Luka Doncic’s brilliance is not up for debate. Not after the show he put on in the first playoff series of his NBA career against the Los Angeles Clippers.
He’s a breathtaking young talent destined for great things in his career.
But like so many other stars that have faced Kawhi Leonard in the past, the charismatic Doncic and his Dallas Mavericks are headed home.
Leonard closed the Mavericks out Sunday, finishing them off with his career-best fifth-straight 30-point game in a 111-97 Game 6 win to take the series 4-2.
It doesn’t matter the uniform, the conference, the opponent or the venue. When Leonard is locked in and everything’s on the line, the man his coach and teammates like to refer to as “Mr. Reliable” lives up to that billing ... as he did on Sunday.
Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP and a two-time winner of that honor, closed the door on a late fourth-quarter Mavericks rally with all the clutch shots and winning plays needed to secure his team’s ticket to a conference semifinal matchup against winner of Utah-Denver, which the Jazz led 3-2 entering Sunday's Game 6.
The Clippers needed everything Leonard could provide to move on, and he delivered with 33 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and five steals. Leonard is the first player since Gary Payton in 2000 with 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals in a playoff game. And he was ruthlessly efficient when it mattered most: he shot 9-for-10 from the floor in the second half, finally breaking the Mavericks’ will in what turned out to be a much tougher series than most expected.
“You could tell he was the one guy used to closing out series,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He was calm. He got us in plays. During games you fall on a set, right. And we fell on that little elbow set for him and just took what was there. If they came he scored and if they didn’t come he made the right pass. I said it before the game, I think I was talking to P.J. Carlesimo and I was telling him, the one thing I didn’t know … I knew he could pass and I knew he may be a good passer. But I didn’t know he was an elite passer. And that’s something you don’t know until you coach a guy.”
What Rivers knew well before the Clippers pursued and landed Leonard in free agency last summer, was that he was the type of player whose stone-faced demeanor and no-nonsense approach to the task at hand was the championship component they were missing.
He put that on display at the highest level in San Antonio, where he won his first Finals MVP in 2014, and last season in Toronto, when he collected his second in leading the Raptors to a Larry O’Brien Trophy in his lone season with the franchise.
Leonard led the Clippers on and off the floor in what was a wild five-day stretch between Games 5 and 6 of the series.
The season seemed on the brink Wednesday after the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t take the floor for Game 5 of their Eastern Conference series against Orlando in protest of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man, this time Jacob Blake -- just 40 minutes south of Milwaukee in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When all of the players on campus met that night and again Thursday morning to discuss whether or not to continue the playoffs of pack up and go home in protest, the usually soft-spoken Leonard spoke loudest for the Clippers, the same way he did with the game on the line Sunday.
“[Kawhi] is a man of business. He stepped up and stepped in and time after time, whenever we needed him, he put us on his back. He finished the series,” said Clippers All-Star Paul George, the other half of last summer’s fruitful summer offseason bounty for the franchise. “I can’t say it enough, after this series he is the most reliable guy. His shot-making, just his time on … just awareness plays, he’s just one of a kind.
“And yeah, everybody knows [Kawhi] is a man of few words, But when he speaks it’s coming from a great place. And he’s going to get his point across. His demeanor was felt and his presence was felt, you know, he was powerful in those meetings.”
This Clippers team is still working through some of the issues any elite team has in finding its form. Rivers rarely had his full roster healthy and available during the regular season before the March 11 shutdown for the coronavirus pandemic. And he didn’t have it intact when the season restarted in Orlando with eight seeding games before the playoffs began.
Having gone through the journey several times before, Leonard understands the importance of being measured and methodical in his approach. No matter how crazy the moment might seem, that method allows him to lock in at that moment.
“I guess just being here before, you know what I mean, just knowing it’s going to take the [full] 48 minutes,” he said. “I always say that just play even-keeled out there. We just gotta keep fighting. This is playoff basketball and everything is not going to go your way. You’re going to have downs and ups and you just gotta keep playing,”
Doncic and the Mavericks forced the Clippers to stretch themselves to the limit through the first four games of the series. He ripped the Clippers for 42 points in Game 1, an NBA record for points in a playoff debut, and scored 28 points in 28 minutes in a Game 2 win to even the series. Doncic finished with a triple-double in a Game 3 loss and then erupted for a 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist triple-double and the step-back, game-winning 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer of Game 4.
Doncic averaged 31 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists for the series, playing on a left ankle he sprained early in Game 3 and without Kristaps Porzingis (torn meniscus in his right knee) in the final three games of the series.
He got under the Clippers’ skin up until the very end; Marcus Morris was ejected with 1:07 to play in the first quarter Sunday for a Flagrant 2 foul on Doncic, who finished with 38 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists while rallying the Mavericks from a 23-point deficit to within six points in the final minutes Sunday.
Leonard closed the show. But Doncic also earned Leonard’s respect.
“He’s a great player,” Leonard said. “His first playoffs, he battled every minute he was out there on the floor. DIdn’t back down and led his team every game. He did a hell of a job out there.”
Rivers said he’s had a “man-crush” on Doncic since he first set eyes on his game his rookie season. This postseason only strengthens that feeling.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle heaped even more praise on his young star, saying Doncic is “one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen in this league -- and that’s going back 35, 36 years.”
Again, Doncic was brilliant and at times breathtakingly so.
But in the end, Leonard’s championship-level steady was better.
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