The Clippers finally drew blood in their first-round series, winning their first game in three times 118-108 in Dallas. The team had to battle back from a 19-point first-quarter deficit to get the job done.
Here’s how the Clippers won what technically wasn’t a must-win game, but certainly felt like one.
The stars came to play
The Clippers aren’t down in this series because their superstars haven’t shown up. Kawhi Leonard entered Game 3 averaging 33.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 53.5 percent from the field. George was at 25.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game on 50 percent shooting. The two stars were doing their job, but they weren’t getting enough help.
Regardless of whether that help would come Friday, Leonard and George once again set the tone for the Clippers. George tried to apply pressure on the rim while the team was falling behind by 19 and was L.A.’s lone source of offense at the beginning, keeping the Clippers within contact even if it felt like the game was getting out of reach. He had 22 points in the first half on 10-of-13 shooting as the Clippers somehow took a two-point lead into the break.
ATTACK THE PAINT— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) May 29, 2021
PG battling with 20 points (9-11 FG) in 17 minutes of play. pic.twitter.com/5OI7iEqZM3
George’s scoring plateaued during the second half, though his defense remained active, and Leonard picked up the baton from there. Leonard was essentially in lockstep with George during the first 24 minutes, dropping 18 points of his own, but then added another 18 after intermission.
“I thought PG and Kawhi was fantastic,” Ty Lue said postgame. “I thought PG really carried us in the first half, and then Kawhi in the second half, you know, really took over the game.... It was a total team effort, but Kawhi and PG really put us on their shoulders.”
Despite the rough start, both Leonard and George registered positive plus-minuses in the box score. The Clippers needed them to be at their best, and their two stars delivered.
“Those two guys led us again on both ends of the floor, they took the challenge and were a lot more aggressive defensively,” Rajon Rondo said. “Both had four or five fouls, but that’s what it takes, especially if they are going to play 40 minutes a night to be aggressive defensively and offensively; they make everybody else’s job easier.”
The bench saved the Clippers early and often
Lue went to his bench earlier than usual in Game 3, pulling Ivica Zubac after two minutes for Nicolas Batum, and then bringing Rondo and Terance Mann in with five minutes to play in the opening quarter. Batum was another switchable defender, particularly for Luka Dončić, allowing the Clippers to stick to their scheme and keep the Mavericks out of the paint. L.A. won the battle of points in the paint 46-24. Batum also started in place of Zubac in the second half and continued to be active around the basket.
Rondo provided another capable team defender — the Clippers’ defensive rating of 106.8 when Rondo was on the floor was second only to Mann. Rondo also brought pace and paint attacks to the Clippers offense, finishing with a team-high eight assists to just two turnovers.
“Tonight I think we found the way we wanted to attack, and Rondo did a good job of getting to the paint and making the extra play,” Lue said.
Mann was the final piece of the bench trio with his trademark energy. The Clippers didn’t need him for his scoring, but rather his hustle. Mann collected six rebounds and two blocked shots on the evening, as L.A. outscored Dallas by 18 in his 19 minutes. Mann’s defensive rating was a preposterous 77.1, which seems too low to be true, but makes sense when considering the force Mann brought on that end of the floor.
Great work from Mann after getting screened to get back in the play to get the block on Doncic. Just the work hustle-wise to get there is huge because he is way off the body after the screen. pic.twitter.com/PB5HJfzFIs— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 29, 2021
Small-small pick-and-rolls brought the Clippers home.
The Clippers were up 92-89 with nine minutes left when Leonard re-entered the game after his final rest, opting to go with a pretty small lineup: Rondo, Reggie Jackson, George, Leonard, and Marcus Morris Sr. The team’s action of choice during that stretch was a Leonard/Rondo pick-and-roll, and it led to good results on four straight possessions.
First, the Mavericks switched, leaving Dončić on Leonard. Rondo got the ball to Leonard at the top of the key, and Leonard elevated for a 3-pointer to put the Clippers up six, their largest lead of the series. Next time down, Rondo set the screen, giving Leonard a head of steam towards the basket. That got Dallas in rotation, and the Clippers swung the ball around the horn for a Morris three.
The Clippers went with a Rondo screen for Leonard on the next play, and this time the Mavericks rotated to close out the shooters, so Rondo simply blew by Dončić for a lay-up. Timeout, Dallas.
On the next offensive possession, Tim Hardaway Jr. tried not to let Rondo set the screen, but the Mavericks were forced to blitz Leonard anyway. He got the ball to Rondo, who drove, kicked out, swing, Morris three. That put the Clippers up 10, and they never led by less than seven from that point forward.
“Coach Lue made a good adjustment in the second half, I think he saw something that he wanted to attack defensively and we just kind of went adjustments and went with it, trusted the players on the floor,” Rondo said. “We went small and we were able to pick them apart. It was a great team effort. Senior made a lot of big shots. (Reggie) Jack(son) made shots. Kawhi made the right reads. PG made the right reads as well, so it was a collective team effort.”
The Clippers are still trailing 2-1 in the series, and the Mavericks still have homecourt advantage, but this was a necessary first step. L.A. hasn’t proven anything yet, as the players repeatedly said after the game, but at least the team is alive.