There’s an irony to all the flak the Clippers are taking for allegedly dodging a first-round playoff matchup with the Lakers, opting instead to face the Dallas Mavericks, who the Clippers beat in last year’s first round.
While it’s not difficult to fathom the Clippers avoiding the defending NBA champions as long as possible — especially given, or entirely due to LeBron James finally returning from injury — it’s not like it’s been all wine and roses against the Mavs this year.
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The Clippers are 1-2 against Dallas in 2020-21, with both losses being less than competitive — including a 51-point loss at home in the third game of the season — and almost blowing a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in their only win. But the regular season is neither here nor there, according to Clippers head coach Ty Lue.
“You see a lot of crazy things throughout the course of the regular season, [but] when the playoffs come, it’s a whole different season,” Lue told reporters following LA’s regular-season finale. “Mentality changes, a lot of things change. We can’t read into anything that happened in the regular season.”
That is true, the postseason is an entirely different beast, but that doesn’t mean the Clippers will be changing their defensive priorities when it comes to Dallas — stopping Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.
Doncic the ‘Head of the Snake’
Like any team facing the Mavericks, priority numero uno is neutralizing their 6-foot-7 point guard and MVP-candidate Doncic, who continued to bolster his legacy in only his third NBA season.
“We know we’re playing a guy who controls the whole tempo of the game, in Luka, by scoring, rebounding, passing, making his teammates better,” Lue said. “We know he’s the head of the snake. It’s gonna be a tough challenge. We have to give him different looks. We can’t let him be comfortable.”
But making the 230-pound Doncic uncomfortable is much easier said than done. In their three matchups this season, Doncic came close to averaging a triple-double, posting 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11 dimes, all while shooting 47.8% from the floor and 37% from three.
For the season, Doncic averaged 27.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.6 assists. He shot 47.9% from the field and 35% from behind the arc, resulting in an effective field goal percentage of 55%. His PER (player efficiency rating) was 25.3, ninth-best in the league, and his VORP (value over replacement player) was 5.0 or fourth-best.
Doncic’s all-around game and seemingly unflappable focus (you don’t get the nickname “Cool Hand Luka” by the age of 22 for buckling under pressure) mean that even if the Clippers take away one aspect, Doncic is still very capable of producing.
In their first matchup, Doncic went 0-for-5 from three, but he still managed to go 8-for-18 overall (24 points) with nine rebounds and eight assists in just 25 minutes. And in their next game, which the Clippers held on to win, 109-99, Doncic went 8-for-23 from the floor but nevertheless posted a 25/10/16 triple-double.
The Clippers did, however, induce Doncic into committing seven turnovers in that second regular-season game, which is something Lue hopes to repeat in the playoffs.
“Just keep mixing it up throughout the course of the game,” Lue said when discussing defensive strategy against Doncic. “Blitz him a little bit…switching on him a little bit. We want to keep him off balance as much as possible.”
In other words, they would like to keep the ball out of Doncic’s hands as much as possible. But even if they succeed there, the Clippers will still have center Porzingis to reckon with.
“We know Porzingis is back, he’s healthy,” said Lue. “He poses a problem, especially being 7’1, 7’2 being able to shoot the ball way he does.”
While Porzingis’s height is debatable (Basketball-Reference lists him as 7-foot-3) there is no doubting his effectiveness when healthy. In 43 games this season, the 25-year-old is averaging 20.1 points and 8.9 rebounds while shooting a career-best 47.6% from the field and 37.6% from three. His 54.7% effective field goal percentage is also a career-best.
Though no one will ever accuse Porzingis of being an immovable force on the defensive blocks (he ranks 27th amongst centers in defensive real plus-minus on the season, according to ESPN) his ranginess can cause problems (1.9 career blocks) and what he brings on offense, both tangibly and in helping diversify Dallas’ sets, far outweigh his defensive deficiencies.
“[Porzingis] being able to post up, roll, pop…they do a lot of different things,” said Lue.
Porzingis missed six straight games at the beginning of May with knee soreness but returned for Dallas’ final three, posting 19.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 27.3 minutes.
Healthy Porzingis Could Be a Difference Maker
While Doncic has managed to remain relatively healthy over his short time in the league, injuries have plagued Porzingis since his days with the Knicks.
Porzingis tore his left ACL in February of 2018, his first and only season as an All-Star, and didn’t play again until October of 2019 — this time as a Maverick following a public spat with New York’s curmudgeonly chairman James Dolan which prompted a trade to Dallas in January of 2019.
The trade was and still is seen as a huge win for the Mavericks (Dolan basically gave away his best young star), and while Prozingis has been a valuable asset for Dallas, there have been times when his fragility — and temper — has thrown a wrench in the works, last season in particular.
In last season’s playoff series with the Clippers, Porzingis was controversially ejected from Game 1 with 9:10 remaining in the third quarter after he involved himself in a confrontation between Doncic and Clippers forward Marcus Morris. Dallas would go on to lose the game 118-110.
Then, prior to Game 4, with the Mavericks trailing the series 2-1, Porzingis was a last-minute scratch when it was discovered he had a torn lateral meniscus of his right knee. It was a big blow to the Mavericks, who had gotten 34 points and 13 rebounds from Porzingis in Game 3, and though Doncic would ultimately hit a buzzer-beater to win the game in Game 4, the Clippers ably took advantage of Porzingis’s absence by winning the series in six games.
With Porzingis there’s always a chance of an injury, but Lue and the Clippers would be well-served not to rely on any such luck this time around.