LA Clippers Get Timely Sparks From Role Players, Advance To Second Round Of NBA Playoffs

LOS ANGELES – As Kawhi Leonard is leading his team down the floor in semi-transition, Marcus Morris isn’t anticipating the ball. It’s only midway through the third quarter, with the L.A. Clippers holding a fragile two-point lead in a decisive Game 7. This is typically where Leonard will slow things down.

Little did Morris know, the table was being set for him. And it wasn’t by Leonard.

Everything was sparked by another role player – a second year guard in the biggest game of his life – making a quick, shrewd decision in a moment where the Clippers’ season was hanging in the balance.

Terance Mann, jogging a few strides ahead of Morris, realizes his own impact. He knows he can stretch the Dallas Mavericks too thin by simply being himself and drawing attention with his quickness and playmaking.

With one hard cut down the middle of the lane, he forces Leonard’s hand. You could almost feel him telling Leonard, this is not the time to operate in the halfcourt. This is an opportunity for them to highlight the glaring issues with Dallas’s defense, and to strike before anyone figures out what’s happening.

Mann flashes deep into the paint, calls for Leonard to make the pass, and attracts a swarm of defenders. From there, it’s about reading the floor. The Clippers’ small-ball spacing, which they have been preaching all year, put the Mavericks in severe danger.

Within three seconds, the ball hits Batum in the corner, only for him to touch-pass it to Morris on the wing. Morris, standing directly in front of Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle, canned his fifth 3-pointer of the day:

It extended the Clippers’ lead to five points with plenty of time remaining. But, Dallas never got closer.

Morris capitalizing on nearly all of his wide-open chances in Sunday’s Game 7 was only part of the story, but it was unequivocally the most significant. He overcame a dreadful offensive night in Game 6, shooting 1-of-10 from the floor, and unloaded the clip two days later when it mattered the most. He finished Game 7 shooting 7-of-9 from beyond the arc, with the loudest makes coming within breathing distance of the Mavericks’ bench. I still have a suspicion that Morris is a more accurate sniper when he’s in front of the opposing team, hearing the trash talk and every kind of verbal attempt to throw off his shooting.

For the Clippers to win on the road in Game 6 despite Morris providing next to nothing offensively, they knew Dallas was the team with the smallest margin for error in Sunday’s winner-take-all finale.

“Honestly, I never really went back and went like, ‘man I’m missing,’ or got down on myself,” Morris said after the Game 7 win. “I knew there would be a turning point. I knew if I made some early, or if I got some going for my team, it would rip the game open.”

Morris started the series 2-of-11 from downtown in Games 1-2 combined, only to shoot 15-of-27 (55.6%) the rest of the way.

“I tweeted this a while back and said to one of my coaches at the beginning of the season that I was going to be a top-five three-point shooter in this league,” Morris recalled. “Everything I’ve said, or the work I’ve put in has come full-circle for me. All I can say is, better late than never.”

After one of the most bizarre starts to a series you will ever see, where the Mavericks drilled 50.0% of their 62 above-the-break 3-point attempts and stole the first two games in Staples Center, the Clippers were finally on the receiving end of good fortune. Shooting variance, which can either bless or destroy a team in the relatively small sample of a seven-game series, started to inch back to the Clippers’ side once they tied the series at 2-2.

In the final three games of the series, Dallas shot 35-of-106 (33.0%) from deep. The Clippers made up some ground by returning with 44-of-113 (38.9%) long-range shooting in the those same meetings. Over the course of seven games, the scale shifted just enough in L.A.’s favor to survive and advance.

After Lue had been predicting – in what felt like four straight pregame pressers – that his team would respond with a dominant offensive showing … it finally happened with their title hopes on the line.

The Clippers made history in Game 7 by drilling 20 threes, shooting 46.5% on their long-range attempts. It was the most threes ever made in a Game 7. That’s the only way this series was truly going to end, with one of these teams etching their name in the record books.

On the 41 total shots L.A. made in Game 7, they assisted on 30 of them. Their assist percentage of 73.2% was their highest of the series by a wide margin.

The ball was zipping around the perimeter a few beats faster. Isolations were kept to a minimum. Contrary to the previous three home games for the Clippers, their process was actually leading to positive results.

“It meant a lot,” Lue said of the continued ball movement and shooting display. “We were getting shots all series that we didn’t make. We kept saying time and time again, we’re getting great looks versus their zone and their (man-to-man). PG and Kawhi kept attacking and we got open shots. We just didn’t make them.”

The Mavericks’ zone defense was largely put to use in Games 5-7 of this series, with Carlisle making an adjustment to shut off a lot of the Clippers’ paint attacks that were haunting Dallas in Games 3-4, the two wins that allowed L.A. to get back into the series.

An issue Dallas encountered, though, is having two of the backline pieces in the 2-3 zone not being quick (or disciplined) enough to really contain the Clippers’ perimeter threats. With Kristaps Porzingis and Boban Marjanović attempting to protect the paint in this zone coverage, the Clippers smartly realized there is one easy way to answer Dallas’s massive size advantage.

They simply forced the bigs to move, close out hard on the wings and corners, and pick their poison. In the NBA, you’re going to give up something to dynamic offensive teams. That’s just how it works. If it’s not the paint, then it’s likely from the perimeter.

Baiting the Clippers into taking more of these looks appeared to be a decent strategy when L.A. was missing more open shots than a junior varsity team. However, that was never going to last if you keep letting them taste a flavor they’ve enjoyed all season:

“We just told guys to trust your work,” Lue said. “Trust all the work you’ve put in all season and throughout your career to get to this point. We knew we were going to make shots, we just didn’t know when. But, what a great time to make 20 threes, in a Game 7.”

In the possession above, having Leonard – the team’s best player and main playmaker in the halfcourt – catch the ball in the middle of the floor was a genius way to initiate the action. He immediately drew the top line defenders in the zone, and every option is essentially one-pass away to force a rotation by Dallas.

As Justin Russo mentioned, the Mavs decided to use zone on 40 of the 93 total possessions in Game 7. The Clippers scored 52 points against that defensive coverage.

Scoring 1.3 points per possession (a 130.0 offensive rating), the Clippers had figured out how to attack it in the most dangerous way. Really, they had it figured out in Game 6, as well.

For the series, the Clippers attempted 12.4% of their overall shots from corner 3-point range — the most coveted area in the league. Up to this point, it’s the highest proportion of shots coming from the corner throughout the playoffs.

Since the moment Carlisle instituted the zone defense, mostly with two 7-footers on the floor, the Clippers’ corner 3-point frequency jumped to 15.0%. Over the last three games of the series, L.A. managed to get up 38 total looks from the corners.

In Game 7 alone, they shot 8-of-20 (40.0%) on corner threes, giving them Lue’s desired shot profile.

It’s easy to tell what Lue prioritizes with the teams he’s in charge of. As much as he likes to emphasize how important it is for his team to have a ‘“defensive mindset’ to start games and set the tone, he’s always been more than willing to sacrifice defensive talent or larger size if it means maximizing his team’s spacing and perimeter juice.

This is why Luke Kennard was able to leave a small mark on this series. Having not played outside of garbage time for the first five games, Kennard was inserted into the rotation during Game 6 in Dallas. While he missed all of his outside shots, he provided a spark that Lue was looking for when their offense wasn’t capitalizing.

Although Kennard’s defensive reputation is what cost him minutes in the first place, Lue had enough evidence to suggest he wouldn’t be a complete liability for them on that end.

Thus, Kennard drew 15 minutes of playing time in Game 7, the biggest moment of their season. Scoring 11 points in those 15 minutes while shooting 3-of-5 from deep, he injected some much-needed shotmaking into the Clippers’ halfcourt offense. The Mavs continued to play zone and he showed them the consequences.

“In Game 6, I saw that he had great (show-and-recover possessions) on Luka and he was able to guard Brunson, got on the floor and got a big steal to get out in transition,” Lue said. “So, I knew defensively he wouldn’t be a problem after I saw that in Game 6. The way we were shooting the ball, I just thought we needed to insert another shooter into the lineup, especially with Kawhi and PG drawing so much attention.”

One particular possession stood out for Kennard, and it didn’t even result in him taking a shot. Just his presence in the weakside corner – after this freakish pass by Reggie Jackson that somehow got around Porzingis’s legs and body – made Dallas react accordingly. The zone was busted once Kennard and Morris were on the same side, perfectly spaced, waiting to help each other get a clean shot:

Kennard, Jackson, and Mann combined for 39 points on 26 total shots. The Clippers don’t get the job done in Game 7 without their efforts. If any of those three were gun-shy and hesitating upon catching the ball, there would have been tons of pressure on Leonard and Paul George to have spectacular games to make up for the lack of energy and shot creation.

The Clippers were able to win a series against a team led by a once-in-a-generation talent, Luka Dončić. Across all seven games, Dončić scored 250 points (35.7 per game) and connected on 23 of his 40 step-back threes (57.5%). Not only is that obscene, it is historic for any individual force to look that lethal in self-created opportunities.

Dončić gave the Clippers everything they could possibly handle. He nearly took them out, even with Tim Hardaway Jr. being suffocated down the stretch of the series and going cold at the worst time.

All we know about Playoff Luka thus far into his career is that he thrives playing against any defensive coverage you throw at him. It didn’t even matter that L.A. possessed the most optimal wings to deter him. Nothing worked until the fourth quarters, when it was evident he consistently wore down and became too fatigued to carry Dallas over the hump. These last two playoff series losses are not on Dončić or Carlisle. Until Dallas puts more capable ball-handlers and individual creators around their superstar, the same story will likely continue.

One of the major takeaways from this series was how much respect and admiration Dončić garnered from one of the best duos in the league, Leonard and George.

“Oh man, he did everything,” Leonard said after Game 7. “I believe he had three or four 40-point games, shooting it very efficiently from three. Off-the-dribble shots. Just doing it all for his team. He’s a great player and we’re going to see him for many years to come. He’s playing at his own pace and making it look easy out there.”

In the 281 minutes Dončić played, the Mavericks were plus-seven in the scoring margin. In the 55 minutes he sat during the series, they were outscored by an insane 43 points.

The Clippers were able to win the series on the margins, mostly due to their commitment to playing small-ball lineups and utilizing Nic Batum in place of Ivica Zubac. With Batum and Dončić sharing the court, the Clippers actually outscored Dallas by 37 points in 194 total minutes. Lue wanted to have an extra wing to switch onto Dončić when necessary and keep the ball out of the paint as much as possible. Batum, at age 32, certainly helped.

George seems to believe this series will allow the Clippers to comfortably handle adversity when they face it down the road in this playoff run.

“It was a great team win,” George said. “I think we showed great resilience. They pushed us. They definitely got us war-ready. It’s a great team we played. An unbelievable superstar in Luka. They pushed us and played really well. They challenged us. But, we stuck in there. We hung in there. We played for one another. We played hard, and now we continue on our season. On to the next.”

Leonard, the series MVP, finished the grueling matchup averaging 32.1 points on 69.1% shooting from two, 42.5% from three, and 89.8% from the line. He became the first player in NBA history to score 200-plus points in a playoff series while shooting 60% from two and 40% from deep. His playoff résumé before the age of 30 is one of the greatest we’ve ever seen.

When the time arrived to tap into the same defensive intensity that made him the boogeyman in 2016 and 2017, he was still able to do it for solid stretches on Dončić. There were plenty of glimpses of it in Game 7.

The next round will present a completely different challenge. The Clippers won’t face a player of Dončić’s caliber, but the Utah Jazz are in a separate galaxy defensively compared to Dallas.

If the Clippers hope to survive, they can’t have Leonard carrying as much weight as he did in this first round. The role players, specifically Morris and Zubac (who will definitely be used more against the Jazz) will have to make their impact felt early in the series.

The Clippers know they have one of the best closers on their side, though. In this series win, Leonard lived up to what George has called him multiple times. He was the most reliable guy. Everyone else arrived a little late. But, for them, it was indeed better late than never.

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