If the Los Angeles Clippers manage to reach the NBA Finals this season (and let’s be honest, given the franchise’s recent and not-so-recent history, even just being runner-up should probably suffice) they will first have to get past the Dallas Mavericks in the opening round, set to kick off this afternoon in Los Angeles
The rematch of last year’s first-round, which L.A. won in six games despite the heroics of Dallas’ young superstar Luka Doncic, is widely expected to go the Clippers way, and The Athletic’s John Hollinger is not about to say otherwise.
Hollinger, formerly the president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, predicts the Clippers will win in five games, mostly on the strength of their superior depth and talent, but he has doubts about L.A.’s strategy to close out the regular season games and their overall chances of winning the West.
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Hollinger Deems Clips ‘Deeper, Tougher and More Skilled”
While Hollinger believes the Dallas-L.A. series is a compelling one — in part because the Mavs destroyed the Clippers (who were without Kawhi Leonard) by 51 points in the first week of the regular season, and because of Doncic’s “sideshow” with Marcus Morris from the last year’s playoffs — he doesn’t necessarily see it being all that competitive.
The Clippers with Leonard and Paul George in the lineup were awesome this year, with a plus-17.5 margin in their minutes together and a 32-11 record in those games. The league’s most torrid shooting team, L.A. made 41.1 percent of its 3s and 83.9% from the line, both league-leading figures. The Clippers didn’t shoot a high volume of 3s, as they often opted to burn opponents from midrange instead; four key Clippers (Leonard, George, Morris and Serge Ibaka) shot 45 percent or better on long 2s, and they did it on high volume.
Hollinger contrasts the Clippers shooting and scoring prowess to Dallas’s lack thereof outside of Doncic, making L.A.’s defensive strategy an obvious one.
“The lack of a reliable secondary creator around Doncic, as well as the iffy shooting (Dallas was 18th in 3-point percentage), should once again make it easy for the Clips to load up on Luka,” writes Hollinger.
Further limiting Dallas’ offense, it’s likely the Mavs will be without veteran sharpshooter JJ Redick for the entirely of the series, as the 15-year veteran deals with a sore heel that has kept him sidelined since May 11.
Meanwhile, defensively for Dallas, Hollinger highlights the inside presence of big men Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber, but says that although they offer “lots of rim protection,” the “Clippers’ offensive style tends to make that irrelevant.”
Of course, Porzingis is not just a rim protector. The 7-foot-3 center can fill it up both inside and out. But the big-bodied Zubac has fared reasonably well against Porzingis in the past, and Ibaka has the length and foot speed to guard him outside of the paint. Health is also a concern when it comes to Porzingis, who missed the back half of last year’s Clippers series and has struggled with knee soreness throughout this season.
All in all, Hollinger views the Clippers’ well-roundness as something that ultimately makes the Clippers “deeper, tougher and more skilled” than the Mavericks.
“On paper, the Clippers have it all,” writes Hollinger. “They can play big or small. They have two huge, ballhandling wings who can check almost any opponent. They have a backcourt rottweiler in Patrick Beverley, a strong big rotation with Ibaka and Ivica Zubac, and several random reliable vets they can throw into games and count on.” Presumably, those random vets include Rajon Rondo, Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson.
End-of-Season Strategy Questioned
As high as Hollinger is on the Clippers against Dallas, Hollinger is skeptical of Clippers head coach Ty Lue’s decision to rest his starters for the final two games of the season, against league doormats Houston and Oklahoma City, both of which they lost.
Losing those games meant that the Clippers avoided playing the Lakers until the Western Conference finals, but Hollinger believes that could come back to bite them, given where the Lakers could be down the line, that the Clippers now line up with the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz, and the fact that they ceded home-court advantage to one particular juggernaut from the East.
The Clippers beat Phoenix twice and narrowly lost to them when Kawhi Leonard was out. Conversely, they lost to Utah twice, and the one win was by the skin of their teeth.
So … remind me again why they tanked themselves into the more difficult side of the bracket (and barely even accomplished that, given how close Golden State was to beating the Lakers), so they could face a team that beat them by 51 in the first week of the season? And “tanked” is the correct word here — you don’t lose consecutive games to the Rockets and Thunder without putting some effort into it.
The Clippers have title aspirations, and one can argue that A) facing the Lakers earlier is better than facing them later if they were going to face them anyway, and B) they might regret not having home court in a potential NBA Finals against the Nets, which they would have earned with wins in the final two games.
Hollinger certainly has a point in all those regards. But he fails to acknowledge that the Clippers, who have been dogged all season by the memory of fumbling a 3-1 series lead against Denver in last year’s second round, could benefit psychologically from an easier opponent to start things off.
Soundly beating Dallas, as Hollinger suggests they will do, could give them a boost of confidence heading into the later rounds, as opposed to being thrown right into the fire against a now-healthy Lakers squad. Not only that, the Dallas series could give Lue and his staff a little more time to suss out their rotations following a chaotic, injury-riddled season.