Heading into a series between the two and the seven seed, it’s usually seen as unlikely that the seven seed will really have enough to bridge the gap. The young Dallas Mavericks have surprised many, and after four games they are tied with the Clippers 2-2. The Clippers are many people’s championship favourite, whereas the Mavs have been seen as too young to compete by many, notably because of their poor record in the clutch. Through four games, it’s very feasible to argue that the Mavericks have been the better team in the series. Luka Doncic gets the majority of the plaudits for this, but Rick Carlisle’s coaching has been masterful.
After game two, Doc Rivers adjusted the Clippers defensive scheme by having their center guard either Dorian Finney-Smith or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Two players who generally just play off-ball and spot-up. Kawhi Leonard usually plays on Maxi Kleber, which allows him to roam as a free safety in the passing lanes. This adjustment allows either Ivica Zubac or Montrezl Harrell to sit deep in the paint and not be pulled out by the Mavericks pick-and-pop offense. It also allowed for an extra man to deter Doncic’s drives to the rim. Rick Carlisle returned in game four with a defensive tactic of his own- doubling Kawhi Leonard in the post.
This adjustment will be discussed later, but Rick Carlisle has bridged the gap between these two rosters with some excellent tactical ideas that have caused the Clippers issues, especially on the defensive end.
Guard Screens and attacking weak defenders
When choosing your NBA Champion, you have to be highly critical of the teams at the top. It seems harsh nit-picking on a 50-win team, but the reality is at the very top level any weakness you have will be magnified and exposed. The main knock people had on the Clippers was that there are multiple poor defenders you can target. Lou Williams, Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell are the three Clippers who the Mavericks have been targeting. The main way they have been doing this is by using their guards in ball screen actions and forcing the Clippers to switch. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris are all comfortable switching, but Shamet and Williams struggle and are often caught out, as you can see below.
In early offense, Tim Hardaway stands in the corner. Often, Dallas will run ‘Miami’ Action, which is a hand-off straight into a ball screen. On this occasion, Hardaway screens Lou Williams and causes chaos. Lou tries to stay attached to Hardaway but Leonard wants the switch. Trey Burke takes advantage of this muddle-up and steps into an easy mid-range jump shot. The Clippers try and ‘hide’ Williams on an off-ball player almost every possession but Dallas’ offense is so versatile with every player staying involved, so it’s very hard for LA to hide him in this particular series. On the play below, the Mavericks target Landry Shamet.
Dallas has run this play regularly in the Post-season and throughout the year. Tim Hardaway ‘ghost’ screens for Luka Doncic and then receives an extra screen from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for a good look from three. Ghost screens are hard to defend anyway because teams will generally react to a screen by pre-getting into their PnR defense as opposed to staying attached. The extra screen from Kidd-Gilchrist makes this what we call a ‘screen the screener’ action. Shamet gets a solid recovery but this is still an action that creates good looks for Dallas which is how you win a series. They isolated the weakest defender and made him fight hard.
In game four, the Mavericks used this less frequently because they found other mismatches. But they did still run it on occasion, such as below.
The Mavericks once again clear out a side of the floor for a two-man game between their two guards. This time, Shamet blitzes Luka Doncic as he doesn’t want to drop and switch. Tim Hardaway darts backdoor for the layup. Rick Carlisle is the best in the League at milking every possibility from an offensive play and this is one of many examples of this.
Dallas also has tried to isolate the Clippers weakest defenders by clearing out one side of the floor. They do this below in ‘iverson’ action which is where a player cuts across the top of the key, usually to the elbow in Iverson’s playing days but often to the three-point line in the analytics-driven era.
On this play, the Mavericks run this Iverson action to get Tim Hardaway on Landry Shamet, who is the weakest Clippers defender in this particular lineup. Hardaway then intiates a PnR with Porzingis who pops to ensure that Kawhi Leonard can’t help. Shamet has some potential promise as a defender but he’s the one Dallas are going to target. He blows past Shamet for the layup.
Dallas has also attempted to isolate the Williams-Harrell duo in pick-and-rolls. They generally do this by intiating Porzingis in a pick-and-roll as he will always draw one of Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. On the occasion below, a simple ball reversal after a pick-and-roll does the trick.
They ‘ghost’ screen and Burke takes advantage of two poor defenders and ghosts in for a pick-and-roll. The Mavericks do the same below to the same two players to generate an easy pull-up look for Seth Curry.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell have a defensive rating of 139.8 so far in the Playoffs. I’m generally not a fan of lineup stats, especially on a small sample size. But the numbers match what I see on the film. They are being isolated and picked on, especially Harrell.
Countering Rivers’ game three adjustment:
As noted previously, Doc Rivers responded to a Luka masterclass in game two by putting their drop bigs on a wing and having Kawhi Leonard and Paul George guard the ‘bigs’. The idea was that Zubac could leave someone such as Dorian Finney-Smith open and instead stay in the paint to deter Luka Doncic’s drives. Carlisle’s counter in this game was relatively simple, he actually began to use Dorian Finney-Smith in pick-and-roll actions. In game three, Finney-Smith was generally anchored to the perimeter as he normally is. But this meant Ivica Zubac could play deep in drop as the Clippers have long defenders capable of recovering. By putting Finney-Smith in screening actions, Zubac was occupied inside the arc or above the break in ways he was not in game three. The play below is an example of this.
Dallas moves the ball up and runs a very simple spread-pick-and-roll with two shooters on one side and Finney-Smith in a two-man game with Doncic. Finney-Smith being the roller means that Zubac is unable to just be a helper like he had been in game three. Luka fires an insane pass out to Tim Hardaway for a three. Finney-Smith isn’t a threat on the roll but the design of this play is to force help rotations as Luka is just too skilled to be left one on one with a big like he is here. Dallas wasn’t thinking of Finney-Smith ever scoring on the roll, they just wanted to have Zubac in on-ball defense as opposed to off-ball.
Dallas also ran some double drag with Finney-Smith as one of the screeners.
Again, Finney-Smith isn’t much of a roll threat. But the simple presence of this action forces Harrell to be engaged on the ball as opposed to being able help off a shooter. Trey Burke has been magnificent in this series and hits the pull-up jumper over Harrell who simply isn’t a comfortable defender at the moment as Dallas has so many wrinkles in their playbook to take advantage of poor defenders.
On the play above, Dallas runs a very quick PnR with Luka and Finney-Smith. Luka gets isolated on Zubac and the Clippers are confused. George and Kawhi try to pass off the responsibility of defending Kleber and he ghosts in between them for the lay up. The Mavericks’ insistence on involving the Clippers center in the pick-and-roll game.
On the occasion below, Dallas punished the Clippers drop coverage by forcing the perimeter defenders to fight through multiple screens.
Dallas uses Dorian Finney-Smith as a screener in the pick-and-roll. He pops to set a screen for Tim Hardaway and then pops to the perimeter again as he knows Zubac will remain anchored in the paint as the Mavericks initial Pick-and-roll initiated him into on-ball defense. Tim Hardaway gets blitzed, so he dumps it off to DFS for the easy three.
Dallas trailed by 20 at one point, but they got back into the game largely because of Boban Marjanovic giving them some valuable minutes. He was plus 11, which was good for third behind Trey Burke and Luka Doncic. The Clippers switch very often and the kryptonite for switching teams is size. Boban is the biggest player in the NBA, and one of the more valuable tactical weapons off the bench in the entire NBA.
Dallas’ offense with Boban was simple. They ran spread-pick-and-rolls. If the switch came, Boban received the ball in the post, usually against Marcus Morris who has been tasked with defending Luka.
Dallas utilised Boban as another way of countering Rivers’ adjustment in game three.
Harrell remains anchored to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the perimeter. Boban simply posts up Marcus Morris and hits the turnaround jumper.
This size caused the Clippers to adjust, which unlocked Dallas’ pick-and-roll defense.
Having to watch Luka Doncic attacking downhill after he puts his man in jail, and having a 7’4 monster behind you, is horrible for Montrezl Harrell to have to deal with.
Boban’s size means he dictates matchups. The Clippers had to change what they were doing simply because of his size and his physical dominance. Carlisle’s gameplan was to simply destroy Rivers’ plan of being able to leave his bigs on a mediocre offensive player to give extra help against Luka Doncic. This opened up Dallas’ drive and kick game. Even when Boban was not getting shots or touches, he majorly impacted the game because the Clippers had to pretty much revert to the norm while he was on the court.
Doubling Kawhi Leonard
So, Kawhi Leonard still had a relatively good game in game four. But it’s clear that Dallas’ insistence on doubling him when possible drastically affected the Clippers in the half-court. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Clippers offensive rating on half-court attempts and possessions was 95.9. To put this into perspective, their offensive rating in the half-court in games 1-3 was 105.2. Dallas changed the outlook of the series with this adjustment. It’s effectiveness can be seen on the play below.
LA runs a pick-and-roll between Leonard and Paul George. Dallas doesn’t stay attached to George and instead front Kawhi Leonard. Dallas has a third player ready to help on Paul George when possible. Kawhi has to give the ball up and Paul George shoots a tough three as Seth Curry closes out quickly. The speed of Curry’s closeouts shows that Dallas worked on this defensive plan in practice, this was not a random occurrence.
They execute the plan on the play below out of a more freelance look from LA.
Paul George’s path gets blocked off and with the way he is playing at the moment, he simply doesn’t have the assertion to attack these defenders. This is worrying given the fact Dallas are not really known for lockdown perimeter defense outside of Maxi Kleber and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He passes the ball to Kawhi Leonard. Dallas brings a double blitz which does two things. Firstly, it puts him off. But secondly and perhaps most importantly, it means he cant pump fake and take a step to his left because the second defender is there. The Clippers can neutralise this with better spacing. This is not functional spacing because there is no consequence for Trey Burke doubling as there are four players stood on one side of the court.
Dallas double him below after a sideline out of bounds play. The Clippers generally go to Kawhi down low on these and have a variety of concepts they use to optimise it.
This play illustrates how locked in Dallas were on this concept. Kawhi splits the double but Luka Doncic is able to tag the first pass away, but he jumps to block the second passing lane to Reggie Jackson at the top of the key. Being able to defend multiple options at once is the key to thriving in team defense while executing double teams. The Clippers players are all stationary on the three-point line. The Mavericks force another turnover on the play below.
Kawhi takes it to the block and goes for an isolation post-up against Maxi Kleber. Trey Burke comes for the double and jumps to disrupt Kawhi’s pass. The Clippers spacing on this play is not ideal. Marcus Morris is under the rim and Lou Williams is hanging around in mid-range. Landry Shamet isn’t in a place he can receive the ball, and Paul George is sat too deep.
If the Mavericks come with doubles again, and I’d expect them to, the Clippers need to space the floor better. It may seem harsh for some to see me critique an offense that put up 133 points. But the Clippers scored 10 less points per 100 possessions in the half-court than they did in the previous three games. This wasn’t down to luck or them missing good looks, Rick Carlisle’s adjustment massively disrupted their offensive game.
On the whole, Rick Carlisle has coached an excellent series. Dallas have had some bad luck go against them, but his coaching and adjustments have bridged the gap more than I’ve seen any lower seed able to bridge the gap on a higher seed in recent years.