2021 Playoffs: West First Round | Clippers vs. Mavericks

Luka Doncic proving to be handful for LA Clippers' defense

The Mavs' star guard is off to a historic pace in the series and has the Clippers' defense searching for ways to slow him down.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Luka Doncic went off for 39 points, seven rebounds and seven assists to help give the Mavericks a 2-0 lead over the Clippers.

The LA Clippers spent plenty of time talking about playing better defense on Luka Doncic in the leadup to Tuesday’s 127-121 loss in Game 2 to the Dallas Mavericks.

Turns out, lip service won’t get it done against one of the most NBA’s most potent offensive forces.

Behind a 39-point night from Doncic that included seven rebounds and seven assists, the Mavericks sent LA into a tailspin Tuesday, serving up the Clippers their fifth consecutive postseason loss dating back to last season inside the Walt Disney World bubble.

According to research from Elias Sports Bureau, Doncic became the first player to produce 250-plus points, 70-plus rebounds and 70-plus assists in his first eight career playoff games.

Dallas heads home for Friday’s Game 3 (9:30 ET, ESPN) at American Airlines Center up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.

Prior to LA’s setback, there had been 31 instances of teams losing the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home. Teams in those situations bounced back to win the series on just four occasions.

Game Recap: Mavericks 127, Clippers 121

“The playoffs are fun, man, that’s all I’ve got to say,” Doncic quipped in his NBA TV postgame interview.

Clearly, the Clippers don’t share that sentiment, despite their continued outward display of confidence.

In the Game 1 loss to the Mavs on Saturday, the Clippers deployed nearly every tactic at their disposal to neutralize Doncic outside of assigning Kawhi Leonard, the two-time former Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the exclusive responsibility of guarding the Mavericks point guard. Coach Tyronn Lue pointed to the extensive offensive workload of the two-time NBA Finals MVP in explaining LA’s reluctance to unleash him full time against Doncic, before later admitting: “I think you’ll get what you’re asking for come Tuesday.”

It certainly couldn’t have been this.

The Clippers matched Leonard against Kristaps Porzingis in Game 1, with the defense switching on screens as Doncic made a habit of hunting big man Ivica Zubac all night in what amounted to the guard essentially scoring at will. Doncic ripped the Clippers for 31 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in the Game 1 victory, but LA found a silver lining in limiting him to only 1 point in the fourth quarter only to realize in Game 2 that was merely false hope.

Players with 70+ points, 15+ rebounds and 15+ assists total in first 2 games of a playoff series (on road)
Player (Team) Season Round Opponent
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) 2020-21 First round Clippers
LeBron James (Cavaliers) 2017-18 NBA Finals Warriors
Russell Westbrook (Thunder) 2016-17 First round Rockets

Credit the Mavericks supporting cast for shining in its role throughout the series. When Doncic commanded double teams late in Tuesday’s game, players such as Tim Hardaway Jr. (28 points, including 6-for-8 from 3-point range), Porzingis and Maxi Kleber stepped up to knock down clutch shots.

Doncic dribbled into a double team that led to a Paul George steal that the Clippers turned into a transition alley-oop from Terance Mann with 1:24 left to play to cut Dallas’ lead to four points. On the Mavs’ next trip down the court, Hardaway nailed a 27-footer to push the lead back up to seven.

Dallas shot 58.5% overall and 52.9% on 3-pointers to overcome Leonard’s game-high 41 points. (Leonard racked up 30 points over the first two quarters to establish a new career high for points in a half.)

It appeared early on that LA’s best defense against Doncic would be its offense.

Lue mentioned during an in-game interview that the Clippers’ plan entering Game 2 was to defend Doncic one-on-one, while trying to limit the effectiveness of his teammates.

Charles Barkley is puzzled as to why Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are not shadowing Luka Doncic in this series.

So, LA started off the game with George as the primary defender on Doncic, before sprinkling in some looks featuring Leonard and Marcus Morris Sr. shouldering that burden, among others. Doncic lit up the Clippers for 14 points in the second quarter alone, hitting 5-for-6 from the floor and 2-for-2 from deep. Over that same span, Porzingis connected on three of four shots and drained his only attempt from 3-point range for eight points. Porzingis (20 points), Hardaway Jr. and Maxi Kleber (13 points) all feasted on mostly open looks generated by all the attention drawn by Doncic.

Defensively, Dallas gobbled up 13 Clippers turnovers and converted them to 18 points.

Given the way the first two games played out in this series, it’s almost imperative at this point for the Clippers to assign Leonard or George the daunting task of exclusively guarding Doncic.

The Mavericks’ star became the first player since LeBron James in 2017-18 to total 70-plus points with 15 or more rebounds and 15-plus assists in the first two games of a series on the road, per Elias Sports Bureau.

If Dallas’ supporting cast continues sinking shots the way it has when Doncic draws extra attention, LA should know its prospects are diminished without Leonard or George accepting the challenge of shutting down the Mavericks phenom one-on-one.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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