As deep a team as they are, the LA Clippers could not replace the defensive intensity of the absent Patrick Beverley in their Game 2 loss to the Mavericks, and the pressure on Luka Doncic eased as a result.
Live NBA: LA Clippers @Dallas GM 3
Saturday 22nd August 2:00am
Whenever you watch an LA Clippers game, one of the first and most repeated things you will hear in commentary is praise for the depth on their playing roster. And quite rightly so, too. This vaunted depth is of course highlighted by habitual Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams and quality back-up, modern-day five man Montrezl Harrell, probably the bench duo in the game today.
Yet the Clippers have also added depth at the forward spots behind star duo Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the forms of Marcus Morris and JaMychal Green, have added backcourt shooting and scoring depth with Landry Shamet and Reggie Jackson and even have some proven specialist defenders on hand with Rodney McGruder and Joakim Noah if so required.
But one thing that was reaffirmed during their Game 2 loss to the Dallas Mavericks was the importance of starting point guard Patrick Beverley. For him, there is no obvious replacement.
It has long been established that Beverley is a bulldog defender. It is his brand, his purpose, his reason to be on the basketball court, especially when in the starting line-up of a competitive team as he is now. Beverley eschews a more conventional role of a point guard, not for a lack of trying, but because he does not have that management of time and pace, nor the ball-handling skills or top-level passing vision, to lead an NBA offense from the front.
Rather, he leads the defense from the front instead.
Beverley has been plying this trade as a professional for a decade now, at the highest levels of the NBA for most of that time. Opponents know what is coming. He gets low, he gets fierce, he uses his size and strength along with his anticipation and sheer grit to pick up full court, and he strives to be a pest on opposing ball-handlers.
And those opposing ball-handlers do not have to be of a similar physical stature to him, either. In the first few minutes of Game 1 of the series, Beverley was a key component in forcing star Mavericks point forward Luka Doncic into four early turnovers, eventually committing 11 in all for the game. With Beverley out for Game 2 with a calf strain, Doncic did not face the same kind of pressure.
That is not to say he did not have good defenders to contend with. The Leonard and George pairing are two almost perfect defensive forwards, both separately and together; length, anticipation, strength and speed make them well-equipped to go over screens and still keep up with the crafty Slovenian as well as anyone, a fact that has been reflected by Doncic’s performances against the Clippers on the season as a whole.
With his step-backs, agility and endless arsenal of footwork and floaters off the dribble, Luka is almost always able to overcome the disadvantage he faces against the athletic specimens in NBA frontcourts but adding someone with a lower centre of gravity who can bother every single dribble in every area of the court for every second he is in the game is a different problem, and one that only Beverley creates. Doncic can of course shoot over Beverley. With his step-back, Doncic can shoot over everyone! Beverley at least has a counterpunch.
This is of course not to say that Doncic has been a let-down – far from it. He scored 42 points in his first NBA playoff game and is averaging 35 points per game in the series so far. Overall, he is averaging as-near-as-is a triple-double, in line with the phenomenal play of his entire sophomore season.
This is also not to say that the Mavericks are excessively reliant on Doncic. Brilliant though he is, it is the team that has posted the best offensive numbers in NBA history, not just one man.
It is certainly true that Doncic is the catalyst of it, and excellent passers always seem to make other players around them more willing and better passers by proxy as well for whatever reason, yet it is also the versatile finishing of Kristaps Porzingis, the resurgence of Tim Hardaway Jr, the vital shooting contributions of Seth Curry and Trey Burke and the offensive improvements in frontcourt players such as Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber that has made the Mavericks into such a wonderful offensive team, not a wonderful offensive one-man show.
The difference between the two Doncic performances in the first two games of this series, however, is most obviously reflected in the turnover column. In Game 1, Doncic conceded 11, defended by Beverley for more than half the time. In Game 2, with no Beverley, he conceded only one.
Leonard and George are excellent defenders, yet you also need them to shoulder a much bigger offensive burden going back the other way.The presence of the much lower-usage Beverley allows them to do just that.
Having Beverley means having a guard that can match up across the backcourt, wings and forward positions in a way most others of his short stature cannot do, and which greatly improves the efficacy and range of switching options. He can pester Doncic; he did pester Doncic. And he will need to do so again.
In addition to Doncic having an easier time of it in Game 2, Curry and Burke were able to get what they wanted against the small Clippers backcourt that lacked for good defenders.
Williams has never been a strong individual defender, nor has Jackson, and with the ball zipping around like it does for Dallas, the Mavericks worked ball and man through many open seams for those excellent shooters to exploit. Combined with Doncic attacking those two whenever one of them was on him, and there is always a defensive hole somewhere on this Clippers team supposedly lauded for its depth when Beverley is not available.
Combine this hole in the playing personnel with the less-than-crisp rotations the Clippers have played so far – they have recorded only one good quarter of defense into two full games – and Los Angeles’ defensive shortcomings thus far have gone beyond just getting Beverley back to health. Strategically, perhaps, the heavy diet of switching that overexposed the lesser defenders in this way needs reviewing going forward.
Beverley is however the biggest part of it, and Dallas, deep with offensive talent headed by a ‘unicorn’ player who apparently has an answer to everything, and who can dissect even the best teams in the pick-and-roll, saw the pressure ease without him.
Two teams freshly constructed around the two-star model, and yet here we are, watching a role player make such a big difference.