Despite Sunday night’s 136-121 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Dallas Mavericks clinched the Western Conference’s 5th seed for the 2021 NBA Playoffs their highest seeding since winning the 2011 NBA Finals. Before Luka Doncic and the Mavs can concern themselves with a shot at the franchise’s second championship, however, they’ll first have to contend with an old foe in the opening round.

Last year, the Dallas Mavericks snapped a two-year playoff drought by securing the 7 seed following the Orlando Bubble restart. As a result, they earned the distinction of a first-round match-up with the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many had already penciled into the conference finals against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Considering Dallas had not only been swept by LA in the regular season but outright handled in all but one game, it looked to be the worst conceivable draw for Doncic’s first NBA playoffs.

That Clippers team touted the reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and a top-three MVP finalist from the year prior, Paul George, as well as role players like Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley. It was a long, athletic team filled with defensive stoppers and instigators, a roster seemingly perfectly suited to make life difficult for Doncic and the inexperienced Mavs thanks to the hard-nosed defensive identity cultivated by head coach Doc Rivers.

Unfortunately, things then went from bad to worse for Dallas as Kristaps Porzingis went down with a torn meniscus following Game 3. Any time you lose your second best player, it’s going to hurt, but Dallas was already playing without key players like Jalen Brunson, Dwight Powell, and Willie Cauley-Stein, leaving them thoroughly outgunned against the Clippers. As a result, it was through nothing short of brilliance from Doncic that the series even saw a sixth game. Still, for that Mavs team, simply making the playoffs and getting valuable experience was enough to be reasonably satisfied.

This is not that same Mavericks team.

Despite another shortened season and a very 9-14 start, Dallas, as stated above, secured the 5-seed. They also enter the postseason at near 100% health as role players Maxi Kleber and JJ Redick both are rest sore Achilles ahead of Game 1 next week. Porzingis, however, recently returned from an extended absence and has played well. Brunson, Dallas’s second-most important ballhandler behind Doncic, is also at full health, as is Powell. From top to bottom, this Mavs team is better than the one that entered the Orlando Bubble last season, and yet they remain in the eyes of many underdogs despite the 4/5 match-up being the most common upset in the playoff format.

The Clippers moved on this past season from Doc Rivers, who this season coached the Philadelphia 76ers to the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Montrezl Harrell went to the Lakers on a one-year deal in free agency. Lou Williams has also moved on. In their place, however, LA has added Rajon Rondo, Serge Ibaka, and DeMarcus Cousins, who remains quite good against Dallas despite his decline in recent years, while increasing Reggie Jackson’s role from the previous season.

The weaknesses of last year’s Clippers team have been well addressed since blowing a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets in the second round last season. They might not have the same hype surrounding them as they did last year, but make no mistake, this LA team is dangerous and rightly favored to win this series.

That’s not to say that Dallas can’t pull off the upset. If Porzingis hadn’t gone down with the meniscus injury last season, Dallas likely stuns the world with a 7-seeded upset of a title favorite thanks to two superstar talents playing at the top of their respective games. It didn’t matter that the Mavs couldn’t play defense or that the Clippers most certainly could. Having two stars dialed in and wreaking havoc the way Doncic and Porzingis were throughout the bubble play-in tournament and the start of that Clippers series is enough to mask faults within a roster.

Porzingis remains the mystery in this series, having had a dizzying up-and-down season, partly due to its condensed schedule and the absurdly short prior offseason. If he can recapture his “Bubble KP” form, Dallas remains capable of beating anybody. But if health or poor play persists, Dallas may find itself struggling to steal more than one or two games from this LA team.

Darreck W. Kirby

Founder of The Dallas Prospect, Darreck took a love for writing, analysis, and sports and brought them together in one site. Whether tracking the latest Cowboys stats and trends or breaking down film analysis for the latest flick, Darreck does it all.