2021 Playoffs: West First Round | Clippers vs. Mavericks

Kawhi Leonard carries LA Clippers into Game 7 showdown

Kawhi Leonard is masterful in Game 6, scoring a playoff career-high 45 points to bury Dallas and bring the series back to LA for one last game.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Game Recap: Clippers 104, Mavericks 97

Well, the Clippers are thrilled to know that Kawhi Leonard, who can become a free agent this summer, wants to play at least one more game with the franchise.

That was evident Friday, you think? Just when this insane first-round series took another head-scratching turn — the road team is now undefeated through six games, an NBA first — Leonard took matters into his catcher’s mitts and carried the Clippers and the Mavericks back to Los Angeles for a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday (3:30 ET, ABC).

And so that is where we’ll finally learn the fate of two teams who have taken each other’s best punch and are still living to tell. The urgency is all on the Clippers, of course, if only because: (1) They suspiciously lost to the bottom-feeding Rockets and Thunder to close the regular season and seemingly dodge the now-eliminated Lakers in the playoffs; (2) because of the way they were erased in last year’s playoffs; and (3) they have Game 7 on their court.

At least the Clippers have a pretty good hunch that Leonard will be aiming to top what he did in Game 6, if that’s possible on less than two day’s rest.

With a career playoff-high 45 points, he delivered one of the most amazing individual efforts of this NBA postseason by punishing the Mavericks repeatedly with big fourth-quarter shots. This came a few days after Leonard finished a poor (for him) Game 5 by rushing a contested 3-pointer in the final seconds of a tight contest and was admonished for it by Rajon Rondo.

Essentially, he just did to Dallas what Luka Doncic was doing to the Clippers up to this point. Eight points from Kawhi came in an 83-second blur late in the fourth. Step-back 3? Done. Ankle-breaking shake off the dribble? Absolutely. A pull-up jumper? Yes, more please.

“He was out there doing what he does, being special for us,” said Reggie Jackson.

Had the Clippers lost this game, the subject of Leonard would be a lot less enjoyable today in LA. He can walk in a few months if he chooses, and even though the betting money has him staying no matter what, nothing about Leonard is easily predictable.

Anyway, that’s a subject for another day — Sunday, actually, if the road team keeps this up and executes a clean sweep in this series.

Leonard wasn’t the only thing right about the Clippers. Jackson had himself a game and finished with 25 unexpected points, his second straight uplifting performance. The Clippers’ switching and trapping defense forced the ball out of Doncic’s hands and prevented Luka from being a hero this time. Paul George was decent, not horrific as he was last year in LA’s elimination game meltdown against the Nuggets.

Sure there were troubling issues — Marcus Morris missing nine of his 10 shots and somehow getting only four points and three rebounds in 42 minutes — and a bench that contributed one measly basket. But Kawhi eliminated those flaws with a signature performance.

The Mavericks and coach Rick Carlisle must examine the strategy of starting Boban Marjanovic to use his enormous size advantage against the Clippers’ small lineup. The Clippers are going small because their bigs, mainly Ivica Zubac, keep getting caught in switches and become easy prey for Doncic.

But Boban has his own limitations, especially when he must stray from the rim and guard his man on the perimeter. Does Carlisle have any more tricks up his sleeves? Also, Kristaps Porzingis had seven points and five rebounds in 31 minutes, making it possible for a man who stands 7-3 to disappear. (Porzingis is averaging 12 points in the series.)

Anyway, regardless of that, the Mavericks could use more of what Doncic offered in the previous five games, when he was a major problem for LA.

The weight is all on the Clippers, to become the first team in this series to hold home court, to provide at least temporary relief from the stinging memory of last year’s bitter playoffs, to put away a Dallas team and superstar in Doncic that have become a royal pain.

And of course to guarantee a relationship with Kawhi Leonard for another series. That sounds like a team with all the motivation, if not the advantage.

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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 Twitter.

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