Historically, the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup in the NBA playoffs is a virtual coin-flip, no pun intended in these video-enabled times.
Since the league went to a 16-team playoff format, the first-round matchups between the fourth and fifth teams in each conference have been won by the higher seed 51 percent of the time (183-176).
Clearly, the No. 5 seed, which happens to be the Mavericks, against the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, has more than just a puncher’s chance. It’s basically break-even. Last year was a good example. Not only did No. 5 Miami beat No. 4 Indiana in the first round, the Heat reached the NBA finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers.
S0, what needs to happen for the Mavericks to get to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs?
Glad you asked. First of all, the Mavericks are going to have to play well. They won’t get by the Clippers without having four really strong, well-executed games.
That means each player must have some overachieving moments. And it’s not that farfetched.
Here’s a look at a player-by-player breakdown of the key figures who will decide how this first-round series goes.
Luka Dončić (27.7 points) vs. Kawhi Leonard (24.8 points).
Analysis: The Mavericks’ point guard was far more efficient this season than last, even though his trips to the free-throw line dropped from nine to seven per game. Dončić still is one of the most gifted and dangerous players in the game. And you can’t play him for one or two specific shots or moves to the basket. He’s not afraid to take the game-deciding shot and has drained plenty of them already in his young career, including last year in Game 4 vs. the Clippers in the first round, when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer caressed the net. Leonard is the wily veteran at 29 and should be fresh. He sat out 11 of the Clippers’ last 18 games for assorted reasons. He’s got loads of playoff experience, having been the MVP of the NBA finals with two different teams. He can beat you with scoring, passing (averaging 5.2 assists per game) or defense.
The edge: Dončić, by the thinnest of margins, and not just because of the numbers. Leonard will have to deal with Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith and, occasionally, Dončić guarding him. He’ll get the full superstar treatment. So will Luka with Marcus Morris, Nic Batum and others. But he averaged 31 points and shot 50 percent in the Clippers’ series last year. And his arrow is pointed a little further upward than Leonard’s, who admittedly was awesome in the first round last season (32.8 points). And, notably, Leonard’s team has won seven of the eight first-round series he’s been involved in. This matchup is almost too close to call.
Kristaps Porzingis (20.1 points) vs. Paul George (23.3 points)
Analysis: George’s playoff shortcomings have been well documented. He shot just 39.8 percent last season in two series, including 35.8 percent against the Mavericks. In spite of that, he’s still a career 20.1-point career scorer in the postseason and has a whopping 89 playoff games to his credit. And you know he wants to silence critics of his past postseasons. Porzingis, meanwhile, has a grand total of three playoff games in his portfolio, although they were very good showings last season before a knee injury knocked him out of the last three games. He’s had many physical problems this season and his ability to stay on the floor will be one of the major plotlines of this series.
Edge: George, simply because he’s been more dependable in terms of staying healthy. But again, this is not a slam-dunk. All it would take is a hot streak from Porzingis and this matchup – and series – could turn dramatically.
THE OTHER STARTERS
Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell vs. Ivica Zubac, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris
Analysis: These are hard-nosed competitors who all bring their own unique skills to the table. Hardaway can be an absolute series-changer if he catches a hot-shooting spell. Remember, the Clippers are the No. 1 3-point shooting team in the NBA this season, by a wide margin. And Finney-Smith and Powell will be expected to supply pick-and-roll energy (in Powell’s case) and corner threes (in Finney-Smith’s case) as well as major defensive chops. Zubac’s rebounding is a major concern for the Mavericks and we all know how agitating Beverley and Morris can be on both ends of the court.
Edge: Clippers. Again, very slightly. Morris will be draped all over Dončić and he’ll get plenty of help. And the intangibles Beverley brings can’t be underestimated. Rebounding, a Zubac strength, is something the Mavericks have had trouble with much of the season, although they were much-improved in that area after the All-Star break.
Jalen Brunson vs. Rajon Rondo
Analysis: Brunson has as much success in the postseason as any Maverick except Dončić. It just happened to be in college at Villanova, where he won two NCAA championships. But after missing last season’s playoffs, you get the feeling the 6-1 guard, who has been really hard to stop when driving to the basket this season, is ready for a breakout. He’ll need it, because he’ll likely see a lot of Rondo, and playoff-Rondo can be very, very good. There’s a reason why the Clippers traded Lou Williams to Atlanta for Rondo. They value his playoff grit and experience. He’s played 121 playoff games, won 72 of them and has two rings.
Edge: Rondo. Both of these players are crafty and explosive and all the things you want from a point guard. Should be an entertaining matchup, with the only difference being experience. “Having Rondo off the bench, that’s huge for any team,” says Nic Batum. “And those two guys (Rondo and Serge Ibaka) off the bench help your team win games. And I play with this unit, so it’s great for me as well. Serge on my right, Rondo on my left. It’s amazing.”
Maxi Kleber, Josh Richardson, Willie Cauley-Stein vs. Nic Batum, DeMarcus Cousins, Serge Ibaka
Analysis: These are two of the deepest teams in the NBA, frequently going 11 or 12 deep. That will shorten up in the playoffs, most likely, but that doesn’t mean one or more of these players won’t get a chance to be a difference-maker. We all know what Cousins can do when healthy. And Kleber is one of the best 3-point shooting big men in the league. He’ll have to be against the Clippers, who have a roster full of dead-eyes.
Edge: Clippers, mostly because of their size with Ibaka and Cousins, who may or may not be physically able to help for long stretches but could make a big impact in situational matchups. But don’t forget, the Mavericks used rookie Josh Green and Nico Melli a lot down the stretch. You can bet Rick Carlisle won’t hesitate to use them whenever he feels his team needs a jolt.
Rick Carlisle (60-66 in playoffs) vs. Ty Lue (41-20)
Analysis: Lue made the NBA finals three times and won a title while he was coaching the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. Then, when LeBron left, the Cavs started 0-6 the next season and Lue was fired. But he’ll get a good chance to show his coaching acumen in this series against Carlisle, whose Mavericks teams have not won a series since winning the whole thing in 2011, something they are eager to correct.
Edge: Carlisle. While the Clippers have the experience advantage in many matchups in this series, this is not one of them.