Winning a playoff game is hard enough.
However, winning a playoff series requires some big shots, lucky bounces, and tremendous breaks to go your team’s way in nearly all of the seven possible games.
For the Dallas Mavericks, facing the Los Angeles Clippers in round one, that is no different. One made shot can be the difference between being up 2-1 or down 1-2. A step-back game-winner can change the outlook of the entire series – see Luka Doncic’s game-winner in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs for proof. Four lucky bounces can define your championship run, or they can ruin it. The NBA Playoffs are a zero-sum game. Its winners take all, and losers go home. That is what makes it so exciting.
So what does Dallas have to do to beat the Clippers in round one? Here are the four keys to a Mavs series victory.
1.) Role player contribution:
All season long, Dallas has benefitted from the great play of Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, and as of late, Dwight Powell. To hang with the No. 4 seeded Clippers, they all have to contribute at an efficient level.
What wins playoff games isn’t just the play of the superstars, it is also the play of the “others” on the roster. There needs to be a game in which Hardaway Jr. can’t miss. And if not that, there needs to be a game where the Clippers have no answer for Brunson’s well-rounded offensive game, Powell’s aggressive rim runs, or Finney-Smith’s timely 3-pointers. If Doncic’s talent can steal at least one game, the Mavs have to find the other role player that can steal one more.
Hardaway Jr. and Brunson ended the regular season averaging a combined 29.2 points per game. If both of them are making enough shots to hit their averages, Dallas walks into 30 points, which lifts the offensive weight off of other players on the floor, giving them the freedom to just play their game.
Finney-Smith has been nothing but the model of consistency and stability in the second half of the season. With the extra attention paid to Doncic, he has to be ready to make open shots. And judging by his confidence level when it comes to shooting the ball – he will be.
So, against the Clippers, role-player contributions are paramount if Dallas aims to be competitive and win enough games to take the series.
2.) The best of Kristaps Porzingis:
This season has been a mixed bag for Dallas’ talented big man. Porzingis has had stretches where he looks like a walking matchup nightmare. He has also had stretches where it looks like he will get played off the floor. In the playoffs, mistakes are magnified, bad games look worse, and on-court production can sour quickly. Porzingis has to be the best version of himself if Dallas hopes to beat the Clippers in a seven-game series.
The 2020 NBA Playoffs were disappointing for Porzingis. He was ejected, and then he was sidelined with a knee injury that required surgery after game three. If he meets the same fate, Dallas’ attempt to beat the Clippers will be as unsuccessful as the 2020 playoff series.
Porzingis is a threat to score 30 on any given night. He proved that in the 2020 NBA playoffs when he dropped 34 in game three against LAC. Defenses have no answer for him when he’s hot. Where his questions lie are on the defensive end of the ball. His offensive game has to give Dallas enough to make up for the mediocre defense he’s played all season.
3.) Force someone else to beat them:
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are All-NBA level players. And though George catches flack for his “Playoff P” moniker, he is still a player who can give you 40 on any given night. Keeping Leonard and George in check should be the defense’s primary concern. Dallas then has to force someone else on the Clippers to beat them. Invite shots from players like Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson. Every bad shot they take is one less quality shot George and Leonard can create.
In two games played against the Mavericks this season, Leonard was held to 20 and 22 points. And for George, he averaged 19.3 points per game over the course of three meetings, shooting 37 percent from the field. Dallas already has the defensive game plan for the Clippers’ two-headed monster. Now in the playoffs, they have to invite looks from Los Angeles’ lesser players. Have the Clippers beat themselves on the offensive end.
4.) Luka has to be magnificiant:
The playoffs are where you make a name for yourself. In 2020 against the Clippers, Doncic did exactly that. He averaged 31 points per game, 9.8 rebounds, and 8.7 assists in his first playoff experience. Now, he has to do it again.
Dallas will only go as far as Doncic can take them. And if you know anything about him, he will be ready. In the regular season against Los Angeles, he averaged 30 points per game, 11 assists, and 8.3 rebounds. Those splits were right on par with his playoff numbers against the all too familiar Western Conference foe. If he is playing at a high level, Dallas can win two games (or more) simply off of his ability. Doncic is just that good. If he does what he is known to do, and everything else falls in place, there is no reason Dallas can’t find itself playing in the second round of the NBA Playoffs in three weeks.
Game one tips off on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. central on ESPN.
Feature image via Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports.