Playoff basketball returned to Los Angeles Saturday, but it took the Clippers about six minutes longer than they would have liked to show up. L.A. eventually climbed out of that first-quarter hole, but playing from behind eventually took its toll in a 113-103 loss.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 49 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists. Neither one was the best player on the court.
Luka Dončić was the first star to get comfortable, dominating his individual matchup with Patrick Beverley to score in the post and create opportunities for his teammate to attack closeouts. Meanwhile, the Clippers were a little short on their jumpers, as the normally stellar jump-shooting team just didn’t have the bounce to start.
That changed after the first timeout with the Clippers down 17-6, most noticeable with Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers went with small-small pick-and-rolls to get Dončić or Tim Hardaway Jr. switched on Leonard, and the Clippers star smelled blood with that matchup. Leonard blew by on his way into the paint or simply bullied in the post.
Reggie Jackson also added some punch near the end of the quarter, dazzling with a fake to get past Dorian Finney-Smith. That pulled the Clippers within three, the margin at the end of the first frame.
It was unclear if Paul George would be available to start the second quarter after only getting 30 seconds of rest in the first, but he came out to lead the bench unit as he normally does along with Rajon Rondo, Jackson, Nico Batum, and Serge Ibaka. That group treaded water, but it was the Leonard/Rondo combo that really started to make magic.
Rondo did a masterful job of delivering the ball to Leonard in the post, and then also playing off the extra attention that Leonard got from the Dallas defense. The Mavericks dared Rondo to beat them from the perimeter, and Rondo delivered with two threes in the period, giving the Clippers their first lead of the game with the second triple at 43-40.
The real problem for the Clippers in the first half was simply their inability to hit threes. George and Leonard got into the paint and created good looks, but L.A. only made 4-of-18. The failure to cash in let the Mavericks stay connected and then create some separation at the end of the half with a mini-Dončić run to go up 60-55. The Clippers elected to switch on most Dončić actions, and he got way too comfortable scoring on Ivica Zubac.
In the third quarter, George made a more concerted effort to work inside the arc with his three-ball still absent. He found some success in the midrange and getting all the way to the hoop. The Clippers couldn’t quite break through, even with Leonard’s heroics. He swiped the ball from Hardaway and posterized Maxi Kleber on the other end, lighting up Staples Center.
L.A. tried different looks on Dončić, denying him full court and trapping him in the half court. The Dallas shooters converted when the ball found them, making 17 threes while the Clippers only made 11.
Ultimately, the key swing came when George was called for an offensive foul barreling at the basket in transition. Had the call been overturned, the Clippers could have gone up three. But Tim Hardaway Jr. hit a pull-up three the other way, and the Mavericks never trailed the rest of the game.