2024 Playoffs: West First Round | Clippers (4) vs. Mavericks (5)

Clippers-Mavericks: 5 takeaways from Dallas' defensive-minded Game 3 victory

The Mavs' bigs do damage on both ends vs. LA, Kyrie Irving delivers in the 2nd half again and Dallas protects home court.

The Mavs forced 19 turnovers in Game 3 as they grabbed a 2-1 series lead over the Clippers.

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DALLAS – Daniel Gafford embodied Dallas’ response to LA’s effort Friday night to steal one at American Airlines Center.

Not here. Not tonight.

A gametime decision to play due to lower back soreness, Gafford mustered the moxie to stuff Paul George cold at the rim in the fourth quarter of the Mavericks’ 101-90 victory in Game 3 over the Clippers. The sequence highlighted Dallas’ resolve to protect home court before a sellout crowd of 20,402.

It also sent LA a message about the difficulty it faces now, down 2-1 ahead of Sunday’s Game 4 clash in Dallas.

In a chippy affair featuring ejections of Russell Westbrook and PJ Washington, guard Luka Doncic produced his lowest scoring output of these playoffs. That mattered little in the face of a “lob city” night here in Dallas bolstered another second-half gem from Kyrie Irving.

Here are five takeaways from Game 3:

1. Lob City in Big D

The Clippers once held the “Lob City” nickname during the era of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

The Mavs made it theirs for Game 3.

Dallas rocked the mic’d up rims, leaving the backboard bobbing all night long. The Mavs lobbed five successful alley-oops for dunks in the first half that could’ve been six if not for a Derrick Jones Jr. miss.

Rookie Dereck Lively II ripped four dunks off a pair of assists from Doncic, as well as dimes from Irving and Dante Exum. Gafford initiated the lob party at the 6:49 mark of the opening quarter off an Irving assist.

In all, the Mavs tallied eight lob dunks.

Dallas inflicted damage all night with its bigs. Lively, Gafford, Jones and Washington combined for 32 points in the first half, as the Mavs outscored LA in the paint by 18 points.

For the game, Dallas outscored the Clippers in the paint, 52-38.

“Our bigs were big,” said Dallas coach Jason Kidd. “I think in Game 1 we didn’t exist there. But I thought in the second half of Game 1 we showed up. Since that second half, we’ve been playing Mavs basketball.”

2. Second-half KAI

Luka Doncic has figured out how to work his game around Kyrie Irving's dynamic abilities, while the Clippers struggle for offense.

There’s a definite pattern this series of Doncic jumping on the Clippers in the first half, before allowing Irving to get his shine on in the latter stages.

Irving repeated the blueprint in Game 3, scoring two points in the first half on 1-for-5 shooting, as Doncic poured in a game-high tying 14 points headed into intermission. Irving racked up 19 of his 21 points in the second half with 11 coming in the final frame on 4-for-8 shooting.

Through the first three games in this series, Irving has averaged 20 points in the second half on 21-for-35 from the field, and 9-for-15 from 3-point range with 8 total rebounds, 5 assists and 6 steals.

So, by now, the Clippers shouldn’t ever get lulled asleep by Irving’s slow starts.

“[It’s] just his calming effect,” Kidd said. “He’s never in a rush. He’s never gonna panic. He feels that everything is under control.  The guys trust him out there on the floor. You can see that in the second half.”

3. Doncic impactful without big numbers

Game 3 marked the first time this series Doncic finished with fewer than 30 points or more. But the 25-year old managed to notch his second double-double of this postseason with a game-high 22 points and 10 rebounds, also dishing nine assists.

“Luka has to take what they’re giving,” Kidd said. “The Clippers are a really good defensive team. They’re physical with Luka.”

Still, Doncic served as catalyst for Dallas outscoring LA 36-18 in the second quarter. That helped the Mavs seize a 14-point lead at the half. The five-time All-Star scored 12 points with 5 rebounds and 5 assists in the quarter.

Doncic also notched two steals, demonstrating his underrated prowess as a defender.

“He’s gonna take the challenge,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “When your best player takes that challenge, you’re a whole different team. He’s not known for his defense. But stepping up, taking that challenge and want[ing] to play guys 1-on-1, that means a lot. He’s doing a good job of guarding our guys.”

Doncic was just 2-for-13 from the field in the second half, but Dallas was able to capitalize on 10 Clippers turnovers over that span for 16 points.

In all, the Mavs scored 29 points off 19 LA turnovers.

4. James Harden reaches postseason milestone

Harden declined to speak to reporters after Game 3, but the veteran moved past Magic Johnson to No. 16 in career playoff points (3,708). The 2018 Kia MVP tied Johnson in the second quarter with 9:08 remaining on a 24-foot stepback over Josh Green that gave LA a 32-25 lead.

The problem was Harden didn’t score again until just 35.5 seconds remained in the third quarter. The point guard finally passed Johnson in all-time postseason scoring by hitting a pair of free throws.

Harden scored 7 points in the second half on just four attempts, despite playing a game-high 44 minutes.

5. No bounce-back game for Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard has been limited in his return from injury, at the same time that the Clippers are turning the ball over in volume.

You just knew a Leonard bounce-back performance was loading, especially after a pedestrian performance (by his standards) in Game 2. The 32-year old flashed positive signs on both ends in that outing, even while banging off rust from not playing since March 31 due to knee inflammation.

Game 3 only revealed the two-time Finals MVP still isn’t quite himself.

Leonard played just 25 minutes, scoring 9 points on 4-for-7 shooting with 9 rebounds and 4 turnovers. Lue admitted the club is still exercising caution with the forward as he continues to work his way back.

Leonard played just 10 minutes in the first half.

“He’s trying to find his way back,” Lue said. “We’re just managing it. He has knee inflammation. So, [we’re] just being smart, making sure we’re doing right by Kawhi, seeing how he feels. He’s still trying to find his rhythm. We’ve got to make sure we help him do that.”

In addition to scoring 15 points in Game 2, the veteran notched seven rebounds and four steals in 35 minutes. The Clippers listed Leonard as questionable for Game 3. He’ll likely be given the same designation for Game 4.

“The way it is now, I’ll see tomorrow,” Leonard said. “But I want to play.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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