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The Clippers Looked Destined For Another Early Exit. How Did They Turn It Around?

Just a few short days ago, the Los Angeles Clippers were well on their way to a second consecutive early playoff exit. The Clippers had blown a 3-1 second-round series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the NBA bubble last season — an embarrassing defeat that led to the franchise parting ways with former head coach Doc Rivers — and were already trailing the Dallas Mavericks 2-0 in their first-round series. (This after losing their final two regular-season games to bottom-of-the-league opponents, assuring themselves of this matchup and avoiding the defending champion Lakers.)

Worse yet, the Clippers got off to a horrendous start to Game 3. When Paul George missed a pull-up jumper over Kristaps Porziņģis with 4:28 remaining in the first quarter, the Clippers were already trailing 30-11. L.A. was just 4 of 10 from the field (with four turnovers) following George’s miss, while Dallas was 11 of 18 and had yet to give the ball away on one of its possessions. Once that ball careened off the rim, according to Inpredictable, the Mavericks had an 80.8 percent chance of winning the game and taking a 3-0 lead — effectively ending the series, given that no NBA team has ever come back from a three-game deficit in a seven-game series.

But things with an 80 percent chance of happening don’t always happen. Kawhi Leonard rebounded George’s miss and put it in the basket, kickstarting a 20-4 Clippers run to end the quarter. Since that sequence, the Clippers have outscored the Mavericks 211-159 across 88-plus minutes of game time, taking both games in Dallas and evening the series at two games apiece. All of which raises the question: How the heck did they do it?

The first thing to know is that in building their 2-0 series lead, the Mavericks benefited from some wildly unsustainable shooting, according to Second Spectrum’s quantified Shot Quality (qSQ) and quantified Shooter Impact (qSI) metrics.1 In fact, no team in the player-tracking era (since 2013-14) had outperformed its expected effective field-goal percentage in a single playoff series by a greater margin than these Mavericks had through those first two games. Only three other teams had ever outshot expectations by more than 10 percentage points, and none of them came particularly close to outperforming by the margin Dallas did in Games 1 and 2.

The Mavs were on a torrid pace

NBA playoff teams since 2014 that shot at least 10 percentage points better than expected in a series, through Dallas’s first two 2021 playoff games

Effective field-goal %
Team Opponent Year Actual Expected Diff.
Mavericks Clippers 2021 65.5% 48.7% 16.8
Cavaliers Celtics 2017 62.9 51.1 11.8
Spurs Heat 2014 60.4 49.1 11.3
Cavaliers Raptors 2017 59.3 48.2 11.1

Excluding play-in games.

Expected eFG% is given as quantified Shot Quality, which measures the likelihood of a shot being made in a given situation, accounting for defender distance, shot location and movement.

Source: Second Spectrum

That shooting was destined to come back down to earth, and come back to earth it did. In Games 3 and 4, Dallas saw only a moderate drop in shot quality (47.7 expected effective field-goal percentage) but underperformed expectations by 1.1 percentage points (46.5 actual effective field-goal percentage), according to Second Spectrum. A dramatic swing like that is how a team goes from scoring 240 points in the first two games of a playoff series to totaling just 189 in the next two, and from a 128.3 offensive rating to just 105.0.

But that’s not all that happened, obviously. The Clippers made some changes themselves. For starters, they shifted to small ball nearly full time. In the 41 minutes starting center Ivica Zubac played in the first two games of the series, the Clippers were outscored by 29 points, according to NBA Advanced Stats. He was on the floor for the first 2:13 of Game 3, during which the Clips were outscored 8-0. Clippers coach Ty Lue brought Nicolas Batum in for Zubac following a timeout, and Zubac has played just 27 total minutes since.2

The lineup L.A. used to start the second half of Game 3 and then Game 4 (Leonard, George, Batum, Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson) had played just 26 minutes together during the regular season and made a total of zero starts. Those five have played 31 minutes together in the past two games, keying the Clippers’ victory by outscoring Dallas 42-29 across 18 minutes in Game 4.

Using that smaller unit allowed Lue to mix up the matchups a bit more than he had in the first two games of the series. Where Leonard spent nearly 36 percent of his half-court possessions defending Porziņģis in Games 1 and 2 and barely spent any time on the less threatening Dorian Finney-Smith, the numbers evened out over the past two games, according to Second Spectrum.

Leonard spent less time defending Porziņģis

Dallas Mavericks players defended by Kawhi Leonard for at least 10 percent of halfcourt possessions in either set of games, by share of possessions in Games 1 and 2 versus Games 3 and 4

Games 1-2 Games 3-4
Player faced Matchups % Poss Matchups % Poss
Kristaps Porziņģis 53 35.8% 33 23.4%
Maxi Kleber 31 20.9 30 21.3
Dorian Finney-Smith 6 4.1 25 17.7
Luka Dončić 26 17.6 19 13.5
Tim Hardaway Jr. 14 9.5 18 12.8

Source: Second Spectrum

At the same time, the Clippers used more varied matchups against both Porziņģis and Luka Dončić, showing them each different looks (and much more of Batum, in particular) rather than the same thing on most trips down the court.

L.A. mixed up its matchups on the Mavs’ stars

Clippers who defended Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis on at least 10 percent of the halfcourt possessions each played in either set of games, by share of possessions in Games 1 and 2 versus Games 3 and 4

Against Dončić
Games 1-2 Games 3-4
Defender Matchups % Poss Matchups % Poss
Nicolas Batum 25 17.0% 35 25.9%
Paul George 29 19.7 22 16.3
Kawhi Leonard 26 17.7 19 14.1
Rajon Rondo 11 7.5 18 13.3
Terance Mann 1 0.7 16 11.9
Patrick Beverley 17 11.6 2 1.5
Against Porziņģis
Games 1-2 Games 3-4
Defender Matchups % Poss Matchups % Poss
Kawhi Leonard 53 42.4% 33 24.4%
Nicolas Batum 11 8.8 26 19.3
Paul George 11 8.8 21 15.6
Marcus Morris 19 15.2 15 11.1
Ivica Zubac 13 10.4 7 5.2

Source: Second Spectrum

There’s also the other end of the floor, where the Clippers have gone back to scorching the nets since being unable to hit from the outside in Game 1. L.A. led the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage during the regular season, knocking down 41.1 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc.3 After shooting just 11 of 40 outside (27.5 percent) in Game 1, the Clips have connected on 39 of their 97 triples (40.2 percent) in three games since.

Playing in more space has really afforded Leonard the opportunity to get cooking. Dallas prefers to use Maxi Kleber as Leonard’s primary defender. In the first two games of the series, that worked out well enough, with L.A. scoring 97 points on the 90 half-court possessions in which Kleber defended Leonard, per Second Spectrum — the equivalent of a 107.8 offensive rating. In Games 3 and 4, that scoring rate skyrocketed as the Clippers scored 98 points on just 83 halfcourt possessions (118.1) with Kleber defending Leonard. Much of the boost has come courtesy of Leonard himself, as he’s consistently made tough, contested jumpers and gotten himself to the free-throw line with relative ease.

There’s also the matter of how Dallas’s ineffective, bordering on nonexistent help defense has freed the Clippers to attack the rim.

During the player-tracking era, there have been 234 instances of a team recording at least 50 drives to the rim during a playoff game, according to Second Spectrum. The Mavericks’ 60 percent help rate on L.A.’s 60 drives in Game 4 and 64 percent help rate on 50 drives in Game 3 each rank among the 20 games with the lowest share of drives on which the defense sent help.4

Among that same group of games, the 1.5 points per possession the Clippers scored on drives with a help defender present was fourth-best. It’s no wonder that after the game, George threw some shade at Porziņģis, Kleber, Dwight Powell and Willie Cauley-Stein when he said of the Mavs, “They don’t have a rim protector.”

On the series as a whole, the Clippers are 18 of 26 on shots where Porziņģis was within 5 feet of both the shooter and the basket, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That’s a 69.2 percent conversion rate — a far cry from the 61.9 percent he allowed during the regular season, a figure that was already much worse than the 52.4 percent he’d allowed during his four full seasons prior to this year.

The Clippers have spread the Mavericks defense out with their shooting, which has in turn opened things up for the drive. They have no fear of attacking the basket, because they’re confident they can finish over, around or through the 7-foot-3 Porziņģis, who already presents the greatest at-the-basket challenge among Dallas’s big men.5 At the same time, they have thrown a wrench into the gears of the Mavericks’ offense, stalling out a unit that had throttled them through the series’ first two games.

Given that Dončić is working through a nerve injury in his neck and they have regained home-court advantage, the Clippers are well set up to complete their series comeback. All that’s left to do is actually do it.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. QSQ gives the likelihood of a shot being made in a given situation, accounting for defender distance, shot location and movement; qSI is the difference between effective field-goal percentage and qSQ.

  2. The shift was also partially necessitated by the back injury that kept Serge Ibaka out of both games.

  3. That’s the fourth-best 3-point shooting season in NBA history and the third-best with the longer 3-point line the league has used for all but three seasons.

  4. They represent the seventh- and 20th-lowest help rates, respectively.

  5. The 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanović can’t move well enough laterally to keep up with the Clippers’ ball-handlers.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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