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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Clippers, Game 4

Almost doesn't count.
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The Mavericks' thrilling comeback came up just short. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

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

The start of this one mirrored Game 1, when the Clippers jumped on the Mavericks early, built a huge lead, and shot lights out. Except this time, it was even more extreme thanks to the Clippers’ absurd shooting. After hitting 50 percent from three-point range in Game 1, Paul George, James Harden, and the rest of the Clippers crew sank nearly every contested three, finishing with a staggering 62 percent from beyond the arc. 

That left the Mavericks to attempt a comeback of historic proportions, and they nearly pulled it off, too. The formula was the same: play in-your-face defense, get stops, push the tempo, and wait for Kyrie Irving to explode. And compared to the Kyrie grenades in the prior three games, this was a nuclear bomb. After being held scoreless for the first 18 minutes, Irving exploded for 40 points in the remaining half-hour of the game, almost single-handedly dragging the Mavericks to the finish line. In the end, the energy expended to catch up to the Clippers ran out before crunch time, leaving the Mavericks out of gas and out of ideas on how to stop Harden, who torched every defender he faced on timely drives with maddening floaters.

But as frustrating as it was to watch, the end of the game wasn’t the problem. The start was. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. And the Mavericks and Luka Dončić are trying to hammer down the Clippers’ defense using the same pick-and-roll tactic despite it being obvious that the slow, deliberate style that makes Dončić so great—magnified by the lack of spacing and shooting—is precisely what the Clippers defend best. A hobbled Dončić cannot get by the Clippers’ wall playing this way. He can only shoot over it, except his legs and the step back are not there to do that.

The remainder of the series could be the ultimate test of maturity for Dončić. Can he make a different kind of step back—one where he embraces the Mavericks playing faster, creating offense through defense, and Irving attacking first to tilt the wall the other way? Dallas needs to change the court’s geometry: alter the floor balance, attack faster and from various angles—not just from the top—because that is precisely what the Clippers’ defensive scheme is designed to counter. And to achieve that, he will need to give up the ball and trust that he’ll get it back, along with much better angles to attack. 

It would be his ultimate adaptation in a season filled with many. It might be the one needed to get his team out of this bloodbath of a series alive. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

“Rollercoaster” doesn’t really do it justice. This felt more like the first few seconds of bungee jumping. The Mavericks opened the game by falling off a cliff. They recoiled and flew back up, only to ultimately end up how they spent most of the game: trailing. 

There are coaching and lineup decisions that will be debated, head-scratching offensive possessions late in the game to discuss. But let’s start here: it felt like the Clippers couldn’t miss, because they couldn’t. L.A. outperformed its expected return on shot quality at the highest rate of any team thus far in this postseason. So while it’s easy to focus on the barrage of floaters that Harden hit to close the game out, the other option would have been forcing him into shooting the threes he was hitting approximately one million percent of.

Dončić was a game-time decision as he continues to battle a knee injury. And while he was never going to miss this game, it’s not one he would have played in during the regular season. His drives lacked force and purpose. His attempts from deep were flat and lifeless. His defense, transformed into a plus this season, was atrocious for much of yesterday. Early foul trouble makes it nearly impossible for a player like Dončić to be effective on that end of the floor. It’s likely his limited mobility is the culprit for the fouling, but the Clippers know this.

We can be certain the Clippers will not exhibit that degree of shot-making again in this series. We cannot, though, be certain that we will see Dončić close to 100 percent again. Irving exhibited his offensive sorcery and fueled the Mavericks’ historic comeback, and Dallas might need to lean on Irving a bit more to begin the game to avoid digging themselves into the core of the Earth.

The start of Game 5 feels like it will tell us everything we need to know about this team and its coaching staff. If the Mavs appear demoralized and mentally absent, perhaps they were never the team poised for the deep playoff run so many of us became convinced they were capable of. In addition to wrinkles to jumpstart the offense with Dončić hampered, Jason Kidd and his staff must keep this team convinced it can win this series. 

The emotional whirlwind of yesterday’s letdown will expose the collective DNA of the team. That might sound dramatic, but losses like this can linger with a group beyond that particular season or series. Dallas doesn’t have to win Wednesday night. But it can’t look like a team that lost the series Sunday afternoon, either. —Jake Kemp

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…
Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…
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