A wise man—a wise and handsome man with unimpeachable personal hygiene and many friends and admirers—once said that a good and cool way to watch playoff basketball is to focus your attention on the most vulnerable defender on each team, the guy the offense is trying to pick out and isolate and expose each time up the court. NBA fans who followed this excellent and good-smelling advice during the late stages of Tuesday night’s 127-121 Game 2 Mavericks win over the Clippers were treated to a real show: yapping Chihuahua and professional coattail ornament Patrick Beverley getting played all the way off the floor by a Mavericks offense determined to pull him into the middle of the action and then grind him into a sticky paste.
The Clippers are supposed to be the favorites in this series, but they yawned and smirked their way through a 10-point loss in Game 1, and after a couple days spent yawning and smirking over the suggestion that dropping the opener at home might be somewhat less than ideal, mostly yawned and smirked their way into a hole during the first three quarters of Tuesday night. The Mavericks led by as many as 14 points in the second half, and apart from a couple first-half Clippers runs and a brief stretch at the start of the second, Dallas mostly had control of the game from start to finish.
The lead was 13 points at about the seven-minute mark of the fourth quarter, but Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a pair of free throws and then Marcus Morris banged home a three-pointer to draw the Clippers to within 10 points with 6:30 on the clock. That’s a big, commanding lead for the Mavericks, but the Clippers finished the regular season with the league’s fourth-ranked offense by points per possession, per Cleaning the Glass, and hit an impossible-seeming 41 percent of their three-pointers as a team. The game was far from over, is what I’m saying.
And, indeed, the Clippers had a scoring surge in them: Paul George followed a wasted Dallas possession with a dunk; then, when the Mavericks failed to answer, Morris drained another three-pointer to cut the lead to five with just under five minutes on the clock. Rick Carlisle called a timeout. Here is where the Mavericks evidently decided that the safest way to secure the victory would be to hunt down Patrick Beverley, installed as the pestering tip of a versatile, switchable, defensively oriented Clippers lineup, and smush him into the court.
Beverley opened the ensuing possession guarding Hardaway, but NBA teams reliably—and often a little too readily—switch assignments on ball screens in late-game scenarios. Theoretically this is done to prevent a good screen from wiping out a point-of-attack defender and giving the ball-handler a running start at a retreating big man, but in practice it often allows the offense to choose for itself the individual matchups on the floor. In this case, the Mavericks used Hardaway as a screener for Luka Doncic, who by this point had 35 points in the game on a variety of tough, self-made looks. This was essentially an expression of Dallas’s preference for attacking the diminutive Beverley instead of long-armed menace Paul George. George was lured out to the wing and Beverley was isolated on Doncic, who outweighs him by one million pounds and prefers that neither of them ever forget it. Maxi Kleber, recent survivor of a huge Kawhi poster dunk, slipped a half-hearted screen near the top of the key, and Doncic just … ran in a straight line to the front of the rim and dropped in an easy layup.
The teams traded crappy possessions (and Beverley got away with one bad but incomprehensibly judged shooting foul) over the next 90 seconds or so, before the Mavericks used an identical action—Hardaway screening early for Doncic in order to engineer a matchup with Beverley, followed by only the merest suggestion of a screen from Kleber—in order to once again get their superstar headed downhill against an overmatched defender. This time Beverley did a more committed performance of disruptive defending, frantically pestering Doncic up near half-court but in a way that opened up an awfully long runway for a guy with every intention of driving to the cup. Doncic weathered the tantrum and then drove right; once again Beverley became a piece of lint on Doncic’s jersey, and the lead was extended to nine points.
The Clippers answered with a driving dunk from Kawhi, but a dangerous pattern had been established: Auto-switching would allow the Mavericks to hunt down Beverley, and Beverley, for all his reputation, wouldn’t be able to do much more than waive his hands excitedly once Doncic got a head of steam. This would present a huge tactical advantage for the Mavericks so long as Clippers head coach Ty Lue was committed to keeping Beverley in his closing lineup, and to allowing him to defend at the point-of-attack without help.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Mavericks opened their next possession with Hardaway screening for Doncic and dragging Beverley once again into the grinder. The Clippers, now desperate to protect their man, sent George at Doncic in a frantic double-team. The rotation to keep George’s man defended was a simple one, but if you are using two defenders to stop a guy 35 feet from the basket, any rotating you do closer to the paint will leave someone wide open. This time Reggie Jackson jumped out to guard Hardaway, and Kawhi, stationed in the weak-side corner on Kristaps Porzingis, flew across the paint in the direction of Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith, each just one pass away from the swinging ball. Doncic pitched it to Hardaway; Porzingis cut along the baseline, and Hardaway fed the big man for an easy dunk.
The Clippers answered furiously. Kawhi buried a three to cut the lead to six points with 1:46 on the clock. A savvier double-team forced Doncic into a live-ball turnover, and in transition George fed Terance Mann for an alley-oop to bring the margin to four points. Interestingly, Rick Carlisle held onto his final timeout, and it’s fair to wonder if this wasn’t because he understood that Lue was likely to use the next dead ball to yank Beverley the hell off the court and replace him with the nearest warm body. Sure enough, on the ensuing possession, the Mavericks used the same action to force Beverley into the thresher, but this time, when George raced up for the double-team, Doncic fed Finney-Smith, who’d flashed to the circle. Jackson, who’d prepared to rotate onto Hardaway, retreated to Kleber in the strong-side corner; George, caught unprepared by the pass to Finney-Smith, failed to return immediately to Hardaway on the wing, and Finney-Smith pinged the ball out for a wide-open, backbreaking three-pointer.
Lue, finally and about three minutes too late, had seen enough. The Clippers called a timeout and Beverley was exiled to the bench, where he watched the final few possessions of a comfortable Mavericks victory. A lot of this is just Luka Doncic, who in fairness to Beverley puts up numbers even when guarded by people who can reach his navel without jumping. In Game 1 it was poor Ivica Zubac, twice Beverley’s size but an equally vulnerable positional mismatch for Doncic, who the Mavericks hunted down and chased off the floor with one screen after another. You don’t have to be roadkill to be treated as roadkill by one of the game’s very best offensive players.
On the other hand, Patrick Beverley is a three-time All-Defensive Team honoree and has a rotation role on a playoff team entirely because of his reputation as a relentless, pestering defender who at least in theory can be switched onto larger players, which suits him for the style of team defense preferred by playoff teams nowadays. Watching him get dragged out and brutalized by an opposing perimeter player during crucial late-game possessions, it was hard not to think of the words of Russell Westbrook, who insists Beverley’s stopper reputation is based on smoke and mirrors:
The Mavericks took both games in Los Angeles and the Clippers are in the deepest of shit, and if the higher seed wants this series to go much longer than four games they’ll need to find a better hiding place for their swaggering defense-first point guard. Like, maybe a broom closet.