They shouldn't have even let him catch the ball.
Luka Doncic hit the kind of shot you dream about, the cherry on top of a Sunday performance that can be credibly described as legendary. You will remember that the Dallas Mavericks' 21-year-old superstar was playing on a sprained ankle, that he was missing his co-star, Kristaps Porzingis, and that he diced up the Los Angeles Clippers after falling behind by 21 points in the second quarter. You might not remember the switch.
Before Doncic went left with 3.7 seconds left on the clock, before the between-the-legs dribble, the crossover, the stepback and the celebration, the Clippers had already made their fatal mistake. The screen set by Maxi Kleber freed Doncic from Kawhi Leonard and created more than enough space for Dorian Finney-Smith to throw him the inbounds pass. Reggie Jackson was on him when he caught it.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers lamented that his team had been "very passive" on defense in his postgame Zoom conference. He said that, in general, the Mavs have been able to catch the ball wherever they want to. On the final possession, the game plan was to switch, but not all switches are created equal.
"I mean, you always switch everything at the end of the clock," Rivers said. "But you're supposed to switch to a denial and we didn't. Like, again, we just didn't. We switched and allowed their best player to catch the ball, you know, with three seconds left."
It is unclear why Jackson and Paul George didn't switch the first off-ball screen on the play, which Kleber set for Seth Curry. After that, Jackson needed to switch onto Doncic more aggressively and deny the passing lane, as Rivers said. This failure of execution didn't surrender an easy basket or anything close to it, but it gave Doncic an opportunity to do something spectacular. That was all he needed.
Going into the series, which is tied 2-2 after Dallas' 135-133 overtime win, Los Angeles' defense was supposed to test Doncic like never before. Instead, he has carved the second-seeded Clippers up the same way he dissected defenses all season, in which the Mavericks posted the best offensive rating of all-time. His 43-point, 13-assist, 17-rebound performance in Game 4 wasn't an aberration; he had a 42-9-7 line in the opener.
Against all odds, Dallas has actually been better on offense against the Clippers than it was in the regular season: It went from scoring a historic 115. 9 points per 100 possessions to scoring 117.1 per 100, according to NBA.com, and that number jumped from a league-best 100.9 per 100 in the halfcourt to 102.3 per 100, according to Cleaning The Glass.
"We're supposed to be an elite defensive team," Rivers said. "Right now we're not."
More worrying for Los Angeles is that it doesn't appear to be figuring anything out. The Mavericks' worst offensive game was easily Game 1, the only one in which they scored at a rate that wouldn't rank first in the league. They looked completely comfortable without Porzingis, and they've scored 123.8 points per 100 possessions in the 55 minutes Doncic has been on the bench.
What do you think about that, Russ?
The Clippers had a top-five defense this season, which is expected when you employ Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley. There were always questions, though, about how some of the other players would hold up in the playoffs.
Last season, after three playoff games Rivers had to take Ivica Zubac out of the rotation and put JaMychal Green in the starting lineup. In March, just before the hiatus, the Clippers lost to the Lakers because LeBron James repeatedly picked on Lou Williams in crunch time.
If you believe that postseason basketball is more about weaknesses than strengths, and if you believe that containing the ball is more important than protecting the paint, there is no better example than this series. Dallas has destroyed Los Angeles' defense by spacing the floor and targeting big men in pick-and-rolls -- not exactly revolutionary stuff anymore.
"They they made shots, they attacked us off the dribble, they made plays," Rivers said. "They never ran anything complicated. They're just staring us in the face, they're beating us off the dribble."
Had the Clippers' successfully denied Doncic -- or had he missed his buzzer-beater -- the story would be different. Down by 10 with eight and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter, Zubac went to the bench, replaced by reserve Landry Shamet, which shifted Marcus Morris to "center." The Clippers went small the rest of the way, mostly with Jackson in Shamet's place, choosing switchability over size.
This adjustment helped Los Angeles come back, but the bad switch on the final possession was a microcosm of a broader problem: Dallas could still target Williams and Jackson, the Clippers' weak links.
Regardless of the Clippers' lineup or scheme, the Mavs created advantages and open shots by going after Zubac:
And Montrezl Harrell:
Maybe the Clippers wouldn't be in such trouble if Beverley had played more than 20 minutes in the series. He has missed the last three games with a calf strain, and Los Angeles has surely missed his physicality and intensity. Rivers described his team as "very emotionally weak" in Game 4 and said Dallas was much more aggressive.
Even with Beverley, though, Rivers' coaching staff has serious problems to solve. The Clippers haven't had a regular closing lineup all year, and now they must figure out who can be trusted. Williams isn't about to be relegated to the end of the bench after dropping 36 points on 13-for-20 shooting, and the Clippers aren't about to play Morris and Green at the 5 spot for 48 minutes. Can they find ways to avoid clear mismatches, throw Doncic out of rhythm and start looking like a cohesive, disruptive defensive team again?
If not, they'll be stuck where they've been throughout the first round, trying to outgun the best offensive team in NBA history. And they'll need to do it twice in three games. This would be Los Angeles' worst nightmare.