After beating Dallas to win their first-round playoff series Sunday in six games, the Clippers learned they will open the Western Conference semifinals Thursday against either Denver or Utah, after the Nuggets won Sunday to force Game 7.
If the Clippers don’t yet know their opponent, they know they cannot begin the next round as they did the first.
“I didn’t think we played well, quite honestly, for the first three games, and yet we still were 2-1,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought we joined the series late. I thought our intensity joined the playoff intensity late. I thought our execution gradually got better.”
The same couldn’t be said for Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers’ superstar forward was his team’s most consistent player and scored at least 29 points in all six games. He outdueled Luka Doncic, Dallas’ irrepressible second-year guard, as the series wore on in a sign of his postseason experience as a two-time champion.
“He’s an amazing player,” Doncic said Sunday. “You get to see it every game. He shows up every game. … Almost impossible to stop. He’s an amazing player. A lot of people look up to him.”
Here are five takeaways from the series-clinching Game 6:
1. What began in Game 1 when contact by Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. after the whistle on Doncic led to Kristaps Porzingis’ ejection, and continued in Game 5, when Morris defended himself as not a dirty player after stepping near Doncic’s injured left ankle, ended Sunday with another testy moment between Morris and the Mavericks.
Morris was assessed a flagrant-two foul and ejected after hitting Doncic over the head on a drive to the basket. Tossed after 11 minutes, Morris said afterward that he didn’t believe a suspension from the league was deserved.
“Honestly I don’t think it escalated to that level,” he said. “It is not like I didn’t touch any of the ball. I didn’t wind up, I didn’t do any of that. It was a hard foul [to prevent] an and-one. Unfortunately I hit him above the shoulders and that is the rule in the NBA, you go above the shoulder, it becomes a flagrant-two. But nah, I don’t think so, I hope not. Guys are playing hard and we are sacrificing, I don’t think these guys should sit nobody out, especially for games of these caliber.”
The NBA could see things differently. Asked by a pool reporter what led to the ejection, Scott Foster, the crew chief of Sunday’s officials, specifically cited “a wind up, impact and follow through to the head and neck of Doncic” as unnecessary contact. He also said Morris’ history with Doncic throughout the series didn’t factor into the decision.
“I don’t think he should have been thrown out, but listen, I’m biased,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought he made a play on a ball and he hit him on the head. It happens all game. I think it was a reputation throw-out, but you’ve just got to live with it. I love Marcus’s intensity. Yeah, he’s a tough guy. He’s not backing down and I love that.”
2. Whether or not Morris misses any time during the second round because of a suspension, it’s already known he’ll miss some games during the postseason because he plans next month to leave the league’s Disney World campus to be with his family for the birth of his second son.
With that in mind, his absence Sunday provided an early preview into how the Clippers might alter their rotations while he is away. Instead of inserting a third, smaller guard into the lineup, Rivers’ first instinct was to add size in the form of JaMychal Green, the 6-foot-9 forward with a skill set varied enough to guard centers on the block and shoot 42% on three-pointers during the postseason.
Green scored seven points, started the second half and the Clippers outscored Dallas by 20 points in Green’s 15 minutes. With Green and 7-foot center Ivica Zubac sharing the floor for 12 minutes, Dallas shot just 31.8% from the field and 13% (2-15) on three-pointers.
Green didn’t play after coming out of the game with 5:29 remaining in the third quarter. The Clippers closed with guards Landry Shamet, Reggie Jackson, forwards Paul George and Leonard and Zubac.
“He was great,” Rivers said of Green. “I mean honestly, we wanted to go back with him, but they stayed small, and so we just matched up with him. But JaMychal has been our Swiss Army knife all year. You know, starts at the four. He started at the five. We’ve put him about everywhere.”
3. Another preview provided throughout the series with Dallas was how the Clippers might attempt to slow down the next young, high-scoring guard that awaits them.
After throwing sideline traps, blitzes and a mixture of pick-and-roll coverages at Doncic for six games the Clippers will face either Utah’s Donovan Mitchell or Denver’s Jamal Murray in the next round. Murray has scored at least 40 points in three consecutive games, while Mitchell added 44 in the loss to continue his own scorched-earth tear offensively.
“We were mixing up our defense on Luka,” Zubac said. “We were blitzing a little bit, we were switching, we were in a drop, we just changed a lot of stuff out there to get them out of their offense and we kept doubling him much more than in the first few games and I feel like that was our best defense against him and it worked.”
How the Clippers defend Murray or Mitchell won’t be a carbon copy of their plan for the first round because all are different players. Doncic is 6-7, with impeccable vision. The 6-4 Murray has been among the very best in the playoffs on pick-and-rolls, hand offs and limiting turnovers. Mitchell is 6-1 and can get to the basket with a gear that few in the NBA have. But the challenge is similar. Each injects life into their respective offenses.
Whereas the Clippers guarded Doncic with tall wings such as Morris, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Murray and Mitchell’s size heightens the importance around the health of Clippers guard Patrick Beverley. A perimeter pest who can block opposing guards’ path toward the basket, Beverley has missed the last five games with a left calf injury.
4. One silver lining of Beverley’s absence is the extra minutes it has afforded Landry Shamet to build his confidence after a regular season that saw the second-year guard see-saw between the bench and the starting lineup.
A starter since Game 3 in place of Beverley, Shamet shot 45% on three-pointers during the series and finished by averaging eight points against only one turnover.
“It’s not that he’s doing anything different,” George said. “I think he’s found his confidence.
“… I think the biggest thing that we’ve seen in him is he’s out there and he’s looking to play the game. He’s looking to score. He’s looking to make plays. For him, it’s just confidence, and the more confidence he has, the more confident he is, the bigger games you’re going to see from him.”
5. When Rivers said that Zubac had “the playoff of his life” following the first round, Zubac didn’t waste any time poking fun at himself.
“It’s not hard to have the playoffs of my life,” he said, “because I’ve been to the playoffs one time before and it was not really good.”
Zubac was referencing his first taste of the playoffs last season, against Golden State, when the 7-footer couldn’t stay on the floor against smaller Warriors lineups, an experience that served as motivation during the offseason. Still, that didn’t mean Rivers’ comment Sunday was intended as hollow praise. Few big men left as much of an impact in the first round.
“A big series for him,” Leonard said.
The Mavericks made 47.1% of their shots within six feet when defended by Zubac, the eighth-best mark by any center this postseason. In one year, he has gone from being nearly unplayable in the postseason to having fans agonize on social media over why he doesn’t play more.
“I really love the trust [Rivers] putting in me and every time I step out on the court, I want to return the favor,” Zubac said Sunday. “I want to play good for the team. I want to do the stuff they’re asking me to do so I still get that trust from him. I love the team, love the coach, and happy to be in this spot.”
The Clippers outscored Dallas by a team-best 33 points during Zubac’s 33 minutes, and he finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds. That kind of impact couldn’t have been unforeseen by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, who said Zubac had “gotten exponentially better in the last year” before Game 5.
“On both ends as an offensive roller and an offensive rebounder, he’s excellent,” Carlisle said last week. “He’s really, really good. And defensively as a big body that moves his feet deceptively well he’s been a factor at the defensive end as well.”