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

Clippers-Mavericks: 5 takeaways from foiled Game 4 comeback

James Harden steps up, Dallas can't quite catch up and things are looking up for LA with the series now tied at 2-2.

James Harden delivers a vintage performance to keep the Clippers ahead of the Mavericks despite a furious 4th-quarter rally.

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DALLAS — Little by little, LA’s 31-point lead disintegrated.

Once Kyrie Irving drove for a bucket with 2:15 left to complete a Dallas rally that finally pushed the Mavericks ahead 105-104, something interesting took place.

“I looked at you, and you were looking crazy,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue recalled. “I said, ‘We’re OK.’ They’re a great team. Kyrie and Luka [Doncic] are gonna make shots. We knew they would make a run. But also, we didn’t think we’d come into the building and be up 31 points.”

It’s true Lue locked eyes with media members after Irving’s clutch bucket, mouthing “We’re OK” as deafening chaos unfolded at American Airlines Center, minutes before LA closed a 116-111 win over the Mavericks in Game 4.

Despite missing star forward Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers now believe “we’ve seen the blueprint” for winning this series, according to guard James Harden. The series moves Wednesday to Los Angeles tied 2-2 for Game 5 (10 ET, TNT).

In NBA history, teams breaking a 2-2 tie in Game 5 in a best-of-seven series have gone on to take the whole thing more than 80% of the time.

Here are five takeaways from the matchup:

1. James Harden: ‘It was a show’

That’s how Harden described what transpired in Game 4. It turned out to be a superstar duo duel. The foursome of Harden, Paul George, Irving and Doncic combined for 135 points.

Harden and George came together for 66 points and 15 assists, becoming the seventh pair of Clippers teammates to finish a postseason game with 30-plus points. Irving scored a game-high 40 points with seven rebounds and five assists, while Doncic notched his first triple-double of the postseason.

It marked Doncic’s fourth career triple-double in the playoffs. Interestingly, they’ve all come against the Clippers.

“It was a show,” Harden said. “It was elite, skilled, Hall of Fame basketball players going at it. There’s only so much you can do defensively. All of us are obviously scorers. But we can pass as well. That makes it difficult. I think it’s whoever comes up with the stops. We were the ones that got the stops consecutively.”

2. Another perfect quarter for Kyrie

We’ve now seen three quarters this series in which Irving shot 100% from the field on five or more field goal attempts. Yes, Irving committed a playoff career-high seven turnovers in Game 4. But they didn’t knock any luster off an otherwise strong performance.

Irving hit 5-for-5 in the second quarter with a trio of 3s Sunday for 16 points as Dallas cut LA’s lead from 31 points to 17 at intermission.

In the third quarter of Game 1, Irving hit 8-for-8 for 20 points. Irving connected on all five of his field goal attempts in the second quarter of Game 2 for 16 points.

The Mavs might have completed the Game 4 comeback had they not scored 16 points in the opening frame before falling behind by 31. Dallas trailed the entire second half until Irving’s layup with 2:15 remaining.

3. Silver linings in Kawhi Leonard’s absence

Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank announced ahead of Game 4 that the team had ruled out Leonard indefinitely due to right knee inflammation.

As devastating as that sounds, perhaps LA should glean positives from this latest bout of adversity. The Clippers have shown the ability to excel without their brightest star, most recently with their 2-0 record without him thus far in the playoffs.

“It was obvious in Game 3 his mobility was severely restricted,” Frank said. “Basically, until he can show he can make all the movements he needs to make, that’s when he’ll come back.”

Leonard missed the last eight games of the regular season and the postseason opener. The Clippers finished 5-4 over that span, before falling twice with Leonard back in the fold.

“Of course, you always want to have your best player,” Lue said. “I think the blessing in disguise for us is Kawhi missing those last three weeks of the season and us being able to play a certain style with him being out. So, it wasn’t new for us to be able to play this style of basketball because we’ve gotten practice.”

4. Paul George steps up

Dialed-up aggression from George manifested itself as one of the most significant byproducts from Leonard’s absence. The veteran wing scored 33 points with eight assists and four steals.

Heading into the game, Lue made sure to articulate how George’s role needed to change.

“He understands what we need from him, how we need him to play,” Lue said.

Avoiding foul trouble checked in at No. 1.

Officials whistled George for four fouls in Game 1 and five in both Games 2 and 3. That limited George’s aggression on the defensive end while disrupting his ability to fall into the flow of games.

Lue alleviated potential issues with fouls for George by taking away the assignments of guarding Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

By doing that, Lue hoped George would “be more offensive-minded.”

The move worked to the tune of 26 points for George on 9-for-14 shooting in the first half. The nine-time All-Star blistered Dallas from deep, hitting 6-for-9 on 3-pointers. The Mavs, as a team, shot 4-for-15 from range over that span.

Interestingly, Paul had connected on just seven 3s total over the first three games of this series before moving up Sunday to No. 14 all-time in postseason 3-pointers made.

George played the entire first and third quarters, finishing with 43 minutes.

5. Harden handles business

James Harden explains how crucial Game 4 was for the Clippers.

Harden receives criticism for fizzling in the postseason. But through the first four games of this series, the former Kia MVP has proven to be LA’s most consistent performer.

Harden entered Game 4 leading the Clippers in points (23.7), assists (7.0) and minutes per game (41.7).

Without Leonard, they’d need even more.

The 34-year-old delivered with an 18-point first half, hitting 6-for-8 from the floor and 4-for-4 from range. Harden attacked the rack for six straight points in the fourth to keep the rallying Mavs at bay.

Harden complicated his afternoon by taking only one field goal in the third quarter, despite playing eight minutes.

His first bucket of the second half didn’t come until 9:45 remained in the game on an 11-foot floater off George’s eighth assist.

That changed in the fourth quarter when five of his makes came on floaters. Harden scored 15 in the final frame, with 13 falling during clutch time.

“I’m blessed to be able to change it up and be a facilitator or scorer,” he said. “I’ve been doing it throughout the course of my career at an elite level. Game 1 we knew Kawhi was out. I had to be more aggressive. Tonight, we knew Kawhi was out. I had to be more aggressive. It’s pretty simple for me.”

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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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