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

Clippers-Mavericks: 5 takeaways from Mavs' series-tying victory

Luka Doncic steps up down the stretch to power Dallas' 96-93 win that spoiled Kawhi Leonard's return to the lineup.

The Mavs pull out a narrow win in Game 2 behind their star backcourt tandem of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

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LOS ANGELES — The freaky nature of basketball crashed the Clippers-Mavericks first-round series and rendered it senseless.

Because: The Clippers without Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 never trailed, led by 29 and won easily.

The Clippers welcomed back Leonard for Game 2 and never seized control of a tight game, couldn’t make any shots from deep and ultimately were cooked in the closing moments by Luka Doncic.

It’s all square at one game each after the Mavericks’ 96-93 victory at Crypto Arena, and enough hints were dropped to indicate this could be a long series.

Here are five takeaways from Game 2:

1. You crack the door for Luka, he kicks it down

This sloppy game begged someone to end it mercifully, and the most qualified player finally raised his hand.

Fourth quarter, time slowly evaporating, anybody’s contest … who’s bringing the clutch gene? That would be Doncic, one of the league’s better players in these circumstances, who stepped forward down the stretch to do what he do.

The snapshot moment came with 86 seconds left, Mavericks up a shaky six points, when he isolated on poor James Harden, dropped a 30-footer, then got flappy with the fans.

Doncic played 46 of 48 minutes, scored 32 points with nine assists, and again, while it wasn’t flawless for him or Dallas, they were less awful than the Clippers. And he didn’t force the issue. After breaking a 74-all tie and putting the Mavericks up for good, he assisted on 3-pointers from Kyrie Irving, PJ Washington and Maxi Kleber.

“A lot of stars coming down the stretch will ignore the double team and try to beat the double team,” said Mavericks coach Jason Kidd. “Luka understands the game and trusts his teammates.”

2. A relatively quiet return for Kawhi

What did you expect from someone who hadn’t played since March 31, missed the last eight games of the regular season and the opener of this series with a bothersome knee?

The best development of the night for Kawhi and the Clippers is that he left the arena the same way he arrived.
Not that he was invisible in his return to the court — he had flashes at both ends — but he never impacted the game in 35 worry-free minutes, never wrestled the game away from Doncic in the moment of truth.

Leonard finished with 15 points, but it was his hustle stuff — seven rebounds, four steals — that spoke positively about his fitness and level of confidence in a knee that was previously repaired.

“My whole focus was to get back on the floor and help my team get a win,” he said, brushing aside any questions about his stamina or giving details about the last three weeks.

In the big picture, even in a loss, this was a positive development for the Clippers. Given Leeonard’s rich history of missing games with injury, especially in the post-season, seeing him in uniform with no minutes restriction was refreshing for the Clippers.

That’s because even though Leonard played in 68 of the first 74 games — his healthiest since 2016-17 and most as a member of the Clippers — the abrupt shut-down with knee soreness sent a chill through the team.

3. Mavs finally get a ‘big’ return on investment

For the first seven quarters of this series, the most impactful big man on the floor was Ivica Zubac. And this was problematic for the Mavericks’ team that swung major deals at the trade deadline to bring much-needed size.

Washington (and especially Daniel Gafford) were non-factors in Game 1 and for much of Game 2 … until Washington stepped forward with meaningful shots when it counted.

He dropped a corner 3 that tied the game at 73-all and the Mavericks never trailed again. Another 3 put the Mavericks up eight, and he scored eight of his 18 in the fourth.

Gafford dealt with a creaky back early in the game. He played only 10 minutes, went scoreless, grabbed only one rebound — one more than he had in all of Game 1 — and gave way to rookie Dereck Lively II.

It’s important to understand that the dynamics have changed for both Gafford and Washington for the first time in their young careers. After playing for the Wizards and Hornets, respectively, they’re in a different atmosphere and on a team with bolder goals.

Can either, or both, raise their awareness to meet the expectations of Doncic, Irving and Kidd? The Mavericks could thrive or die in these playoffs depending on the answer.

4. Hard night for Hardaway

The Mavs’ leading scorer off the bench and one of the better sixth men in the league found himself on the bench longer than he thought.

Tim Hardaway Jr. saw six minutes before suffering an apparent ankle sprain and his night was over.

His damage to the Clippers was minimal — he was a scoreless 0-for-1 in Game 2 — and his playing time in Game 1 was just 16 minutes, but that was a coach’s decision.

It’s possible that Kidd could give more burn to Josh Green even if Hardaway’s ankle doesn’t prevent him from missing Game 3 in Dallas.

5. Clippers’ confidence remains unshaken

So how do you rationalize this defeat from the Clippers’ standpoint? Does a home split give a reason for pause?

Coach Ty Lue said: “We’re in good shape. They came and won a game in which we didn’t play our best.”

In a make-or-miss league, the Clippers misfired. It’s really that simple. Their defense was mainly sound and, if they keep the same effort and intensity on that end, that won’t be an issue.

But the Clippers can’t expect to miss 22 of 30 from deep, and shoot 36.8% overall, and expect to win many playoff games. Their starters were a combined 5-for-23 on 3s and a handful were open looks.

Plus, they often lapsed into hero ball, a sign of desperation when shots don’t fall and the ball doesn’t move.

Then again …

“Kawhi’s gonna find his rhythm,” said Paul George. “And we’re gonna find our rhythm around him. We lost, but it is great having No. 2 back with us.”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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