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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Clippers Game 1

It's only upward from here.
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The Clippers had little trouble getting what they wanted on offense against Dallas. Jayne Kamin-Oncea

The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What We Saw

I felt this would be a trap game, but I didn’t expect the Mavericks to fall into the trap as soon as the game started.

Once it became official that Kawhi Leonard would miss the game, I knew the tables would turn. The Mavericks would be in the favorite’s position, and the Clippers would come out swinging, playing with force, adopting a “prove everyone wrong” mentality. I figured the key would be for the Mavericks to start the game focused, to match their wounded opponent’s physicality. They did neither.

Each of the first three quarters began with possessions that were a testament to that. In the first quarter, Dallas led off the game by allowing an offensive rebound, then watching Ivica Zubac dominate Daniel Gafford in the paint to start the first quarter. The Mavs lost Russell Westbrook on a botched switch for an easy dunk to start the second. James Harden shoved off Derrick Jones Jr. on his way to an open three to open the third. 

For good measure, P.J. Washington (who otherwise held his own defending Paul George) made two mental mistakes on key after-timeout plays in the fourth quarter. He lost sight of George on a cut for an easy dunk on the first one, then miscommunicated on a switch for an open Harden three. Dallas couldn’t afford either mistake at a time when it was just inching back into the game.

Between those lapses was the worst half you’ll ever see these Mavericks play: a collection of missed open threes, layups, and even dunks to fuel a total of just 30 points scored before halftime. Even Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving looked shaken and out of ideas against the mix of defenses that Clippers coach Tyronn Lue threw at them, while no one from their supporting cast demonstrated any confidence or readiness to pick up the slack.

Dončić and Irving won’t have another half like this. They will bounce back. In fact, they did just that in the second half by scoring 47 points on 16 of 25 shooting, possibly finding some cracks in the Clippers’ scheme by attacking their bigs in empty-side pick-and-roll actions along the way. And as disappointing as the Mavericks’ lack of force and attention to detail were, we’ve seen this team rebound much better than yesterday, to say nothing of all the times they’ve come out swinging and flying. We’ve been touting the newfound athleticism on this team. Now Gafford, Derrick Lively II, Jones Jr., Washington, Dante Exum, and Josh Green (who showed some flashes yesterday) need to use it to impose their will and make their mark on the series.

Because instead of alleviating some doubts, last night only deepened my two biggest concerns about the Mavericks’ supporting cast going into this series. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

You didn’t expect it to be simple, did you? 

Four-season-old demons don’t slay easily, not even by teams powered by the league’s most formidable one-two scoring punch and its hottest defense, with vibes as sunny as the Clippers’ are sullen. They damn sure are not put down by whatever the Mavericks ran out in the first half, in what’s best described as the worst playoff effort by a Dallas professional sports team since the last one

So, no, the Clippers will not go quietly. And Sunday felt like a game that will only make their war cry ring several decibels louder, given how Los Angeles demolished the Mavericks without Leonard, the superstar who dominated the seven-game slugfest back in 2021.  

But if we know anything about these new Mavericks, it’s that Dallas isn’t meek, either. Dwell less on the basketball nadir that was the first 24 minutes, because no outfit is inept enough to deliver back-to-back games with single-digit scoring in a quarter and under 25 percent shooting in a half. Focus instead on the second half, which Dallas won through downsizing—recall how effective the Washington-Maxi Kleber tandem has been defensively—and doubling down on Dončić’s and Irving’s firepower, with the latter delivering a third quarter right in line with his brilliant best. The finish was far more indicative of who these Mavericks are than the start.

But it’s still a ways from where they must be to win this series. The Mavericks cannot weather frigid first halves from both superstars, and perhaps not even one. The supporting cast’s high-water mark must be far better than Washington’s inefficient 11 points. Should Jason Kidd prefer Kleber’s spacing to Gafford and Lively’s size, the head coach will need an antidote for Zubac, the former Dončić whipping boy who mauled Dallas on the interior. And then there’s the Leonard of it all. No matter what condition the 32-year-old returns in, he changes the geometry of the series.  

It didn’t take long for the Mavericks to crash into their floor. Whether or not they get back into the series depends on how close they’ve come to brushing against their ceiling. —Mike Piellucci

Authors

Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…
Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…
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