Classic matchups don’t become classic until after the fact, but going into their first-round playoff series, the Mavericks and Clippers seem destined for a memorable confrontation.
The Mavericks have the most efficient offense in the NBA. The most efficient in NBA history, to be exact, according to the newfangled analytics.
The Clippers have one of the best defenses in the league. They allow opponents to make only 43.8 percent of their shots, third in the NBA. It’s 34.5 percent from 3-point land, fifth in the league.
Those happen to be two of the Mavericks’ strengths.
So it’s the age-old battle of the team that can’t be stopped against the team that can stop pretty much everything.
Somebody’s going to have to beat the other side four times to move on in the playoffs. Here’s a breakdown of what the Mavericks will have to do to have a chance against the powerful Clippers.
Defending Kawhi Leonard: This job likely falls, in the beginning, to Dorian Finney-Smith, but it will take several Mavericks to make things difficult on Leonard, who has not one, but two, NBA finals MVP trophies to his name. Leonard averaged 31 points in three regular-season meetings with the Mavericks. The only Western Conference teams he did more damage against were Minnesota and Phoenix. And, unlike many players in this era, he can do as much damage from midrange as he can from the 3-point line or at the rim. Finney-Smith will have his work cut out for him. But knowing coach Rick Carlisle, Finney-Smith will have plenty of help when he needs it.
Dealing with depth: The Clippers and Mavericks played three times in the regular season. LA had seven players average 11.5 points or more in those meetings. That includes six players in addition to Leonard’s outrageous scoring. The Mavericks always seem to get burned by an unsuspecting Clipper. At the bubble, it was center Ivica Zubac who dumped 21 points and hit all 10 of his shots. Of course, none of them were from beyond a couple feet away from the basket. The Clippers have two sixth-man award candidates in Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. The Mavericks actually did a good job on the sharpshooting Williams during the regular season, but he’s too good of a shooter not to break out in at least one or two games. Harrell has been dealing with personal issues and did not play in most of the games at the bubble. But he’s always been a Mavericks’ pest. And then there is Marcus Morris, who joined the Clippers midseason. When he was with the Knicks earlier in the season, he averaged 24.5 points and 7 rebounds, helping the lowly New York to two victories against the Mavericks that would have come in handy when they totaled up year-end standings. Add in Landry Shamet, who can shoot with the best of them, and Patrick Beverley, Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green, and the Clippers have a different level of players who can hurt you. Once upon a time, the Mavericks had high-powered depth, too. But without Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell, their surplus of talent has been diminished considerably.
And, oh yeah, that other guy: Paul George joined Leonard this year as new Clippers. It was a made-to-order team, not one built from scratch or through savvy trades. The Clippers played their salary cap correctly and were able to cherry-pick two of the biggest fish last summer. And by the way, remember the last time a Mavericks’ team hooked up with a manufactured team like this? They beat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the NBA finals in 2011. But that was then. This is now. George only played twice against the Mavericks this season, but he averaged 25 points and shot 40 percent from 3-point range. He’s every bit the sidekick to Leonard that Kristaps Porzingis is to Luka Dončić. So who guards George if Finney-Smith is busy with Leonard? It will leave a combination of Maxi Kleber, Delon Wright or Tim Hardaway Jr. to do the job. No bargain for any of them, but again, Carlisle logically would have lots of help waiting in the wings.
And, what about coaching? Carlisle vs. Doc Rivers is a great matchup in and of itself. Carlisle is widely regarded as one of the best in-game strategists going. And he’s obviously good at preparing a team for what’s about to come at them. And there’s plenty that’s going to be coming at the Mavericks in this series. Rivers won a championship in Boston. Carlisle has won one. Nothing is going to faze these guys. But paying close attention to the chess-board moves is going to be an interesting subplot in this series.
And finally, one intangible in the Mavericks’ favor: One of the best things the Mavericks have going for them is the simple fact that the Los Angeles Clippers are riding a 50-year streak. They’ve been around since Buffalo. And since 1970. And through the years in Buffalo, San Diego and LA, they have never won an NBA title. So the odds say that somebody is probably going to beat them again. It might as well be the Mavericks.