The seminal moment of the first-round series between the Clippers and Mavericks last year, despite the outcome, was Luka Dončić sinking a game-winning 3-pointer in Game 4.
Despite LA winning the series fairly comfortably, Dončić had his way with the Clippers defense, which is why any discussion of the upcoming series has to start with Dallas’ head of the snake.
“What makes it difficult to guard Luka is dude’s built like a brick house, 6-8, all the confidence in the world,” Reggie Jackson said about Dončić. “He can really put it on the deck and pass, can score from all three levels, you know, the guy is just so far ahead in his third year, so, he’s fearless, he loves competing, he loves this game, very passionate about what he does and you can just tell by his play he puts in a lot of work.”
Dončić’s ability to excel against the Clippers has continued in 2021. In three regular-season games against the Clippers this season, Dončić averaged 30.3 points, 11.0 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game while shooting 54.8 percent twos, 37.0 percent on threes, and 83.3 percent on free throws. Other than 2-point percentage, those figures are all noticeable increases from his season averages.
Dončić can do just about anything on offense. He ranks in at least the 80th percentile as a pick-and-roll operator, an isolation scorer, and in post ups. He also converted 69 percent of his shots at the rim this season, a figure more in line with a big than a guard. A player that versatile demands similar diversity from the Clippers’ defensive approach.
“I think you got to keep (Luka) off balance,” Ty Lue said at practice earlier this week. “He’s a great passer, a great player so he will pick you apart if you blitz him, so you can’t give him a steady diet of the same thing. We talk about it all season, just trying to keep guys off balanced because any great player, they are going to be able to adjust. They probably have pretty much seen everything you can throw at them. We just got to keep him as off balanced as possible.”
It helps that the Clippers have waves of defenders to throw at Dončić. They can start with Patrick Beverley, while also mixing in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the starting lineup. If they play a traditional drop coverage on pick-and-rolls, they can trust those three perimeter defenders to fight through screens and trail while Ivica Zubac protects the paint. If the Clippers switch, they have faith in their bigs to hang with Dončić in a pinch. On our podcast with Mavs Moneyball, Kirk Henderson said that Zubac defended Dončić better than any big in the league.
Those waves of defenders continue off the bench; Serge Ibaka and Rajon Rondo may be past their all-defense primes, but they have the know-how to contain superstars. And Nic Batum has been LA’s primary line of defense against perimeter threats all season in order to save the legs of Leonard and George. Batum has been gearing up for this challenge for the last 72 games, though he acknowledges that Dončić presents a tougher task than most.
“We’re going to try to find a way,” Batum said. “They did it last year of course in the series, but just you got to find a way. He’s better from last year, and he’s showed this year he’s a great player and he’s gonna be a great player. We have no surprise about it. We’re gonna find a way to slow him down, can’t say to stop him, because those kind of players it isn’t easy to stop him. You gotta make him work, we got the pieces and the coaching staff to do it, so make him work, and make him have a bad, like a tough, night every time we play against him. And if we do that, we have a good chance to win the game every time. But it won’t be easy. That’s why he’s a big-time player.”
Fortunately, the Clippers have their own big-time players to counter Dončić, but they pride themselves on having a defensive mindset. That means the first priority is containment. They don’t want to get in a track meet trying to outscore the Mavericks; they did last year and allowed Dallas to stay in games far too long that way.
Defense is the key to success, and against this Mavericks team, that begins and ends with Dončić. The Clippers understand the task at hand. Now comes the fun part.