After weeks and months of anticipation, the 2020 NBA Playoffs get underway on Monday with four intriguing games and, in the nightcap, the L.A. Clippers and Dallas Mavericks begin what should be an entertaining best-of-seven battle.
While the Clippers are seen as substantial favorites to advance after a strong regular season performance, the Mavericks deploy the NBA’s best offense, headlined by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. For L.A., the two-headed monster of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George made headlines dating back to their joint decision to join the organization in July, and the Clippers are legitimate contenders to win the 2020 NBA title, even in this bizarrely delayed season.
Much of the attention in any NBA series is (rightly) paid to the star power on either side, meaning plenty of scrutiny and praise for Doncic, Porzingis, Leonard and George. However, there are potential X-factors to discuss for both squads and, in this space, we’ll highlight one for each team.
L.A. Clippers: Montrezl Harrell
Because he had to tend to a family emergency, Harrell did not participate in any of L.A.’s seeding games and, as such, the talented big man has not been on the floor in a competitive environment in several months. In fact, Harrell did not clear the NBA’s mandated quarantine period until Monday, leaving the Clippers to assign a “questionable” injury designation for him in Game 1.
With that as the backdrop, it may be fair to suggest that Harrell is more of an X-factor beyond the first round than actually against the Mavericks but, with Dallas as a worthy adversary, the Clippers can’t afford to be too experimental. Harrell is a leading contender for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award and, on the offensive end, he is a terror for the Clippers. To that end, he is largely projected to be a member of the Clippers’ best five-man unit in crunch time but, defensively, Harrell is not a dominant force and the Mavericks have the talent and scheme to put pressure on any big man defensively.
Harrell may not appear as much in Games 1 and 2 as he will later in the series but, both against Dallas and beyond, the Clippers need their top big man at full strength and rounding into form sooner rather than later.
Dallas Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr.
As noted above, the Mavericks are significant underdogs, both in perception and on the betting market. Dallas projects to be able to score efficiently, even against one of the NBA’s best defenses, but the Mavericks should have all kinds of trouble defending the likes of Leonard, George, Harrell, Lou Williams and others.
Rick Carlisle has one above-average wing defender, Dorian Finney-Smith, to deploy against either Leonard or George but, in truth, the options to defend the other All-Star wing are limited. The Mavericks could lean on former No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist but, more practically, Dallas must find a way to keep Hardaway Jr. on the floor to keep their all-world offense on track.
At the age of 28, Hardaway Jr. is enjoying the best season of his career, especially from an efficiency standpoint. The former Hawks and Knicks guard is knocking down almost 40 percent of his long-range offerings and, in totality, Hardaway Jr. is posting a true shooting percentage of 58 percent.
While he isn’t tasked with the creation responsibilities of Doncic, Hardaway Jr. can get his own shot and, against a tantalizing defense like the Clippers, Dallas will need him to step up in a big way offensively. On the other end, Hardaway Jr. has to do his part to stay on the court and, in this series, that might mean stretches in which he is asked to defend George at a reasonable level. That is, to put it plainly, a challenge for Hardaway Jr. but, in the same breath, he has proven to be less flammable in Dallas than in previous stops, and the pressure environment of the postseason should draw his top effort.
The Mavericks don’t appear likely to knock off the Clippers in a seven-game series, but the easiest way to envision an upset is Dallas putting together an unbelievable offensive performance in a handful of games. The clearest path to that level of offensive explosion certainly revolves around Doncic and Porzingis but, as the team’s No. 3 offensive option, Hardaway Jr. needs to have a big series to unlock the Mavericks’ upside.