There is no more fascinating game of chess in the first round of these NBA playoffs than the pick-and-rolls led by Luka Dončić against the defensive dynamics of the Clippers.
During the regular season, whenever Kawhi Leonard and Paul George shared the track, LA allowed only 104.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that is almost two whole points behind what the Lakers finished in first place. In Game 1, the Clippers defensive rating in 33 minutes together was 132.3. (The Mavericks generated an atrocious 130.8 points for every 100 possessions in Luka’s 41 minutes).
Clippers coach Ty Lue wasted little time pitching various covers to one of the league’s preeminent playmakers. Changes, shelling, falls, hedges. They hid under screens and fought for them, with Leonard, George, Nicolas Batum, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris and Rajon Rondo, all spending at least some possessions as Dončić’s main defender. No stone was left unturned. It was all unleashed by a swarm unit that boasts some of the smartest, longest and most intimidating individual defenders in all of sport.
The Clippers lost, of course. But that doesn’t mean that their various strategies don’t work. Los Angeles executed Lue’s plan well enough to put them in position to win. They were adaptable and aggressive. Sometimes the other team just takes a bunch of really tough shots and you get ready for the next game.
For the Clippers, most of the problems started with their decision to trade early and often. Ivica Zubac, the Clippers’ great but agile starting center, repeatedly found himself on an island against Dončić, where he fell victim to some truly miraculous step-back triples and one-legged switch failures that have been made to appear routine.
Notice how clean everything is off the ball, with Leonard and George on a rope, communicating a change and ultimately forcing Dončić to land an inefficient shot. However, in the small sample size of a single playoff game, even tactics that are carried out flawlessly still can’t get the job done.
The Clippers played with the matchups throughout the game, moving Zubac to Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleiber, while Leonard mostly followed Kristaps Porziņģis to neutralize that pick-and-roll partnership, but despite what difficult that Los Angeles still made most offensive possessions feel (like helping defenders shrink the floor and force contested looks); the change was still producing poor results. They don’t need to abandon this approach to win the series, but as demanding as it tends to be, the Clippers may want to double Dončić even more than they did in Game 1. He shouldn’t be so reactionary.
There were several second-half possessions where another Mav (especially Tim Hardaway Jr.) made a difficult shot after Dončić gave up, but the Clippers will live with that. Most of the time, the blitzes and double teams worked to their advantage, whether they were deployed early on the clock or near the middle of the court.
Your odds of winning are dramatically increased when any other member of the team is forced to make a play or create their own shot. (Dončić scored only one point in the fourth quarter.) Look below: Serge Ibaka leaves Porziņģis to corner Dončić on the perimeter, knowing that Leonard will rotate from his own man on the weak side and pick up Porziņģis. With Kawhi in his airspace, Kristaps returns it to Luka. This time, without any screen, Leonard simply doubles Dončić before he can go one-on-one against Ibaka. Rondo turns into the open Porziņģis, which finally blocks three in the afternoon.
Here it becomes clear why Finney-Smith is not being paid to do five dribbles in isolation with the shot clock exhausted. When the Clippers were trapped and recovered, that was exactly the situation he found himself in, more than once.
This aggression also led to a missed elbow jump by Dwight Powell, a couple of plays in which Porziņģis challenged Kawhi and felt embarrassed for trying, Kleiber led closures that got nowhere and even some dribble transfers involving Nicolò Melli who vaporized immediately. Not that Dallas was clueless every time Dončić had to give up the ball. They were outclassed by a group of defenders who have “the best defense in the NBA” as their roof on nights when everyone is focused on the task at hand.
The Clippers weren’t perfect in Game 1, but if they stay the course and perform on defense like they did in the first 48 minutes of the series, that side of the ball won’t be the reason they lose, yes, in fact, The Mavs manage to achieve what should be considered, Luka Magic and all, a big surprise.
More coverage of the NBA playoffs:
• How the suns moved from the basement to the spotlight
• The origins of Dame-Time
• Atlanta is falling in love with the Hawks
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.