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Why Didn’t Kawhi Guard Luka the Entire Series?
What Kawhi did as a scorer throughout the Dallas series has been widely discussed. He took over the 2nd half/4th quarter of games multiple times and in a variety of different ways. Step back threes. Getting to the rim and finishing over defenders, with contact. Getting to his spot in the midrange and rising up. He looks like a robot, a machine, whatever you want to call something that looks the exact same every time. But, I would argue, what he did as a defender in this series (specifically in the 2nd half of the series) was not only more impressive, but was FAR more important to his team’s success.
Lue’s Logic (I think?)
So if Kawhi, who’s clearly the best defender on the Clippers (and probably a top 5 defender in the NBA), why wouldn’t Lue stick him on Doncic the entire series? Well, first of all, in the first few games of the series, the Clippers switched virtually every on-ball screen, meaning whoever initially guarded Doncic was essentially irrelevant. Luka completely took advantage of the switching and literally hunted out whichever defender he wanted on every possession, resulting in easy bucket after easy bucket. Ty Lue eventually made the adjustment to stop switching the screens in an attempt to keep his desired defender on Luka. The only problem was that this defender was oftentimes Marcus Morris, and sometimes even guys like George, Batum, Rondo, and others. Not to say that these guys aren’t solid defenders in their own right, but they’re not Kawhi, and they’re certainly not at the level of stopping (or even limiting) Luka Doncic, who did some OBSCENE things in this series, by the way. So, even though the Clippers stopped switching, it was still ineffective in the sense that Luka was able to take advantage of defenders who simply aren’t of Kawhi’s caliber, something that probably baffled but excited him at the same time. Eventually, Kawhi started spending more time on Luka, and it made a massive difference in Doncic’s production. Not only did Luka shoot worse (I unfortunately cannot find the statistics anywhere, but I know that it’s the case because it was mentioned a few times on ESPN’s broadcast today), but it impacted his game in other ways, too; Doncic wasn’t able to burst by his defender as easily, put him on his back, and essentially make decisions at whatever pace he wanted. Instead, Kawhi recovered excellently, and his long arms and strong core allowed him to get in the passing lanes and push Luka off his line, something NO ONE else was able to do. This adjustment completely changed the Mavs offense; Luka started having to hit far tougher shots (which he still did at times), and he wasn’t able to throw people as open as he normally is - defenders were able to help less and therefore get out to shooters quicker. It won them the series - I would argue - and it solidified Kawhi as probably the best 2-way player in basketball (although I hate that term - everyone plays defense AND offense... this isn’t soccer or lacrosse).
If I Were Ty Lue
If I were Ty Lue, I would’ve put Kawhi on Luka from the first game onward, and I would’ve had him guard Luka the vast majority of the series (obviously there are times when a switch has to happen or times when Kawhi sits and Luka is in, but you get the point). Now, I know it seems like I’m cherry picking here, but I’m not just making this argument because of how successful it turned out to be.
Here is my argument: This is obviously over simplifying it a bit, but it’s FAR more important to limit Luka than to have Kawhi fresh and rested on the offensive end. Unlike the Clippers, who have multiple different guys other than Kawhi that can get their own shot (not to mention an awesome offense in which they drive and kick, and make the extra pass better than almost anyone), the Mavs completely rely on Luka to create almost all of their offense (refer to my last article which highlights the lack of help that Luka has). So, if the Clippers would’ve had to give Kawhi fewer Isos, or if Kawhi would’ve had to take a couple more minutes of rest, I still think they would have been able to run a successful offense. Paul George could be the primary playmaker, and Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, and others could chip in a little bit more in terms of playmaking and shot creation. On the other side of the ball, sticking Kawhi on Luka would have limited him like he was limited towards the end of the final 2 games of the series, which was enough to completely dismantle the Mavs offense and win the Clippers a second round matchup with the Jazz.
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