6:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Clippers -4.5, Over/Under: 228
A likely preview of the First Round of the Playoffs is on tap from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, as the Los Angeles Clippers look to bounce back against the Dallas Mavericks. Few teams in the league underwent as much change in the Offseason as the Clippers (45-22, 2nd in Western Conference), who by now we all know managed to add the likes of not one, but two All-Stars to their ranks, changing the landscape out West with the additions of Kawhi Leonard (26.8 PTS, 46.7% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.8 STL, 26.7 PER) and Paul Geroge (21.4 PTS, 43.6% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 21.0 PER). Armed with a pair of All-NBA talents, a championship-winning Head Coach in the form of Doc Rivers, and a supporting cast that they managed to keep largely intact following those massive transactions, it’s only natural that Los Angeles was considered by many as a legitimate candidate for a Larry O’Brien Trophy, which would be the first in the history of the franchise. However, it needs to be said that when we look back on the 2019-2020 campaign, which has been most unusual by all measures, was this team ever truly able to come together? Injuries, rehab from surgery, and load management have prevented both Leonard and George from sharing the court together for long stretches of time, and just when they appeared to be hitting their stride following the All-Star Break, the entire league was shutdown indefinitely due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Now four months later in the bubble environment created in Orlando, they’ll have to pick up the pieces once more, with only a scant few weeks left before the Playoffs.
We’ve spoke at length in this blog before in regards to the chemistry between the aforementioned Leonard and George, and the lack of time that they’ve spent playing together to cultivate it; the two All-Stars have only spent 833:40 on the hardwood together, which is the sixth-most frequent two-man lineup that Rivers have utilized this season. Ever since he missed all but nine games of the 2017-2018 campaign with various ailments, Leonard has been on a load management plan to monitor his minutes, which worked wonders for the Toronto Raptors last year as he led them to their first NBA Championship, capturing Finals MVP honors in the process. George, on the other hand, underwent offseason surgery to repair a nagging shoulder injury suffered in the season prior, bringing the grand total of games missed by the two stars to thirty-five games. Of course, this is the frustrating part for the Clippers, who have been pretty damn good this term even without a full complement of weapons; offensively, they rank Fourth Overall in Points (116.1), Eighth Overall in Three-Point Percentage (37.0%), and First Overall in both Free-Throws Attempted (26.4) and Made (20.9). Furthermore, they finally looked like a well-oiled machine following the All-Star Break in which they went 7-2, hammering the opposition by an average margin of 12.0 Points per Game before play was suspended. During that four-month layoff, they added the talents of veterans such as Marcus Morris (9.3 PTS, 40.0% FG, 28.8% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.9 BLK, 7.6 PER), Reggie Jackson (9.6 PTS, 49.4% FG, 44.2% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 3.2 AST, 14.8 PER), and Joakim Noah (2.5 PTS, 4.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 13.8 PER) in lieu of the postseason, though also saw three-time Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams (18.5 PTS, 41.5% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 5.7 AST, 0.7 STL, 17.1 PER), draw unwanted criticism in breaking safety protocol in leaving the bubble to go to a strip club. The veteran’s extracurricular activities aside (he hasn’t been suspended by the club or league, for what it’s worth), Los Angeles has also been without young Forward, Montrezl Harrell (18.6 PTS, 58.0% FG, 7.1 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 23.2 PER), who has yet rejoin the team due to personal reasons.
Since the restart, the Clippers haven’t gotten off to the most convincing of starts, losing two of their first three contests in Orlando, though a deeper dive into their performance thus far will tell us that they could very well be 3-0. Both losses were decided by late-game heroics from the opposition, with the Lakers’ LeBron James following his own miss in the waning moments of last Thursday’s affair to put in a late layup to earn a 103-101 victory, while in Tuesday’s disappointing 115-117 defeat it was Devin Booker’s turn, with the sharpshooting Guard nailing a contested turnaround from just beyond the elbow as time expired. Seriously, there were as many three defenders all over him, and he still managed to steal the victory for Phoenix. Sandwiched between those outings is a 23-Point Win over the Pelicans, which leaves us to believe that they simply haven’t been very fortunate in the stages of these Seeding Games. With that said, it could be viewed as a microcosm of their season thus far: we’re all aware of their quality, for the statistics tell us so, but they’ve nevertheless struggled to seal the deal. And now it’s become an issue of the Standings, for with Tuesday’s loss Los Angeles only leads the Nuggets by a single game, which is significant when you consider matchups; as of now, the Clippers will be matched up with their opponent tonight, the Mavericks, but falling to the Third Seed would set up a wealth of possibilities, including the current Sixth Seed, the Thunder, or maybe even the Jazz. Given their track record, one would have to think that Dallas would be the most preferred of matchups, given that in two meetings they’ve managed to handle them with relative ease, outscoring them by an average margin of 9.0 Points despite shooting a meager 39.6% from the field. Leonard has been essential in those contests, averaging 32.0 Points on 46.0% shooting, along with 9.5 Rebounds and 3.5 Assists, all the while hounding the Mavs’ stellar Sophomore, Luka Doncic (more on him shortly), on the defensive end.
Meanwhile, for all intents and purposes the Mavericks (41-29, 7th in Western Conference) are locked into the Seventh Seed out West, and will await the Second Seed, whomever that may be, in the first round of the Playoffs. With five Seeding Games to go before the postseason begins, Dallas sits 2.5 Games behind the Houston Rockets for the Sixth Seed, and a comfortable 8.5 ahead of whomever winds up with the Eighth, which means that they will likely continue to use the remainder of their schedule in an attempt to for conditioning and recapturing momentum. From Rick Carlisle’s perspective, it would be nice if they also learned how to properly close, for his young charges have certainly developed a bad habit of failing to close out their opponents of late. The Mavs are 1-2 during the restart, with all three outings decided by four points or less. Then again, this really hasn’t been anything new for them, for they’ve participated in a whopping twenty-four games thus far that have been decided no more than four points, and their record in said affairs is just 8-16 (.333). And that is precisely how you have a team with an overall point differential of Plus-6.8, which suggests a far better record than what they’ve earned to this point, owning the thirteenth-best record in the league.
In the Opener against the Rockets, the Mavericks exploded for a a staggering EIGHTY-FIVE Points in the First Half, and despite carrying a 119-108 lead into the final frame were nonetheless outscored 30-45 in the Fourth Quarter and Overtime en route to a 149-153 defeat. Two nights later against the Phoenix Suns, they once again blew a large lead (73-60 at Halftime), in which they were overwhelmed in the Third Quarter (19-36), tilting the momentum in favor of their opponent. Even Tuesday’s 114-110 victory over the Sacramento Kings, their first since the restart, felt like merely surviving, though this time they would play the role of the side coming back from a large deficit. Carlisle’s charges fell behind early, trailing 27-37 at the end of the first stanza, and managed to overcome a very poor showing offensively in which they shot a miserable 36.7% from the field, including 9-of-41 from beyond the arc (22.0%), and committed Seventeen Turnovers in comparison to dishing out Twenty-Two Assists. The key here was their constant work on the glass, in which they outrebounded the Kings 61-47, particularly on the offensive end of the floor where they collected an impressive Seventeen Offensive Rebounds, and their ability to get to the Charity Stripe, where they owned one of the largest disparities in recent memory. Seriously folks, this differential was WAY out of balance, with the Mavericks stepping the to the line for a ridiculous FIFTY Free-Throw Attempts, knocking down Thirty-Nine, while their counterparts shot 8-of-12, parlaying to a commanding advantage of Thirty-One Points. The quartet of Luka Doncic (29.0 PTS, 46.2% FG, 31.2% 3FG, 9.5 REB, 8.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 27.5 PER), Kristaps Porzingis (19.9 PTS, 42.2% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 9.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 2.1 BLK, 19.9 PER), Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.8 PTS, 43.3% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 2.0 AST, 14.7 PER), and Dorian Finney-Smith (9.3 PTS, 45.8% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 1.6 AST, 12.0 PER) shot a combined 32-of-39, with Porzingis outscoring Sacramento all by himself in that regard. Doncic and Finney-Smith accounted for Twenty and Sixteen Rebounds to boot, with the latter also adding Sixteen Points for what was only the eighth Double-Double of his young career.
With all that said though, the man of the match was undoubtedly Doncic, who placed his name in the history books with yet another prolific performance, totaling Thirty-Four Points, Twenty Rebounds, and Twelve Assists, becoming just the fourth player to put together a 30/20/10 stat line since the NBA/ABA Merger in 1976. Of course, at this point performances like this have begun to be common for the Sophomore sensation, who has taken an exponentially dramatic leap forward in just his second year in the NBA. The young Slovenian has exhibited a skill-set beyond his years, including mobility and playmaking talents unique for his size, along with shooting, particularly in the clutch, that make you forget that he’s only 21-Years Old. Furthermore, Tuesday’s Triple-double was his sixteenth of the campaign, which is the most in the Association this season. From the looks of things, it appears that Dallas must continue to rely heavily on Doncic, for this is a team that has been dealt some heavier losses since the restart; the Mavs lost both Dwight Powell (Achilles) and Courtney Lee (Calf) to season-ending injuries, along with second-year Point Guard, Jalen Brunson (Shoulder) and Backup Center, Willie Cauley-Stein (Personal), while sharpshooting Guard, Seth Curry (12.5 PTS, 49.7% FG, 45.0% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 2.0 AST, 15.8 PER), is listed as Doubtful for tonight’s affair with a sore leg. Simply put, this is a team that sorely lacks depth, and will only progress as far as their young star will take them.