The Clippers were fairly content with the way they played against the Mavericks in game one, despite the result. And for the middle 40 minutes, they were the better team. They outscored Dallas 94-85 during the meat of the game.
But L.A. was slow to start and poor to finish, and the Mavericks rode their advantages in the opening and closing stretches to victory.
The failure to come out sharp in the first quarter almost could have been predicted. The Clippers notoriously hate matinee games, and they had been off for a week, even more so for several key rotation players who sat the last two games of the season. Rust was easily a factor. The first quarter has also been the team’s worst since the All-Star Break; L.A. has a plus-minus of only 0.3 in the first. The Clippers often have to absorb the first hit before settling in.
That is a real problem against a Dallas team that doesn’t make a habit of surrendering leads. The Mavericks were only up after the first quarter 27 times during the regular season (37.5 percent of game), but they won all of those contests, a streak that continued in the series opener. This isn’t an opponent to fall behind early against.
Some of the Clippers’ initial struggles were a matter of missing shots — they weren’t alone, as no home team in the first game shot better than 33.3 percent from 3-point range — but they also just weren’t ready to go. They rushed the offense and didn’t get into the paint often enough.
“I thought a couple guys took a couple bad shots early on and they were able to get out in transition, got some easy baskets,” Ty Lue said about the poor start. “Thought (Dallas) attacked early on by getting to the basket, getting to the paint, and spreading it out to the 3s. But I thought just us easing into the game, like, not bringing that physicality was not the way I wanted to see the start of the game, and they got off to 17-6 lead, like you said. So after that we picked it up, our physicality picked up. And it’s the playoffs, you can’t ease into the game, we got to be physical right from the jump and have a defensive mindset.”
The Clippers eventually worked their way back from the 11-point deficit, but at a hefty price. Lue noted that Kawhi Leonard tired out as the game wore on because he had to work so hard to get his team back into the game. Leonard only had three points in the fourth quarter out of his 26 overall, and he was short on a couple of his jumpers while also missing a free throw.
If it was the offense that failed the Clippers early, the defense betrayed them late. To a man, nearly every Clipper was happy with the quality of looks they got down the stretch; they just didn’t make them. L.A. was the fourth-best team in the league during clutch situations after the All-Star Break, but it didn’t look like it against Dallas. Instead, they made mistakes while being outscored 16-5 in the final five minutes.
“We had a couple of defensive breakdowns down the stretch,” Lue said. “The one where (Dorian) Finney-Smith made a three to put them up 103 to 100.... We got some shots that we liked and we just didn’t make them, we didn’t make our free throws and that’s just part of the game.”
After the Finney-Smith shot, the Clippers didn’t properly account for Kristaps Porzingis on an inbounds play, forcing the 6’8 Nicolas Batum to fend for himself against the 7’3 Porzingis right underneath the hoop, which led to two free throws. Two possessions later, they missed a rotation that allowed Porzingis to get an uncontested dunk.
Lue did bemoan one shot that Paul George took in transition, a contested three when the Clippers could have gotten a better look. But otherwise, their focus was on simply executing the game plan on the defensive end, and they feel confident that is a change they can make.
“Just play better overall basketball,” Leonard said when asked what the Clippers need to improve on. “Make sure that we play together. We didn’t make no shots tonight, especially down the stretch. In the beginning of the game, it was a struggle for us to score as well. So just coming in, being in the moment, making sure our defense is better at the start as well. And just keep moving from there. But everybody is pretty positive and wants to get better.”