Following Saturday’s 113-103 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, in Game 1 of their first-round playoff matchup, Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue told reporters that he was “too embarrassed” to even utter the number of points his squad allowed due to “miscommunication and not following the game plan.”
Indeed, issues on defense were present throughout, particularly when it came to Mavericks superstar point guard Luka Doncic, who Lue had hoped to keep “off balance.” Doncic finished the game with a triple-double — 31 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
Using pick-and-rolls to create mismatches, the 6-foot-7 Doncic drew two fouls on the Clippers’ diminutive point guard Patrick Beverley within the game’s first four minutes and he torched big man Ivica Zubac to the tune of 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting in only 1:35 of head-to-head game time.
Even in the fourth, when the Clippers increasingly deployed mid-court double teams to disrupt Doncic’s scoring flow, the 22-year-old nonetheless remained productive, finding open teammates for open looks, which they consistently sank to close out the game.
“Luka’s seen virtually every coverage known to mankind — every kind of double-team, every kind of switching scenario, switching and then double-teaming 30 feet away from the basket,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said afterward.
So the big question heading into Game 2 is, what can the Clippers do to slow down Doncic without giving up too many open looks to his teammates? The answer may be Kawhi Leonard.
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Leonard Could Be up to the Task but at What Cost?
Leonard, of course, is well-suited to guard Doncic. A six-time All-Defensive selection, the 6-foot-7 Leonard has the height, athleticism and bulk to stay in front of Doncic and to contest his shots from both inside and outside. In Game 1, in 1:43 of game time, Doncic did not get off a shot against Leonard (though he did post two assists).
So it would seem logical to simply glue Leonard to Doncic and let him do his thing. But there are pitfalls to this strategy.
First and foremost, guarding a player of Doncic’s caliber and high usage requires tremendous energy, especially if Leonard is not switching on picks, which could mean less effectiveness for Leonard on the offensive end, a trade-off the Clippers would obviously prefer to avoid.
Leonard’s 26 points led the Clippers in scoring on Saturday, and his five assists were tied for the team-high. Though Leonard had no simple task of guarding Kristaps Porzingis in Game 1, the Mavericks big man is far less mobile than Doncic, often opting to hover around the perimeter as Doncic runs the offense. Porzingis scored 14 points in Game 1 on 4-for-13 shooting and was more or less a non-factor.
Doncic is Terrific at Drawing Fouls
There’s also the matter of foul trouble. Doncic is known for his craftiness and for drawing fouls on unsuspecting defenders. Doncic was 10th best in the NBA in 2020-21 at drawing fouls, doing so at a clip of 5.5 per game. And last season he was fourth-best, with 7.5.
If Leonard gets into foul trouble early, forcing him to sit or play less aggressively, that could mean lights out for the Clippers, who also rely on Leonard for rebounding and all-around toughness.
But despite the potential downside, and having a few other players to throw at Doncic (i.e. Nicolas Batum and Paul George), it seems that Lue will go with a Leonard-centric focus on Doncic in Game 2.
“He has to carry a lot of the load offensively, and we have three or four guys that we can put on [Doncic] and mix it up,” Lue said Sunday when asked about Leonard possibly guarding Doncic. “But, I think you’ll get what you’re asking for come Tuesday.”