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2024 NBA playoff preview: Clippers vs. Mavericks series breakdown and prediction

In Sports
April 17, 2024

The Western Conference’s fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers (51-31) will face the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks (50-32) in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. This is a rematch of back-to-back first-round series in 2020 and 2021, both of which the Clippers won — in six and seven games, respectively.


How the Clippers got here

The aging Clippers began the season with a two-time Finals MVP (Kawhi Leonard), a perennial All-Star (Paul George) and a former MVP (Russell Westbrook) and discovered it was not enough, even with a hefty luxury tax bill that paid for plenty of support around them. So, they swung big for yet another Los Angeles native and one-time MVP, James Harden, who had begged off his third team in as many years.

And it clicked. For a while, anyway. It took five straight losses for head coach Tyronn Lue to sort out his rotation (and split time between Harden and Westbrook, in particular) before this forgotten contender reestablished itself as a serious threat. From mid-November to early February — half the season, really — the Clips posted the league’s best record (31-8) and offensive rating (122.3 points per 100 possessions).

Then, the same thing that happens to every old team happened to this old team. Around the All-Star break, everyone began coasting, and they barely finished above .500 for the last 33 games of the year. This was always the concern about pairing Westbrook, who often cares too much, and Harden, who is just the opposite, with Leonard and George, whose health has been a concern for their entire L.A. tenure.

It should surprise nobody that Leonard and Harden will enter the playoffs with lingering knee and foot injuries, respectively. Worse, though, is how Lue defined his star-laden team’s identity in recent weeks.

“Do we have an identity? I think, yeah: We’re soft,” he said. “That can be an identity.”


DALLAS, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 10: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks drives the ball past Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers in the first half during the NBA In-Season Tournament at American Airlines Center on November 10, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

How the Mavericks got here

The Mavericks re-signed Kyrie Irving over the summer, despite their 11th-place finish last season, and reconfigured the roster around him and Luka Dončić. They drafted Dereck Lively II and Olivier-Maxence Prosper, signed Grant Williams, reunited with Seth Curry, rediscovered Dante Exum in Serbia and took a flier on journeyman Derrick Jones Jr. And still they were struggling to stay above .500 come February.

So, they reconfigured the roster around Dončić and Irving again at the trade deadline, dealing Williams, Curry and the rights to two future first-round draft picks for big men P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford.

It reeked of desperation. Except, it worked (at least until those picks come due). Dallas sandwiched seven straight wins around the All-Star break, hit a rough patch and rode a 16-2 stretch to secure the fifth seed.

It sounds simple, but it does not take much to build around Dončić and Irving, so long as you can find the right blend of willing and selfless role players. A hint of Lively here. A dash of Washington and Gafford there. A sprinkle of Maxi Kleber. There is your frontcourt. A little Exum and Jones. Some Tim Hardaway Jr. A splash of Josh Green. These are the wings of a 50-win team when Dončić is performing at an MVP level.

(Seriously, though, Dončić averaged a 34-9-10 on 49/38/79 shooting splits. Unreal.)


Head to head

The Clippers won the regular-season series, 2-1.

All three meetings took place before Christmas, so Dallas was weeks from becoming the team it is today, and there are plenty more random reasons not to place too much faith in their three-game sample size.

Their first meeting came in Harden’s third game as a Clipper, and Westbrook was starting beside him — a combination Lue soon abandoned. Dončić and Irving countered with 71 points on 62.5% shooting in a 144-126 blowout. Afterwards, Harden lamented, “I didn’t have a training camp. I didn’t have a preseason.”

The Clippers returned the favor in a 101-88 win two weeks later that marked Dallas’ worst scoring output of the first three months. The Mavericks were without Lively and Kleber and started Richaun Holmes at center, so Ivica Zubac had a field day (11 points, 14 rebounds) for L.A. Leonard and Harden combined for 16 points on 20 shots on the second night of a back-to-back, and George was the best player on the floor.

The final meeting was the weirdest. No George for the Clippers; no Irving, Lively, Kleber or Green for the Mavericks. It was a one-point game in the fourth quarter until Leonard’s 9-0 run fueled a 120-111 victory.

The biggest takeaway? Dončić and Irving again. In their two games together against the Clippers, they combined to average a 64-11-8 on 54/43/100 splits. Give them their new supporting cast and good God.


DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 20: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks and Russell Westbrook #0 of the LA Clippers fight for position in the first half at American Airlines Center on December 20, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

Dončić has been a matchup nightmare for the Clippers. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

Matchup to watch

How do the Clippers stop Dončić?

Dončić’s eyes get awfully wide whenever he works Harden or Zubac into a switch, and he will do that — a lot. Even George has a hard time guessing which comes next, the drive or a stepback. Dončić’s size and footwork give him the option between shooting over the top or getting to his spot, and whatever the Clippers threw at him — hedges, double teams, everything — did not work.

Heck, even when the Clippers had younger legs underneath them, they had no answer for Dončić in back-to-back first-round playoff meetings in 2020 and 2021. He averaged a 34-9-10 on 49.4% shooting from the field (39.2% from deep) in those 13 games against L.A., and he was barely old enough to buy a beer.

The only answer was a weaker Dallas team around him and Leonard, who was playing to his peak level at the time. Can he match Dončić again? And if he cannot offensively, how much can he handle defensively? Leonard spent little time defending Dončić this season. Back in the 2021 playoffs, though, Leonard drew Dončić as his primary assignment and made him work for every bucket. Asking Leonard to match Dončić offensively and limit him on the other end is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone someone on a balky knee.

Dončić also did not have a safety valve like Irving when last these teams met in the playoffs. That allows the Mavericks to get even more creative with off-ball movement to work matchups in Dončić’s favor. Conventional wisdom says the Clippers have two of the best defensive options possible to throw at the Mavericks’ superstar, but even conventional wisdom stands little chance against this version of Dončić.


LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 12: (L-R) Paul George #13, James Harden #1 and Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers watch play from the bench during a 110-109 loss to the Utah Jazz at Crypto.com Arena on April 12, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Kawhi Leonard hasn’t suited up for the Clippers since March 31. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Closing lineups

Los Angeles Clippers
Leonard, George and Harden are mainstays of the Clippers’ closing lineup. Zubac and Norman Powell round out their best five-man unit, a group that has outscored opponents by a startling 18.4 points per 100 possessions (albeit in a total of 121 minutes). But Lue likes to go with his gut, and his gut is often right.

We might see Mason Plumlee in place of Zubac or Terance Mann instead of Powell or Amir Coffey in the mix, depending on how much Dončić is cooking Zubac or who has the hotter hand. It takes some serious guts to challenge any Dončić-led team in a small-ball contest, but Lue has that in him, too.

Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks are just as likely to play around with their closing unit. Dončić and Irving are the only two locks to finish games. Washington should be in there, too. In the middle, do they want Lively’s bounce, Gafford’s dependability or Kleber’s spacing? On the wing, do they need Jones’ length, Exum’s shooting or Green’s energy? These are the questions that Dallas head coach Jason Kidd will be asking over and over.

For the record: Kidd’s most used and most successful lineup features Dončić, Irving, Jones, Washington and Gafford, who have outscored opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions. That they have played only 176 minutes together tells you how fresh this fit is — and how much more tinkering there could be.


Prediction

Mavericks in seven. If the last month is any indication, the series will not be so close, as the Mavericks were the West’s best team over the season’s final six weeks, save for two meaningless losses at the end. The Clippers, for all their veterans, deserve the benefit of the doubt. They are a team that could flip a switch, so long as they are healthy. Although, Harden-led playoff teams all too often flip the switch off.


Series odds

Los Angeles Clippers (+100)
Dallas Mavericks (-120)


Series schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Sun., April 21 @ L.A. Clippers (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Game 2: Tue., April 23 @ L.A. Clippers (10 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 3: Fri., April 26 @ Dallas (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Game 4: Sun., April 28 @ Dallas (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Game 5: Wed., May 1 @ L.A. Clippers (TBD)*
Game 6: Fri., May 3 @ Dallas (TBD)*
Game 7: Sun., May 5 @ L.A. Clippers (TBD)*

* if necessary

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