The Western Conference quarterfinals between the second-seeded LA Clippers and the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks is headed to a Game 4 on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), with the Clippers leading the Mavericks 2-1 following Friday night’s 130-122 Game 3 win by the Clippers.
This matchup has pitted the top two offenses in the league, but it has been an eventful series featuring comebacks, technical fouls, and injuries. The Mavericks will be trying to tie the series Sunday with or without All-Star point guard Luka Doncic (sprained left ankle), and the Clippers have seen two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard hang 100 points for them through three games.
Our experts assess what to look forward to for the rest of the series.
What happens if Doncic is sidelined?
The sight of Luka Doncic hopping on his right leg up an incline inside the bowels of the Florida bubble was devastating, both for a Mavericks team that built a league-leading offense around him, and anyone who has been dazzled by his exploits. But that was the scene after Doncic turned his ankle guarding Kawhi Leonard on a drive in the third quarter.
“It’s hard to say how this is going to be,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said, “but we’ll see. We’ve got every advanced treatment modality that you can have, as every team here does, and we’ll see how this responds in the next 36 hours.”
Doncic tried to return in the fourth quarter but lasted less than three minutes as the Mavericks dropped Game 3 to the Clippers. If he’s unable to play on Sunday in Game 4, his absence would represent more than just a mid-series adjustment for Dallas — it would be an overhaul.
Through the first two games of his playoff career, Doncic rendered a Clippers defense featuring two of the best two-way defenders of their era toothless. Not only did Doncic average 35 points and eight assists with a true shooting percentage of 70.2, he dictated the terms of each Mavericks offensive possession and, often, manipulated which Clippers defender he’d face off against.
If Doncic is able to go in Game 4, expect more of what he encountered from the Clippers on Friday in Game 3, when they ratcheted up their defense against the best young playmaker in the game. The Clippers, who feature a platoon of strong, like-sized defenders, like to switch those defenders when confronted with a pick-and-roll. Too often in the first two games of the series, that meant Doncic hunting more favorable matchups.
Luka Doncic exits the game in the third quarter after rolling his ankle, but would later return and complete a triple-double, only to leave again for good in the fourth.
On Friday before his injury, Doncic encountered more resistance from the Clippers. Not only were his primary defenders — most commonly power forward Marcus Morris Sr. — less inclined to passively pass Doncic off, but the Clippers’ defenders behind the play were eager to help. When Doncic pressured the defense, he was met with physicality. A brawny Clippers squad will have to maintain that physical advantage if Doncic goes in Game 4.
For Dallas, there simply is no replacement for Doncic if he’s unable to play. Nobody on the roster can create the hefty diet of shots he can for himself and his teammates. Yet the Mavericks generated 112.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season when Doncic was not on the floor.
With a healthy Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks feature one of the league’s most prolific screeners — an agile 7-foot-3 center with soft hands and a sweet stroke. Porzingis can pick-and-pop from long range (he’s 9-for-17 from beyond the arc in the series), and attack the rim off a screen or off of a pass.
That production is more easily attained if Doncic is his dance partner, but two-man actions with Porzingis and Seth Curry were extremely efficient this season. The pair is certain to be in heavy rotation in Game 4 if Doncic isn’t. In a perfect world, Jalen Brunson would be able to pick up some of Doncic’s minutes at point guard, but he’s recovering from shoulder surgery in the NBA diaspora. Those minutes are now Trey Burke‘s.
Apart from his dynamic playmaking and scoring, Doncic’s greatest attribute in his young career is his ability to elevate the performances of NBA role players. If he’s unable to go in Game 4, those role players will be tasked with elevating their games with Doncic as an onlooker. — Kevin Arnovitz
Time for Mavericks to give Kawhi Leonard another look
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle discovered a starting lineup weeks before the season was suspended that maximized the potency of the most efficient offense in NBA history.
The Mavs were pretty much unguardable playing small with knockdown shooter Seth Curry at shooting guard and Kristaps Porzingis as the lone big man. That five-man lineup that also featured superstar Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith averaged 119.8 points per 100…