LOS ANGELES — Over the last 10 days, the Clippers did something they were unable to do last year in the bubble:
Rise up in the face of real adversity.
Down 0-2 in then 2-3 to an unreal Luka Doncic and his Mavericks in the first round, the Clippers flipped a switch they have searched to find for two seasons.
That switch started with Finals MVP-level Kawhi Leonard. On offense, he attacked the heart of the Mavericks’ Boban-centered zone, then kicked out to open shooters — who finally hit their shots like they had all season (46.5% from 3 in Game 7). More importantly, on defense Leonard was relentless covering Luka Doncic, who scored 29 in the first half but looked worn down in the second half (he still shot 7-of-16 for 17 points after the break).
Doncic still finished with 46 — he has five 40+ point playoff games, and he’s only played 13 of them. And he’s just 22.
Luka closes out his season in magical fashion. 💫
46 PTS (#NBAPlayoffs career high)
— NBA (@NBA) June 6, 2021
Leonard finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists — but he had help. Three Clippers had more than 20 points (Leonard, Paul George with 20 and 9 assists, and Marcus Morris with 23 including seven 3s) and seven players in double-figures. The Clippers assisted on 30 of their 41 made baskets.
The result is a 126-111 Clippers win that sends them into the next round against the No. 1 seed Jazz, starting Tuesday on the road in Utah.
The Mavericks head into an offseason talking about building a team around Doncic that fits his otherworldly skill set.
The story of this series was the resiliency the Clippers showed, something the franchise is not exactly known for.
“I’m glad that we showed character, showed poise when we went down 0-2 and then coming back on the road in Game 3, that meant a lot to me,” Leonard said.
“That’s what [Lue] said when we were down 0-2, that the next two games are going to show who we really are…” Nicolas Batum said. “Game 3 when we’re down 30-11, I think we were one or two plays away from almost getting swept. We find something in us, resiliency and some toughness.”
They also found another gear from Leonard, one not seen since he was leading Toronto to a ring. However, he was the one Clipper who was fantastic all series.
How good was Kawhi in this series?
200 Total Points Scored On 60+ FG% in a Playoff Series, NBA History:
2021 1st Rd ……….. Kawhi Leonard
2000 Finals ……….. Shaquille O'Neal
1984 1st Rd ……….. Bernard King
1977 Conf Semis … Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pic.twitter.com/AFQOPqoHZu
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) June 6, 2021
The Clippers came out Sunday with a game plan, pushing the pace and running after makes, then making sure Leonard and George were attacking the paint and getting into the middle of Dallas’ zone — where 7’4″ Boban Marjanovic and 7’3″ Kristaps Porzingis were waiting. But as the Dallas defense collapsed, the Clippers kicked the ball out, moved it around the perimeter, and found the open shooter.
“We was getting shots all series that we weren’t making (earlier in the series)…” Lue said. “We told guys just trust the work, the work you put in all season, throughout your career that got you here.”
Doncic came out hot, scoring 19 points in the first quarter on 6-of-8 shooting. The Clippers shot 13-of-17 in the frame, but that was just the way the high-scoring first half went. Los Angeles led 70-62 at the break.
Dallas went on a little run to start the third quarter and ultimately led by five, but that’s when the Clippers put the entire puzzle together. Los Angeles took the lead on a 12-0 run that eventually became a 21-2 run and saw the Clippers up by 14.
Dallas fought to get it close in the fourth quarter but didn’t have the energy and skill players to get the job done.
“Losing in the first round is something we don’t like doing,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlise said postgame, while adding there could be lessons for the team to take out of this.
One lesson is that the Dallas front office has some work to do — Doncic is as good as they come, but the Clippers had a deeper team around their superstar, which was the difference in Game 7.
The Clippers have some work to do, too, starting Tuesday night in Utah.