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Kawhi Leonard puts on a clinic as the Clippers advance to the second round

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The reigning Finals MVP sent the Mavericks home with a midrange barrage.

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Six Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This series will likely go down in Luka Doncic lore as the second-year player announcing himself on a national stage in a historic playoff debut.

But Kawhi Leonard was the best player in this series, full stop. And when the Clippers needed him to close out the Mavericks after yet another Dallas comeback, the reigning Finals MVP put the team on his back. Leonard’s midrange barrage in the fourth quarter squashed the Mavericks’ last hopes in the 111-97 win.

The victory sends the Clippers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2015. It is also the first time in the Doc Rivers era that the Clippers have won a playoff series in fewer than seven games.

LA appeared to have this game locked up early, as a stellar defensive effort spanning the second and third quarters helped the Clippers build a 23-point lead. The team loaded up on Doncic and forced the Dallas shooters to beat them. That proved to be the right strategy since the Mavericks went 7-of-28 on 3-pointers through the first three quarters, and Tim Hardaway Jr. in particular was a disastrous 0-for-8 from distance. As a team, Dallas shot 42% from the field in the first 36 minutes.

This continued a trend of the Clippers finally solving the Mavericks offense in Game 5, though the Clippers’ own offensive explosion distracted from that effort. Dallas got going a little early in the first quarter, but LA snuffed that out. Through 18 minutes spanning the second and third quarters, the Clippers limited the Mavericks to only 20 points. That’s when the game was won.

Dallas came back with a late flurry in the fourth quarter, aided by LA oddly using Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, and Reggie Jackson together in a lineup that can charitably be described as defensively flammable. But once Leonard got back in with the team up six, he scored eight straight points to regain control. Three of those came on unguardable midrange jumpers, when Leonard just got to his spot and sank the shot over a helpless Dallas defender.

The Clippers faced another bit of adversity in the first quarter, when Doncic drove at Marcus Morris Sr., and Morris brought both hands down on him, resulting in a flagrant 2 ejection. Doc Rivers defended his player during the pre-second quarter interview; Rivers said that Morris’ reputation was the cause of the ejection, since the LA forward has been involved in multiple skirmishes throughout the series.

Nevertheless, despite being down their leading scorer in the game, and their third-best player in the series, the Clippers came out in the second quarter with a new ferocity. JaMychal Green played his best minutes of the series, scoring seven points on three dunks and an and-one. His energy helped spark another 7-0 run to the start the second as the Clippers regained the lead.

But the story of the finish was Leonard. The Clippers Twitter account ran out of superlatives to describe his performance. It was Leonard’s fifth-straight playoff game with 30 points and 14th straight with 20 points. He is the only Clipper in franchise history to have 30 points and five steals in a playoff game and only the second player ever (joining Michael Jordan) to have at least 33 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and five steals in the postseason.

The Clippers learned last year against Golden State that an underdog can only go so far without the best player in the series. They had this year with Leonard, and now they’re moving on.