2021 Playoffs: West First Round | Clippers vs. Mavericks

Series preview: Expect more fireworks as Clippers, Mavs run it back

All eyes will be on Luka Doncic, but the pressure is on the built-to-win-now Clippers in the non-quarantined sequel.

Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard put on an incredible show in last year’s first-round series.

In the 2019-20 restart last fall there was a signature moment: Luka Doncic drained a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer against the LA Clippers in Game 4 of their first-round series in a shot that shook the bubble.

And then, last December, the Mavericks applied a 51-point shellacking of LA that raised early doubts about the Clippers and whether they were truly made for being a title contender.

Well, here they go again: Clippers vs. Mavericks, a playoff series that carries some recent “history” that suggests, if nothing else, there will be some fireworks and maybe hard feelings before it’s over.

The obvious advantage for the Clippers is star power. They have two — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — and the Mavs bring only Doncic who fits that description. That said, Doncic tormented the Clippers in the 2020 playoffs and stands in LA’s way of trying to establish some credibility, especially after the manner in which the Clippers crumbled spectacularly in the bubble after blowing a 3-1 lead against Denver in the Western Conference semifinals.

Doncic is once again on a superb roll. He’s a strong contender for the All-NBA first team and is a handful for any team to contain. He’s clever, makes his teammates better with his passing, has a size advantage against most guards and can make the big shot. Also, he brings the swagger that makes him hard to intimidate — just ask Marcus Morris, who got physical with Doncic in the bubble but didn’t break the Mavericks’ star.

The good news for the Clippers is they’re a different team from 2019-20, and even last December. Plus, they’re better overall on paper than the Mavericks. Since those last two meetings, the Clippers added Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins to strengthen the rotation, which is designed to reduce the load on Leonard and George. The Clippers hope that’s especially in fourth quarters, where both players came up short in Game 7 against the Nuggets.

The urgency is clearly on the Clippers, who are built to win now, and who are desperate to erase the stigma and stench of last fall. In order to do that, they’ll face an adversary who’d like nothing more than to drill them with another 3-point dagger. Doncic seems up to the task. What about the Clippers?

Three things to watch:

1. Kristaps Porzingis is the most talented big man in the series and if he dominates a rather average group of Clippers centers, then that’s a major plus for the Mavericks. Every analysis of Porzingis always starts with a disclaimer — “if he’s healthy.” Injuries always trip him up, and they did last fall in the bubble. He’s healthy now and can space the floor and supply rim protection. His performance will both help dictate how long this series goes and shape what hopes the Mavs have of an upset.

2. Who will get the lion’s share of minutes at point guard for the Clippers? Most likely, this will be done by committee. Pat Beverley just recently returned from injury and Reggie Jackson has played well all season. And then there’s Rondo, who was acquired in a midseason trade for this very reason. Coach Ty Lue will go with his gut, which obviously will be dictated by whomever does the best job against Doncic.

3. Certainly, there’s some face-saving at stake for George, who was abysmal in the 2020 playoffs — including a fourth-quarter meltdown in Game 7 against Denver. That led to a summer of personal soul-searching in the brief offseason. George’s checkered playoff history simply doesn’t match his regular season accomplishments, and this has put him on the spot. He’ll need to make a strong statement in the first round if only to keep the internet from making jokes at his expense, but also to gain the confidence of his teammates. Plus, it’ll do wonders for his own confidence. The Clippers may not need his A-game against Dallas, but they need George in order to have any hopes of emerging from the West. His redemption tour starts now.

Number to know

43% — The top of the Western Conference has been a jump-shooting party. The six teams who took fewer than 45% of their shots from in the paint this season all finished in the top eight in the West, with the Denver Nuggets (47%, 18th) and Los Angeles Lakers (49%, 11th) being the exceptions to the rule. The Clippers (43.1%) and Mavs (42.8%) finished 27th and 28th, respectively, in the percentage of their shots that came in the paint. So, while LA saw a small increase late in the season, this promises to be the jump-shootingest series in the first round.

The Clippers shot 41.1% from 3-point range, the fourth-best mark in NBA history. They have a league-high seven players who shot 38% or better on at least 100 attempts from beyond the arc. But two of their four worst 3-point shooting games of the season came against the Mavs, with the worst being the Dec. 27 game they lost by 51 points. Over the three-game series, the Mavs outscored the Clippers by 65 points from outside the paint.

The Mavs’ offense is a less dependent on jumpers, ranking much higher in turnover rate (3rd vs. 14th) in free throw rate (15th vs. 27th) than the Clippers. The Clips are a little less dependent on their offense, ranking much higher defensively (8th vs. 21st) than the Mavs. But it could be a make-or miss series.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

The Clippers are right with the Utah Jazz as the most dangerous 3-point shooting team in the playoffs. Their volume shooters from that distance are either above or near 40%: Jackson, Leonard, George, Morris, Luke Kennard and Nic Batum. That’s impressive, because the Clippers can spread the floor and if one or two players go cold, no matter — there’s plenty in reserve. The Mavs lack the number of quality perimeter defenders it’ll take to make the Clippers scrap that game plan. Then of course the Clippers have a pair of championship-tested veterans in Rondo and Leonard, who once again is playing at a high level. This team has much to prove and the incentive to do it against Dallas. Clippers in 5.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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