists (8.8) while finishing just shy of Porzingis in rebounds; Doncic averaged 9.4 compared to 9.5 for Porzingis.
  • The Clippers won the season series 3-0, and only one matchup was even close down the stretch.

The Matchups

Kawhi Leonard vs. Dorian Finney-Smith

The Clippers acquired Leonard for this particular moment, to be the best player in a playoff series. They have load managed him for the entire regular season, even through the seeding games, so that he would be healthy and ready for the start of the postseason. Now is the time for the reigning Finals MVP to be fully unleashed.

The Mavericks — like most other teams in the league — don’t have anyone to guard Leonard, but they don’t even have a reasonable facsimile of someone who can defend Leonard. Dorian Finney-Smith will likely open the game on Leonard, though Dallas could surprise and start Maxi Kleber in that role. Finney-Smith hasn’t been stout enough to keep Leonard away from the basket, and that puts a lot of pressure on the Mavericks’ rim protection, which is only Porzingis now that Dwight Powell is out for the season. Dallas might even have to dust off Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to get some size on Leonard.

It probably won’t matter. Leonard is going to eat in this matchup. If his three ball starts falling too, which it hasn’t during the first three games between these two teams, Dallas may have no chance.

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks
Kawhi Leonard has gotten into the lane at will when Dorian Finney-Smith is his primary defender.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Marcus Morris Sr. vs. Kristaps Porzingis

The Mavericks start Porzingis at center, but he is too mobile and too perimeter-oriented for Ivica Zubac to guard. That leaves the matchup to Marcus Morris Sr. When the Clippers acquired him at the trade deadline, the theory was that Morris would help the Clippers switch among big perimeter players, but the front office presumably had wings like LeBron James in mind, not stretch bigs like Porzingis.

Nevertheless, Morris will get first dibs on the Latvian center. His job will be to stay solid on Porzingis, keep a body on him when he’s shooting in the half court, and not lose him in transition for open trail threes. The Clippers will likely switch quite a bit on defense, particularly because Doncic and Porzingis run so many screen actions. Morris will have to be careful to know when to switch because he can’t leave a smaller defender, like Patrick Beverley or Rodney McGruder, out on the perimeter when Porzingis pops. That’s an easy 3-pointer.

Porzingis will be Dallas’ X-factor in this series. The Clippers are uniquely suited to guard wings and perimeter threats, and even though Porzingis has guard skills, he’s still a bigger than every LA defender. If Porzingis can exploit his size, both on jumpers and on the glass, he could make things difficult for the Clippers, and he has been at his best in the bubble, joining Leonard on the all-Seeding Games second team. But if Morris and Co. can limit Porzingis, Dallas will have a very tough task to even win games in this series.

Luka Doncic vs. Everyone

The Clippers can feel comfortable with just about any perimeter player guarding Doncic. Beverley will pressure him, Paul George will mirror his every move, Leonard will bully him, and the other Clippers can all hold their own. Doncic has been getting his points in this matchup, but not efficiently. He has been the focus of LA’s defense throughout the season, as he is the so-called head of the snake of this offense.

The Clippers have to be happy with how they’ve contained him thus far, as Doncic has averaged 29.0 points per matchup, but his assists are down to 7.0 per game and his turnovers up to 5.0. Most importantly, they’ve kept him away from the basket, since Doncic shoots 72.6% in the restricted area. But there is always the prospect of Doncic breaking free, like he did in the team’s second meeting, when he put up 36 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists to just four turnovers. Special players tend to make special things happen, even in the toughest of circumstances.

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks
The Clippers have generally made life difficult for Luka Doncic.
Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Lingering questions

Can Ivica Zubac stay on the floor?

Zubac’s rim protection has been critical for the Clippers all season, and he has been especially good against the Mavericks. He has been similarly impressive on offense, averaging his highest point total against Dallas and punishing the Mavericks as a rim roller. Doc Rivers says it’s amazing to see the team’s confidence in Zubac this year compared to last, when he wasn’t strong enough around the basket and was played off the floor against Golden State.

That being said, the stakes have changed. The Mavericks started a traditional center in each of the previous three meetings (Powell in the first two, and Boban Marjanovic in the last one). That gave Zubac a natural role on defense. Now, he’ll have to either guard Porzingis, which is a tough cover, or he’ll have to defend Finney-Smith out on the 3-point line. If Dallas is able to make Zubac uncomfortable defending on the perimeter, it will be interesting to see if Rivers blinks first and benches his young center. This is why starting Kleber may not be tenable for the Mavericks, because that gives Zubac somewhere to hide.

Is the Dallas bench still good?

A hallmark of recent Mavericks teams has been feisty bench lineups that actually outperform the starters, in terms of net rating, at least. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has even gone with some funky three-point guard looks that make no sense on paper but obliterate opponents.

If the Clippers have a weakness, it’s the defense of their second unit, though this is mitigated when Rivers staggers Leonard and George. However, Dallas teams of yore would be able to run up the score on the LA bench. Now, the Mavericks bench actually has a negative point differential since Powell went down, and they’re also without backup point guard Jalen Brunson in the bubble. It’s safe to say that the LA starters have the Dallas starters beat, so if the Mavericks hope to make this a series, they’ll have to win the minutes when one of the two Clippers superstars is sitting. Can Trey Burke, Delon Wright, or noted Clipper-killer JJ Barea get the job done? LA certainly hopes not.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks will miss Jalen Brunson against the Clippers and will look to Trey Burke to fill the void.
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Will Doc Rivers go for the jugular?

The Clippers have played a 10-man rotation for most of the regular season, even giving minutes to rookies to spread out the minutes. That means there have been meaningful stretches of time when both Leonard and George sit.

We’ll see just how seriously Rivers and the Clippers take the Mavericks based on the team’s rotations. If LA plays five-man bench units, it’s a sign that they don’t really respect this Dallas team. but if Rivers tightens things up, keeps one superstar on the floor at all times, and excises players who aren’t bringing it that night (here’s looking at you, Reggie Jackson), this could be an even shorter series than expected.

Admittedly, injuries have prevented the Clippers from playing their preferred playoff rotation, and the team has some leeway with how quickly they bring Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Landry Shamet back to full speed. Still, keep an eye on Leonard and George’s minutes. Those are the real barometer for how long this series will last.

The Clips Nation staff will have its predictions up later today. Until then, check out the opposing perspective from Mavs Moneyball as well as some specific thoughts from Kirk Henderson, and let us know what you think in the comments about Clippers vs. Mavericks.