Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2020-21 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers take the spotlight.
Context: We have ourselves a series.
After losing two straight at home, the Clippers picked up a crucial Game 3 win in their first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks to avoid going down a hole no team in NBA history has ever crawled out of.
The Mavericks threw the first punch thanks to a scorching start from Luka Doncic, but the Clippers went on a run themselves late in the first quarter to get themselves back in the game. It was then a back-and-forth affair until a 16-6 run in the fourth quarter helped the Clippers take control and come away with the victory.
How did the Clippers do it? By giving the Mavericks a taste of their own medicine.
You know what that means - to the film room!
Breakdown: Leonard brings the ball up the court following a 3-pointer from Jalen Brunson.
The Clippers close the game without a traditional centre, surrounding Leonard with Rajon Rondo, Reggie Jackson, Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. George and Morris park themselves in opposite corners while Jackson camps out on the wing.
As for Rondo, he takes on the Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka role by setting a screen on Leonard.
The Clippers are basically doing what Doncic did to them relentlessly in Game 1 and 2 - force a weaker defender to switch onto their best player and let him cook.
The Clippers get what they want with the 6-foot-1 and 190-pound Brunson switching onto the 6-foot-7 and 225-pound Leonard.
Not wanting to leave Brunson out on an island against the bigger and stronger Leonard, Maxi Kleber leaves Rondo at the top of the perimeter to double Leonard and get the ball out of his hands. (It doesn't help that Leonard was red-hot in this game, scoring 36 points on 13-for-17 shooting from the field).
Leonard responds by inviting the double and calmly swinging the ball to Rondo.
With two defenders on Leonard and one on George, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis are left covering for Rondo, Jackson and Morris on the opposite side.
Hardaway drops to the paint to prevent Rondo from getting a straight-line drive to the basket, leading to a kickout to Jackson on the wing.
That forces Porzingis to rotate over to Jackson.
Rather than settling for a shot with Porzingis closing out on him, Jackson wisely moves the ball along to Morris in the corner for a clean look at a 3.
Morris knocks it down to give the Clippers a 100-94 lead with 7:01 remaining.
Why it matters: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
On the next offensive possession, the Clippers went back to the Leonard-Rondo pick-and-roll, only this time Rondo got a layup out of it.
Following a free throw from Doncic, the Clippers ran it again, this time ending in a 3-pointer for Morris from the exact same spot.
Leonard then went to work on Kleber a couple of times in isolation.
The first time Leonard powered his way through Kleber on a drive to the basket to put the Clippers back up by 10.
This, my friends, is a grown man move:
The second time Leonard drew a shooting foul on Kleber and drained both free throws.
Leading 109-100 with under four minutes to play, the Clippers went for the knockout punch by running - you guessed it - another Leonard-Rondo pick-and-roll, leading to another 3-pointer for Morris in the corner.
It goes to show a few things. One, how difficult Leonard is to defend.
Doncic has stolen the show so far with his play in this series, but Leonard has been almost as dominant, averaging 34.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists on .600/.444/.885 shooting splits through three games. Like last postseason, Kleber has drawn the assignment of guarding Leonard. And as good of a defender as Kleber is, he hasn't had much success against Leonard.
According to NBA.com's tracking data, Leonard has shot 16-for-28 from the field, 3-for-10 from 3-point range and has earned 13 free throws with Kleber serving as his primary defender. The tracking data is far from perfect, but this is one of those times where they back up the eye test.
The thing is, Kleber is the only player on the Mavericks who really has a shot at defending Leonard. (Dorian Finney-Smith is their next-best option, but he's been busy chasing around George, who has also been scoring at a high rate in this series). It's why switching is risky, because it gifts Leonard an even greater advantage.
Two, the saviness of Rondo. He was credited with only one basket during LA's game-sealing run, but he made two passes that set the ball movement in motion and set some solid screens for Leonard. Go back and watch the screen he set that led to his one basket. Smart stuff from one of the smartest players in the league.
Three, why the Clippers going small could be the key to them getting back in this series and advancing to the second round.
It's not just on offence where downsizing helped the Clippers. (You did notice all that spacing, though, right?) They still had no luck containing Doncic, who went off for 44-9-9 in this one, but it allowed them to switch more capable defenders onto him and gave them a better shot at defending the 3-point line, where the Mavericks have lit the Clippers up in this series. Of course, it means the Clippers have nobody who can match up with Porzingis physically, but he wasn't able to punish them in Game 3, finishing with nine points and three rebounds in 33 minutes of play.
"I had great looks and I just missed the shots," Porzingis said. "Frustrated a little bit with the shots not going in. Then again, I can't really let that affect the rest of my game."
Porzingis and the Mavericks will be better prepared for the Clippers going small in Game 4. The question is, do they have the answers?
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