One season after dropping a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, the LA Clippers once again find themselves facing elimination, this time in Round 1 against the Dallas Mavericks in a pivotal Game 6 on Saturday.
Luka Doncic, who delivered one of the league’s most iconic game winners against the Clips in last year’s postseason, has continued to give the opposition fits to the tune of averaging 35 points in the first five games of the series. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been clutch for the Mavericks as well, shooting 48.6% from 3 and averaging 17 points to help carry the load when Doncic sits.
Can Kawhi Leonard and Paul George find a solution to slow down the Mavericks’ backcourt? More importantly, can Leonard and George keep up with just Doncic? The Clippers’ stars outscored Luka by only one point in Game 5 (43 to 42), and Doncic one-upped the duo in points created (75 to 61) on Wednesday.
From what the biggest surprises have been in this series to who can be the X factor to determine whether we see a Game 7, our experts break down all things Clippers and Mavericks ahead of Game 6 (9 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App) on Friday night.
1. What is the biggest reason, aside from Luka Doncic’s play, that the Clippers trail in this series?
Kevin Arnovitz: In a span of less than five minutes in the third quarter on Wednesday night, the Clippers were outscored 22-3. They let Doncic get loose in transition without any resistance, offered poor help defense behind their perimeter traps of Doncic — never a good idea because the man loves a trap — and they coughed up the ball twice on the rare occasions they ventured into the paint on the offensive end. That’s how long it takes to muddy your fortunes in the NBA playoffs: five minutes.
Tim MacMahon: The Mavs had a pair of sizzling shooting performances to open the series. According to Second Spectrum data, Dallas’ quantified shot quality in the first two games was 48.7%, which means that was the predicted effective field goal percentage based on the looks they got. Their actual effective field goal percentage in those games was 65.5%. Tim Hardaway Jr. in particular had the flamethrower firing, hitting 11 of his 17 3-point attempts in those two wins.
Kevin Pelton: Dallas’ shot-making. According to Second Spectrum’s quantified shot probability metric, which factors in the shooter’s ability in addition to the location of shots, their type and the distance of nearby defenders, no team has gotten worse shots in the first round than the Mavericks. Yet their effective field goal percentage has still been better than average because of shot-making surpassed only by the Utah Jazz.
Andre Snellings: The Clippers have been unable to establish any sort of team identify in this series. They are built to be a strong defensive unit across the board with two excellent scorers and a team full of strong role players and shooters to fill the gaps. Instead, they’ve been a defensive sieve for the majority of the series and their non-superstar “others” have been largely cold. They’ve played like they’re on their heels, reacting instead of putting their own stamp on the game.
Ohm Youngmisuk: The Clippers’ lack of defense. Doncic has been unbelievable, but he hasn’t been doing his biggest damage in the fourth quarters. It’s the other Mavericks who are killing the Clippers down the stretch — such as Tim Hardaway Jr., Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber — when they absolutely need stops. The Clippers are supposed to be an elite defensive team, but Games 1 and 2 saw so many breakdowns that coach Ty Lue had to simplify the defense in an attempt to limit communication breakdowns. The Clippers’ defense has looked way more shaky than elite.
2. What has been most surprising about this series so far?
Youngmisuk: What has been the most surprising thing about this series so far? The Clippers’ approach to Doncic. It’s one thing to be unable to contain Nikola Jokic last year. But this team is built with elite wing defenders to be able to slow down a star like Doncic. Even if Lue says the Clippers are OK with Doncic eating but are trying to keep him from getting others involved, Doncic is averaging 35 points per game. In Game 5, the Clippers surrendered only 105 points but 42 went to Doncic. Stop Doncic perhaps three more times and the Clippers are up 3-2. Kawhi Leonard has had the most success guarding Doncic, holding him to 5-for-16 shooting (31.3%) thus far, per ESPN Stats & Information research. If they want to extend the season, Leonard has to guard Doncic more.
Arnovitz: That it has come to this for the Clippers. They’ve overhauled their roster, changed their head coach, refined their defensive approach and adopted a sense of urgency, and yet they are again in danger of being unceremoniously and prematurely dispatched from the playoffs. They’re in this position despite getting great minutes from their small (and most common) lineup and solid production overall from their two superstars. Even more bizarrely — only the Atlanta Hawks have limited their first-round opponent to a lower quality of shots. The entire thing defies explanation, yet if they bow out in this series, the Clippers will have a lot of explaining to do.
MacMahon: The Mavs have managed to put the Clippers on the brink of elimination despite Kristaps Porzingis averaging only 13.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Coach Rick Carlisle made a point to praise Porzingis for being “patient” after Games 1 and 5, when he had 14 and eight points, respectively, but contributed some clutch buckets. Porzingis’ offensive value in this series is more as a floor spacer than a focal point. “Just doing what’s best for the team and staying ready for the moment,” he said after Game 5.
Pelton: It hasn’t really affected the outcome at all, but undoubtedly the most surprising thing is that Doncic is shooting 43% from the foul line. There has been only one other five-game stretch in Luka’s NBA career in which he has failed to shoot at least 50% on free throws: Feb. 22 to March 1 of this year, when he shot 48% (15-of-31).
Snellings: The Clippers’ inability to even slow Luka down a little bit. Luka’s a great player, so you’d expect him to produce, but the Clippers are full of players reputed to be excellent wing defenders. Between Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and a string of strong defensive role players, you’d think they could keep him within the realm of merely “great.” But when healthy, Luka has been playing like the best of the NBA legends in history, surpassing even the most lofty of expectations. That’s surprising.
3. Which player on either team will be the biggest X factor in Game 6?
Snellings: Has to be Tim Hardaway Jr. In the Mavericks’ three wins. He has averaged 23.0 points on 46% FG with 4.7 3PG. In their two losses, he has averaged 8.0 points on 23 FG% with 2.0 3PG. Hardaway plays off of Luka, but for the Mavericks to win, they need him to establish himself as the clear second scorer on the team.
Youngmisuk: Marcus Morris has to play big on both ends for the Clippers. When he is hitting his 3-point shots, Morris opens everything else up for the Clippers. But just as vital as his offense is his physicality. Reggie Jackson said the Clippers played with a “villain” mentality to win two games at Dallas. No Clipper embodies this persona more than Morris, who is an agitator and can help set the tone for the Clippers. And defensively, Morris has been the second-best defender on Doncic, holding the Mavs star to 6-for-15 shooting (40%), according to ESPN Stats & Info research.
Arnovitz: Hardaway and the rest of Dallas’ perimeter shooters. Doncic’s vision is the most potent weapon in the series and it’s incumbent upon the beneficiaries of that vision — the guys receiving the ball — to optimize their opportunities.
MacMahon: Hardaway has been the biggest X factor all series. He has averaged 23 points on 50% shooting in the Mavs’ three wins, hitting dagger 3s in two of those games. He scored a total of 16 points on 5-of-22 shooting in Dallas’ two losses. Ty Lue has emphasized the importance of running Hardaway off the 3-point line. He’s a sniper who works well off of Doncic, emerging as the Mavs’ No. 2 option since returning to the starting lineup late in the season.
Pelton: Rajon Rondo. During the Clippers’ two wins in Dallas, they outscored the Mavericks by 36 points in Rondo’s 47 minutes of action, getting exactly what they hoped when they traded for him in March. Playoff Rondo was not in evidence in Game 5, when he missed all six of his shot attempts and Dallas was plus-19 in Rondo’s 21 minutes.
Stephen A. Smith calls out Kawhi Leonard after the Clippers’ Game 5 defeat against the Mavericks.
4. Fill in the blank: The Clippers win Game 6 if _____.
Pelton: The Mavericks try another heavy dose of zone defense. The Clippers got too many open looks from 3-point range against the zone, averaging 1.15 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum tracking, as compared to 1.03 points against Dallas’ man-to-man defense.
Snellings: The Clippers will win Game 6 if they can find a way to stop Luka from doing whatever he wants. He is the absolute catalyst of everything the Mavericks want to do, and with Kristaps Porzingis held largely in check, the Mavericks don’t have a Plan B. If the Clippers’ defense stands up, they can win.
Youngmisuk: If Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play at the relentless superstar level that they did in Games 3 and 4 in Dallas and if they get a handful of critical stops. They must be able to slow down the Mavericks’ outside shooters, and they have to weather the storm in the opening minutes in what will be a frenzied, hostile environment. If they fall behind 30-11 again in the first quarter, the Clippers’ season could be over.
Arnovitz: They attack the Mavs off the dribble and not let them off the hook defensively. That doesn’t mean they have to abandon the 3-pointer, which has served them incredibly well all season. But there’s no good reason they shouldn’t be moving downhill at will and with force.
MacMahon: They get comfortable attacking Dallas’ zone. The Clippers anticipated that adjustment in Game 5, with Lue predicting during his pregame availability that the Mavs would switch their starting lineup to include Boban Marjanovic, who obviously wasn’t going to be playing man-to-man defense on the perimeter. It’s one thing to practice against it and another to see it in a game. The zone disrupted the Clippers’ rhythm — especially Kawhi Leonard’s — and the Mavs were able to keep them off balance from switching from zone to man throughout the game.
5. Fill in the blank: The Mavericks win Game 6 if _____.
MacMahon: Luka lights it up again. He hasn’t just been a superstar in the Mavs’ win. He has been historically dominant, averaging 37.3 points and 10.7 assists in those games. Of course, not even an otherworldly performance from Doncic guarantees as Dallas win, as evidenced by his 44-point, nine-rebound, nine-assist night in the Mavs’ Game 3 loss. But when Doncic has been able to look to his left — which his cervical strain kept him from doing comfortably in Game 4, the Clippers had no solutions for him.
Pelton: Luka is far and away the best player on the court, as he was in Game 5. Not only would that mean Doncic is running the show on offense, where he was responsible for 75 of Dallas’ 105 points between his own scoring and assists, it would also mean Kawhi Leonard is not reaching the level at which he played during Games 3 and 4 of the series.
Snellings: The Mavericks will win if Luka continues to be the dominant player on the court who manipulates the action like Giapetto, which starts with him being healthy. In the five halves this series in which Luka has appeared to be healthy, the Mavericks have clearly been the better team. In the three halves in which Luka looked injured, the Clippers have taken over. To close this out, the Mavericks need another dominant performance from their MVP.
Youngmisuk: The Mavericks will win Game 6 … if they play with the same urgency they have in Staples Center and can find a way to keep Doncic fresh in the fourth quarter. Doncic is shooting only 6-for-27 for a total of 17 points combined in the fourth quarter this series so far. If the Mavericks ride the momentum of returning to their home crowd and get off to a hot start again, they have to find a way to close it out and have Doncic deliver the fourth-quarter daggers.
Rajon Rondo is none too pleased with Kawhi Leonard putting up a late air ball in the Clippers’ loss to the Mavs.
Arnovitz: Luka does what Luka does. If he gets to his left, everything is at his disposal: passes to shooters, lobs to his big men, wrap-arounds to everyone, floaters against uncommitted defenders, magical probes that yield who knows what and will haunt the Clippers for the next nine months. This is literally what generational talents do — they fill in the blanks.
Bonus: If the Clippers win Game 6, who wins Game 7?
Arnovitz: Luka renders all predictions pointless.
MacMahon: Well, my prediction going into the series was Clippers in seven, so I guess I’ll stick with it. Even if that means going out on a limb and betting on a home team actually winning a game in this wild series.
Pelton: I have given up trying to predict the Clippers in the playoffs.
Snellings: If the Clippers win Game 6, they’d have to be favored to win Game 7 at home. Granted, this would mean that the road team had won all six games thus far, but after having been largely controlled in the first 2½ games with Luka healthy, the Clippers were right there to win Game 5 and in this scenario would’ve won Game 6. A Clippers win in Game 6 would suggest strongly that they’d finally started to solve the mystery the Mavericks have presented them with.
Youngmisuk: The most Clipper-ish thing to do would be to lose the first two games at home, win two in a row on the road, return home and lose, only to force a Game 7 by winning on the road again just to lose a pressure-packed, do-or-die, future-on-the-line Game 7. BUT if the Clippers force a Game 7, it’s hard seeing them losing all four of their homes games in a series, even with their history for calamity.