It looked like the game ended just as it started. It looked like the Los Angeles Clippers showed the beginning of the end of yet another underachieving season. And it looked like the Clippers would then enter a cloudy future after failing to climb through their narrowing championship window.
But then, something happened. The Clippers finally showed some passion. They finally demonstrated resiliency. They finally made adjustments. The Clippers then ended a playoff game that deserved inspiring praise instead of embarrassing scorn.
The Clippers finished with a 118-108 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday at American Airlines Center, and the Game 3 result means more than just reducing the Mavs’ first-round series lead to 2-1. Considering no NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 series deficit, the Clippers essentially salvaged their season.
"We’re down 2-1; we haven’t shown anything," Clippers forward Paul George said. "We’re not the favorites. We’re not the defending champs. We haven’t shown anything."
Fair enough. But the Clippers would have shown everything had they lost.
“This is the team we are. This is the team we’ve been and this is the team we need to be.”
PG talks the difference in play between the first 2 games of the series and tonight’s🎙#ClipperNation | @LAClipperspic.twitter.com/NdmecGrBl9
The Clippers avoided another disappointing playoff exit after squandering a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets last year. The Clippers delayed an uncertain offseason that could have featured Kawhi Leonard leaving as a free agent, George getting dealt in a trade or even owner Steve Ballmer relocating the franchise to Seattle. The Clippers showed they actually can win this playoff series after showing little evidence that they could in their first two losses.
"We finally have figured out how we want to attack offensively," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. "We understand what we need to do defensively and how to limit our mistakes."
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Technically, the Clippers did not secure Game 3 until closing the final 8:13 with a 24-17 run. Leonard scored nine of his team-leading 36 points. Dallas also went 3-of-9 from the field while committing two turnovers. But the Clippers ensured the win well before that moment after showing some of their worst qualities.
It started after the Clippers lost their first two games in L.A. Then, Mavericks star Luka Doncic scored almost anytime he tried. When he faced double-teams, Doncic either powered through them or found connected with Kristaps Porzingis or a role player for buckets. As George admitted, "we didn’t show any defense the first two games."
Kawhi Leonard led the Clippers with 36 points in their Game 3 win. (Photo: Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports)
Therefore, the Clippers may not have sounded reassuring when they put on a calm front and spouted clichés about their optimism. Who knows if that meant the Clippers lacked enough urgency or if they showed maturity. But it seems reassuring that the Clippers talked internally about their issues. Rajon Rondo said "there’s been a lot of conversation" after the Game 2 loss, during film sessions and on the team plane to Dallas.
At first, the Clippers suggested they could not back up their words with actions. On the first play, George attacked the basket and bricked a shot. On the second play, Doncic drove to the basket with ease. On the third play, Leonard committed a 24-second shot clock violation. On the fourth play, Doncic made an open 3-pointer. Minutes later, the Clippers trailed 30-11 with only 4:38 left in the first quarter.
Lue kept preaching "stay the course" during multiple timeouts. He implored his players to keep attacking aggressively. He encouraged them to stay calm.
Slowly but surely, the Clippers suddenly changed their identity. The Clippers closed out the first quarter with a 30-4 run. In the second quarter, George scored 13 of his 29 points. By halftime, the Clippers held a 63-61 lead.
Kawhi and Luka duel as the @LAClippers (1-2) take Game 3 on the road! #NBAPlayoffs
Leonard: 36 PTS, 13-17 FGM
Doncic: 44 PTS, 9 REB, 9 AST
Game 4: Sunday at 9:30pm/et on TNT pic.twitter.com/dPOgRZmEUk
The Clippers still had issues, though. Ivica Zubac could not stop Doncic at the rim because of his slow mobility. Patrick Beverley could not stop Doncic behind the perimeter and compensated for his lack of size with annoying tactics that did nothing to rattle Doncic. The Clippers also missed forward Serge Ibaka, who missed Game 3 because of emerging back spasms that sidelined him for 31 games this season.
So, Lue switched up his lineup in the second half by relying on more offensive depth (Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann,) while limiting Zubac and Beverley. Lue applauded Zubac and Beverley for handling the demotions in a professional manner.
Doncic still ultimately finished with 44 points, and had nearly even performances in the first half (26 points on 9-of-15 shooting) and second (18 on 6-of-13 shooting). But as Doncic had increasing soreness in his shoulders, the Clippers did not allow Porzingis (nine points on 3-of-10 shooting) or Tim Hardaway Jr. (12 points on 4-of-14 shooting) to do much of anything.
"Just basically mental, effort and paying attention to detail," Leonard said. "That’s it. It’s playoff basketball. You’re playing against some of the greatest talent in the world. So you have to have attention to detail."
Because the Clippers eventually did so, they gave themselves a chance to rewrite what would have been a critical end-of-season obituary.
"We can’t crown ourselves too early," Rondo said. "But we’re understanding to have that mindset when things get hard, we have to fight. We stuck to the fight."
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