*with statistical contributions from Max Levy
In last year’s 4-2 opening-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Luka Doncic was sensational, averaging 31 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game. He did the majority of this without his number two option, Kristaps Porzingis, who had been on an absolute tear throughout the Bubble tournament prior to injuring his meniscus. Despite Doncic’s efforts, however, his Mavs were unable to match the Clipper. More specifically, they were unable to match Kawhi Leonard.
As good as Doncic was in his first career playoff series, Leonard was even better, averaging 32.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.3 steals, and a half a block per game. What’s more, he absolutely feasted in the midrange game, a dying art amid today’s three-point frenzy. The Clippers star shot close to 54% from the field, including an effective field goal percentage of 57.7%. He didn’t shot lights out from beyond the arc, just 29.4% on 34 attempts, but he absolutely controlled the game with near-automatic shooting from the midrange, often avoiding the collapsing pressure right around the rim and taking advantage of Maxi Kleber or any other defender trying to take him one-on-one.
While Doncic did raise his three-point percentage from the regular reason in the series, he nevertheless made just 16 of his 44 attempts (36.4%), and often found himself having to bare the brunt of LA’s persistent physical punishment on his drives to the basket. If Marcus Morris’s clubbing blow to the back of Doncic’s head in Game 6 came to mind just now, you know what I’m talking about. Doncic was beaten and battered all series by the Clippers and with the already-shorthanded Mavs lacking the firepower that had made them a historically efficient offense, he was forced to routinely come back for more servings of elbows and swatting mitts.
The element that was missing from Doncic’s game last season was precisely the shot Kawhi Leonard was pulverizing the Mavs defense with throughout the series. In the series, Doncic shot just 36.3% from midrange, with such attempts comprising just 17% of his looks overall. The lesson was clear as the Game 6 buzzer sounded and the offseason officially began: in order for Luka to become positively unstoppable, he was going to have to expand his offensive game —not beyond the three-point line as many assumed, though that’s great as well— but within its limits to the place where Kawhi relentlessly torched his team to end his season. As the regular season demonstrated, he did exactly that.
This season, Doncic shot 50.3% on midrange attempts, elevating their usage in his game to 21%. The 4% increase may not seem like much, but it adds up to an awful lot when you consider the conversion rate improvement of 14%. For the most part in last year’s series, if Luka was chased off the three-point line, his only option was to dish to a shooter or suffer the brunt of multiple clubbing blows. Last season, Doncic attempted a midrange shot on just 7% of his field goal attempts. The fact that this figure elevated to 17% was a testament to LA’s physical defense deterring him to some degree from getting all the way to the basket, thus keeping him out of his comfort zone.
In addition to Doncic’s vastly improved midrange game this year, seen numerous times by his turnaround one-legged fade in the shadow of Mavs great Dirk Nowitzki on the baseline, Doncic has actually improved his three-point range, shooting a career-best 35% this season. Paired with his newfound midrange game and a largely healthy supporting cast for the rematch and he should be poised for another monster performance in his second career playoff series.