Restart Reviews: Mavericks/Clippers, Game 1

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.

Restart Reviews: Clippers/Mavericks; Celtics/Raptors

Welcome to a new series on Stats By Will titled¬†Restart Reviews, where I’ll be discussing games from the previous day or two and going in-depth on its result. The goal is to post these three times a week, with this week’s edition(s) likely featuring multiple games in each. There will be GIFs, stats, and all of the general moods and feelings you likely expect by clicking on this site. I hope you enjoy.

August 6: Los Angeles Clippers 126, Dallas Mavericks 111

If you like exciting, offense-first basketball, this would’ve been a good game for you. Neither team budged for a while, and when the Mavs came rushing back in the fourth quarter to briefly tie the game, it looked like we were headed for an exciting finish. Unfortunately, only one of these teams possesses the ability to turn their defensive switch on when a game gets tight, and it sure ain’t Dallas. The Clippers went on a 25-10 not-quite-a-run to close this one out, as Dallas simply didn’t have any hope of slowing down the Clippers offense over the final seven minutes of this game. Part of this was due to faulty rebounding:

And part of it was due to the Clippers simply making the right shots at the right time.

All in all, this result is more meaningful to a team with its seeding still somewhat up in the air rather than the Mavericks, who have been locked into the 7 seed for some time now. The Clippers seem to want to fend off Denver for the 2 seed, which makes sense if they’re going to be able to decimate the Dallas defense in this fashion. The Clippers scored 1.313 points per possession, one of their ten best efforts of the season, and they did it without having some sort of crazy Lou Williams bench explosion or any one standout offensive performance. It was a team effort, and pretty much everyone had success against this Mavs D. Okay, well, one guy in particular should be singled out: Ivica Zubac, who completely roasted these Mavs on the boards:

Zubac had six of the Clippers’ nine offensive rebounds and 15 overall, and there wasn’t a soul on the Mavericks who could consistently keep him off of the boards. For a while now, I’ve been driving the “Zubac is Actually Good” train, but this was easily his best offensive performance of the year and one that I didn’t really see coming. Zubac went a perfect 10-for-10 from the field, scoring 21 points with relative ease. Any time an opponent goes 9-for-9 against you at the rim, it’s a bad sign, but it was especially bad that Zubac made it look as easy as it did. He didn’t even have a good defensive game! He just owned the Dallas frontcourt from start to finish on the offensive side, especially in rebounding, and it was more than enough to make up for any defensive misgivings.

It came in the midst of a night where the Clippers couldn’t miss from much of anywhere on the floor. Not that they were severely pressured by Dallas to do so, but the Clippers took a¬†lot¬†of shots you wouldn’t consider analytics-friendly – lots of 10-19 footers off the dribble, shots that you would wisely ask most players not to take. The benefit for the Clippers here is having two great players that can hit a¬†lot of said shots, and others that step up when they’re needed. Ultimately, if you have Kawhi Leonard on the roster, you will never be truly upset with him for taking shots like this one:

Plus, the team was hitting everything else in sight – 19-for-27 at the rim, 14-for-31 from three. Why not take the shots your players like taking?

Once Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley return, the Clippers will finally be at full strength in Orlando, and then there is only one question to resolve: how long can Doc Rivers keep Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the floor together in games that matter? They got 34 minutes together in this one and outscored the Mavericks by 21 points. In the 14 minutes where one or both were on the bench, the Clippers were outscored by six and gave up 1.258 points per possession. It’s simply a different team when they aren’t sharing the court, and they’ll have to limit that time starting in a few days.

The Mavericks are mostly using these eight games for target practice, as they offer a terrific offense and what is frequently a mortifying defense. If they have any hope at all of seeing the second round, they simply cannot be as awful as they were in this game on defense. That said, they’re a really fun watch regardless of defensive success, and watching Kristaps Porzingis blossom in the bubble has been a true joy:

Porzingis led all scorers with 30 points on 19 shots (3-for-7 from three), tossed in nine rebounds for good measure, and drove the Mavericks’ offense. When Porzingis was in the game, the Mavs scored 96 points on 77 possessions; in the rare time he was able to rest on the bench, Dallas got 15 points from 18 possessions. I figured that if anyone would have these splits for Dallas, it would be Luka Doncic, who was solid as usual in this one, but it’s been Porzingis that’s the pleasant surprise in Orlando. It’s hard not to take serious joy from watching the two play off of each other:

Another key in this one, aside from defense, was actually an offensive problem: Dallas didn’t get nearly enough looks at the rim, whether through cuts or drives, and didn’t hit enough threes to make up for it. The Mavericks got just 18 attempts at the rim, tied for their eighth-lowest number this season, and took 48 threes. That Dallas takes a lot of threes is nothing new, but it’s alarming that three of their 15 worst games in terms of attempts at the rim this season have come against Los Angeles. The Clippers are really, really good at shutting off the paint for the Mavs and forcing Dallas to shoot over the top of them. Sometimes this works out for Dallas:

And sometimes it doesn’t, as evidenced by Trey Burke going 0-for-7 from downtown:

Had the Mavs shot a little better from downtown, the final margin may have been closer, but until Dallas can break the Clippers open at the rim, they’re either going to have to find more stops or hit more threes, neither of which is exactly easy to do.

August 7: Boston Celtics 122, Toronto Raptors 100

This game was mostly over by halftime and 100% over late in the third quarter, so I have no real notes on the final 10 minutes or so of this game. The Raptors didn’t lead once, trailed by as many as 40, and generally had such a hilariously bad night that I think Nick Nurse should simply forget this game ever happened. In all seriousness, what are the chances of the Raptors playing this bad again? The Celtics got better shots, Toronto’s starters couldn’t hit anything at all, and it was a pretty mortifying night for any Toronto fan hoping for a statement win. It wasn’t even like the Celtics had a dominant outing by any one starter – they were simply dominant as a team and every starter minus Gordon Hayward looked pretty great.

The Celts didn’t necessarily have some sort of wild shooting night from downtown – 13-for-35 from three pre-garbage time – but they were hyper-efficient on twos and shot well enough on threes that it didn’t matter. If forced to name a starter, Jaylen Brown probably had the most impressive night:

But it wasn’t about the starters on this night as much as it was about three important, impressive bench outings from Brad Wanamaker, Semi Ojeleye, and Robert Williams III. All three have proved frustrating offensively throughout the season, and the first two in particular seem to be consistent sources of annoyance for the more online faction of Celtics fans. (They have an odd fascination with Williams III that I really appreciate, though.) Wanamaker has altered his shot selection in the bubble, driving to the rim more. It hadn’t worked out for him very well, but in this game, he couldn’t be stopped:

Ojeleye was probably the worst member of the Celtics rotation this year, and a lot of fans appear to want him gone. This is entirely fair, as, yes, he was awful for most of the season. However, some amount of bench potential does seem to be there:

Lastly, the Timelord. Robert Williams III is most known for his defense, where he picked up blocks and steals at a ridiculous rate in limited minutes this season. It continues to be a little weird to me that Brad Stevens doesn’t give him more time on the court, but that may simply be the price he pays for being unlucky enough to back up Daniel Theis, one of the most underrated players in basketball. (For what it’s worth, Enes Kanter is better than Boston fans give him credit for.) When Williams gets on the floor, it’s becoming must-watch television:

The guy got ten points and four rebounds in barely 11 minutes of action and held his opponents to 2-for-7 from the field against him. I badly wish he played more, because he’s a small-sample superstar. He’s with the team for at least two more seasons; hopefully, he’ll break into the lineup more often.

There were only a couple truly useful points from this game, and one of them was the defensive strategies for both teams being so similar. Both Boston and Toronto aimed to lock up the rim, forcing their opponent to shoot over the top of them. For Boston, this meant being fine with a lot of 6-10 foot attempts from the Raptors as well as non-corner threes; for Toronto, this was more about forcing Boston out to the three-point line, a place where they’re above-average but not necessarily elite. Boston’s plan worked out perfectly, while Toronto’s…did not. Prior to garbage time, the Raptors had just 15 attempts at the rim, significantly below what they’d normally have through three quarters. Now, to be fair, Toronto hit 10 of their 21 short mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass:

In this sense, they survived. But in another, they failed miserably. Toronto took 21 of their 26 threes from the wing or the top of the key, and they hit…well, buddy, they hit two of ’em. Two whole threes. Two.

Seeing as Toronto has been one of the five best three-point shooting teams for most of this season, you can write this off easily as an aberration on the offensive end. It was simply a brutal, brutal night where they couldn’t hit open shots at all. However, the¬†other¬†end of this is probably something worth keeping an eye on: per PBPStats.com, two of Toronto’s nine lowest outputs at the rim this season came against the Celtics, as well as two of their four highest short mid-range frequencies. The December 28th Celtics/Raptors game, which seems like it was 15 years ago at this point, seems particularly instructive for how this game can swing both ways. Toronto won that game easily, 113-97, but Boston had one of its worst shooting nights of the season because Toronto did a much better job of forcing tougher threes.

About those threes: remember when I discussed in the restart preview Toronto’s odd proclivity for allowing opponents to take as many corner threes as they’d like? You saw last night how much of an area of exploitation this can be for the right opponent. Boston¬†did¬†hit just 13 of 35 threes pre-garbage time, but only five of those came above the break. The Celtics shot 8-for-12 on corner threes because Toronto is prone to conceding a lot of these looks:

The Celts weren’t good at all on above-the-break threes – 5-for-23 – so it makes no sense as to why Toronto allows these shots. They’re still the most efficient three-point shot in basketball, and it’s an odd dare by Nick Nurse. I completely understand any “you’ll have to shoot over us” philosophy, but it’s why I prefer the Bucks’ style on this front. Milwaukee ranks¬†below¬†the league average in percentage of corner threes to above-the-break threes despite allowing the third-highest opponent three-point attempt rate in basketball. Budenholzer forces his opponents to take less-efficient threes on the whole, and I’m afraid it could be the source of Toronto’s exit whenever it does happen.