Clippers have plenty of room to improve offensively against Mavericks

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LA Clippers center Ivica Zubac made 7 of 10 field goals in a road win over the Orlando Magic in late March. All of his buckets came in the second and third quarters, a strong performance but one that could have been even better.

“Every time I touch it, I score,” Zubac told The Athletic after that 14-point performance in which he didn’t attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter.

The confidence isn’t surprising. Zubac once texted me after the spinning finish below right before the All-Star Break, “I got a lot of s—, but gotta do my role.”

In Game 1 of LA’s first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers did something relatively innovative: They gave Zubac the ball in the post. Considering Zubac ranked third in the NBA in points per possession from post-ups this season among 58 players who averaged at least 1.0 post-ups per game, per Synergy, it was a sound strategy.

The Clippers took Game 1 over the Mavericks 109-97, and Zubac had a team-high 10 made field goals on his way to a postseason career-high 20 points. With Kawhi Leonard out, it was a massive lift offensively, and Zubac enjoyed the opportunity to put up 17 field goals attempts despite sharing the floor with Paul George and James Harden.

Playing with those guys and getting 17 shots, it’s a great feeling,” Zubac said. “And having their trust and confidence, them pushing me, wanting me to be more aggressive to score, be more involved offensively, they’re looking for me. So it’s great having that confidence from those types of players. It’s really amazing, and I want to be the best version I can be for this team, and I’ll do whatever it takes to help us win.”

Much like that Orlando game, though, Zubac didn’t attempt a single shot in the fourth quarter. Zubac also missed his lone free-throw attempt and had only one assist. Game 2 is an opportunity for the Clippers to be better offensively, and even Zubac’s performance, as good as it was, is a part of that. 

“I think we got to do a better job of attacking what we’re trying to attack offensively,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said after Game 1. “And our spacing wasn’t as good as it has been in the past. So we got to do a better job of that.”

Harden should be the key player the Mavericks focus on making uncomfortable in Game 2. Game 1 was Harden’s second 20-plus-point first-half performance since Jan. 24, with the other one coming against the hapless Washington Wizards. The Clippers knocked down 18 3s overall in Game 1, and 11 were made or assisted by Harden, who was particularly comfortable getting off his pull-up 3.

The Mavericks tried to pressure Harden more in the backcourt in the second half, and the only field goals Harden made after halftime were two pull-up 3s. Speeding up Harden up and reducing the Clippers’ options in the shot clock may be something that requires someone other than Mavericks forward P.J. Washington covering Harden. It also may help the Mavericks to plan for Leonard being out.

“They don’t have Kawhi right now, so that was a big adjustment for us when they came out the gates,” Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving said. “James and Paul were playing very free, very loose.”

At halftime of Game 1, the Clippers had three players in double-figures scoring: Zubac, Harden, and Russell Westbrook. Those three scored 42 of LA’s 56 points. The Clippers only got 12 points on 4-of-18 shooting from the foursome of George, Terance Mann, fill-in starter Amir Coffey and top reserve Norman Powell. That field goal percentage nearly mirrored that of the Mavericks’ star duo of Irving and Luka Dončić, who combined to score only 17 points on 5-of-19 shooting in the first half.

Positive regression to the mean was expected in the second half, not only from the Mavericks’ stars, but from the Clippers’ perimeter players, led by George. The Mavericks got it from Dončić and Irving, as they combined for 47 points on 16-of-25 shooting after halftime. George didn’t get going until the fourth quarter, when he scored 11 of his 22 points. George, however, missed 10 of his first 14 shots and failed to get to the free-throw line. He vowed to be better in Game 2.

“They did a great job of just really shutting the floor down,” George said of Dallas’ defense. “I thought they weren’t letting me play. They were pressuring up and then they were cutting the lanes off for me to drive and try to get to the rim, and I just thought they did a really good job of trying to make me uncomfortable. But I’ll be better. I’ll look at the film and see how can I be more efficient and just take what they give me.”

George wants to be more aggressive. In fairness to him, he challenged the rim repeatedly Sunday, with mixed results. George had a dunk attempt in the third quarter that Mavericks center Daniel Gafford sent packing, only for Zubac to clean up:

George also had the Clippers’ only paint bucket of the entire fourth quarter, on a clutch after-timeout play by Lue that utilized backup center Mason Plumlee as a passer for a cutting George:

The three areas in which the Clippers need to be better offensively all come down to being stronger with the basketball:

  • They had 14 turnovers in Game 1, including six in the fourth quarter that led to the Mavericks outscoring the Clippers 12-0 off turnovers in the final quarter.
  • They missed 27 of 45 shots in the paint, including a woeful 1-of-11 output from the trio of Mann, Coffey and Powell.
  • They only attempted 13 free throws and were outscored 15-4 from the free-throw line in the second half.

“We’ve got to do a better job getting to the free-throw line, however you want to take that,” Lue said Sunday. “We’ve got to do a good job of continuing to keep attacking the paint and being aggressive. Like, we’ve got to go through them, so we can’t just play for the foul. We’ve got to go through to get the foul.” 

As noted above, getting more from Powell would be a boost. In Game 1, he scored just five points on 2-of-6 shooting in nearly 30 minutes of action. It was only the fourth time all season Powell played more than 25 minutes and failed to score in double figures. Lue attributed Powell’s slow performance to what the team got elsewhere.

James had it going, I thought Zu had it going, and, you know, PG’s going to be PG,” Lue said Monday. “So we didn’t really use Norm as much as we usually do, because other guys had it going. But I’m not worried about Norm. … He’s going to be able to get his.”

The Clippers scored 117.2 points per 100 possessions in Game 1. It’s not as though they barely survived. They had a 29-point lead in the second half. But they can certainly look to make gains that will help them, especially with Leonard out.

“I think we were just generating really good shots, and if we can do that throughout the course of the game, we’ll live with the results,” Harden said. “This is a make-or-miss league, so if you make shots, obviously, it makes your job a lot easier. … We had a really good week of practice, and at the end of the day, it’s only one win. So we will watch film and be better for Game 2.”

(Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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