August 18, 2020: Los Angeles Clippers 118, Dallas Mavericks 110; Clippers lead, 1-0
If you only watched the first four minutes of this game, you would be in no way surprised by the score you see above. The Clippers came roaring out of the gate en route to an 18-2 lead, frustrating Luka Doncic into several turnovers and making him look extremely overwhelmed:
If you only watched the next 20 or so minutes of this game, you would be somewhat shocked by the above outcome. The Mavericks responded to that atrocious start (and a brief Luka injury scare) by going on a 48-18 run of their run, leading by as many as 14, and taking over the pace of the game for a long stretch of time. At half, the Mavs led 69-66, and Luka was driving the offense in a manner that appropriately freaked out any Clippers fan watching:
Halftime came, and this vaunted Clipper defense was allowing 1.278 PPP to a plucky, super-fun Mavericks offense. Luka and Kristaps Porzingis had 33 of Dallas’s 69 points, the team made 12 threes in the first half, and everything was running on all cylinders. The second half started slowly, with neither team doing much, until…well, this:
The idea of this earning a technical for either side in a non-bubble context would be fairly laughable; it was simply a few shoves, with neither side being that much more aggressive than the other, and the run of play up to this point was fairly well-controlled. A fight was not threatening to break out. And yet: the officials gave Porzingis his second technical of the game, the first coming after arguing what was a genuinely embarrassing missed call by a referee.
I’ll rant on this once, and then I’ll leave it be until a more outrageous case comes along: the NBA needs to get their officiating in line instantly. It wouldn’t matter if Porzingis were a top-four player in this game or if he was the 12th man on the bench for Dallas; it’s insane that he got a technical for either offense. Because there are no fans to mask the noise, and because officials appear to be profoundly thin-skinned in the bubble, Porzingis was kicked out, and Dallas was outscored by 13 points the rest of the way. Now, KP was not exactly firing on all cylinders in this one; he did get 14 points on nine shots, but the Clippers were also exploiting him fairly often on defense. That being said, everyone can agree that a Mavericks team with Porzingis is clearly better than one without. I don’t know that the outcome here would be different, but I don’t think the Clippers would’ve controlled the second half – especially the third quarter – nearly as easily. Good on Dallas for almost surviving. (Side note: the foul disparity did favor the Mavericks, FWIW.)
Moving on. Let’s talk about Luka:
The kid scored 42 points on 28 shot equivalents, grabbed seven rebounds, and dished out nine assists. When he was in the game, the Clippers couldn’t slow him down much at all. Luka went 6-for-8 from the rim and 5-for-7 on his beloved short mid-range looks; any real stop of Luka routinely ended in a foul call and a trip to the free throw line.
To the extent that he has a shooting weakness of any kind, it’s probably still his threes, where he’s a career 32% shooter and went 2-for-6 in this game. But I want to make a suggestion: what if his percentage is low precisely because he draws all of the attention when Dallas is on offense? The number of wide-open Luka threes is very minimal when spread out over a full season, and the only other guard you can safely say takes more difficult shots is James Harden. So, hear me out: Luka’s three-point percentage is only concerning if you leave out the context of the type of shots he largely takes.
What a dude. Unfortunately for Luka, he alone couldn’t win this for Dallas. Remember the 12 threes stat listed above? Well, Dallas blew every three they had available in the first half, as they went 3-for-22 from deep in the second. This is both an encouraging loss and a very painful one for Dallas. They forced the Clippers into a lot of mid-range twos, protected the rim reasonably well, and got a lot of wide-open looks from downtown.
And yet: they still lost, because the Clippers hit all those mid-range shots and demolished the Mavericks on the boards. Also, Luka’s 11 turnovers (worth noting that five of them came in that rough first quarter) certainly didn’t help things. Dallas’s worst enemy on offense in this one was themselves, but the Clippers displayed a level of defensive effort they didn’t put out all that often in the regular season. It’s going to be a tough series for Dallas to squeak out wins, even with home court advantage effectively nuked.
The Clippers got out of this potentially hairy situation the way pretty much everyone imagined they would: aggressive defense that forced buckets of turnovers, a great game on the offensive boards, and the fact Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on the same team. Even when you give up all those threes in the first half, only trailing by three shows that you’re working hard in other areas of the game. That’s why we’re opening with a special shoutout to Marcus Morris:
Morris had one of his most useful offensive games yet for the Clippers: 19 points on 13 shots, including several that kept the Clippers offense running in the first half when they desperately needed it. However, his impact was most felt on the defensive end in this one. Morris’s work within LAC’s system created four turnovers, and it was the most active he’s looked on this end of the court since he was a Piston.
If Morris plays this hard defensively every night, he adds value even when he’s not shooting well, and it gives the Clippers a much more meaningful piece to use throughout the playoffs. I think we’ve all been patiently waiting for them to go full-effort for a while, and when they needed it tonight, guys like Morris showed that effort.
Of course, none of you were surprised when Kawhi Leonard went hard on the defensive end, especially in the second half.
Kawhi’s second half carried the Clippers to the finish line: 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and a pair of steals. Paul George was good in this one, too (28 points), but Kawhi remains the driver of the offense, the defense, and the franchise. It was Kawhi who couldn’t miss from mid-range in this one:
And it was Kawhi who had the ball in his hands late in this game, determining the Clippers’ fate. They’ll be comfortable with that the rest of the way, and they have to be comfortable knowing that the gravity Kawhi draws in one-on-one play can spring open any number of open shooters.
Lastly, the X-factor for these Clippers remains Ivica Zubac. It feels rote to continue harping on this point, but somehow, he remains a remarkably effective player that knows how to do like three things and does those three things incredibly well. Zubac picked up five offensive rebounds in this one and was a terror on the boards that Dallas couldn’t handle:
Likewise, it was Zubac who blocked a pair of Dallas shots (two of the Clippers’ three blocks in the game) and scored ten points in his 22 minutes. Offensively, he still ain’t much beyond a roll-and-cut big man, but he performs this role so effectively that it essentially eliminates other concerns about his game. Can Zubac shoot a three? Of course not. But he knows where to be offensively at all times, and he knows that he has a role to play. That alone provides real, useful long-term value, and his ability to consistently affect shots at the rim on the other end is going to get him a Timofey Mozgov contract.