Clippers, betrayed by their biggest strength, lose Game 1 to Mavericks

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard forces a turnover while defending Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis.

The crowd had gone lifeless Saturday, and not only because hundreds of cardboard-cutout Clippers fans filled Staples Center.

The tied score with three minutes left had been broken, controlled by Dallas. The Clippers’ hope for a promising postseason start had been spoiled. Outscored by seven over the final three minutes, they stared at a 113-103 loss and a 1-0 first-round deficit in the final seconds as their real fans turned to leave.

As they passed, one of the real, live spectators in section 116 pushed out his green Mavericks throwback jersey and lifted his facemask.

“Game 1 — stolen!” he yelled.

The Clippers resolutely believe the team that made just 11 of 40 three-pointers and three of eight fourth-quarter free throws Saturday was, like the cutouts, only a facsimile of the real version they had come to trust as legitimate championship contenders throughout the season. It very well may end up the case in this best-of-seven series.

The Clippers spent months making changes to avoid the kind of postseason buckling that has become intertwined with the franchise’s last decade, and arrived at these playoffs as a deep, veteran, healthy and more even-keeled fourth seed ready to distance themselves from the franchise’s ominous postseason history. They led the NBA in three-point accuracy and set a league record for free-throw accuracy too.

Clippers star Paul George charges into Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr.

Yet there will be many more changes to make before Tuesday’s Game 2 after a crippling start, a brutal finish and “a lot of breakdowns, a lot of mistakes defensively” in between, as coach Tyronn Lue somberly diagnosed. Even when Mavericks star Luka Doncic’s shooting went cold during a one-point fourth quarter, Dallas’ role players could not be contained.

“Nobody wants to lose,” said Kawhi Leonard, whose 26 points led the Clippers, and whose vicious dunk over Maxi Kleber in the second half turned a season-high crowd of 6,117 into a roaring echo chamber. “But our spirits are still high and we believe in ourselves. Nothing good, you know, comes easy.”

After making one of his first seven shots, Paul George added 23 points on 18 attempts and Lue said it was his responsibility as coach to get his other All-Star easier shots in Game 2.

Forward Marcus Morris Sr., the NBA’s second-best three-point shooter at 47% this season, missed all six of his shots from deep on his way to four points. Backup guard Reggie Jackson, typically an offensive sparkplug, scored two points.

Doncic scored 31 points with 11 assists and 10 rebounds. The Clippers defended him straight up and later tried switching and blitzing but he scored 21 in the first half while putting starting guard Patrick Beverley in foul trouble early by taking him into the post. He later devoured Ivica Zubac in the third quarter with stepback jumpers that prompted Lue to bench the starting center only five minutes into the second half.

A small-ball lineup spread out the Mavericks’ defense and led to three-pointers by George that twice pushed the Clippers ahead by two in the final quarter. Yet after they jumped out to a three-point lead with 6:08 left, they mustered just five more points.

Clippers-Mavericks first-round playoff schedule.
Clippers-Mavericks first-round playoff schedule. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

“It all comes down to who’s the last team standing and that’s just the pressure every team goes through,” George said. “It’s no different than how we’re approaching this. We want to be the last team standing regardless of however many games it takes or how tough the road is.

“Fact of the matter is we want to be the last team standing so we got to be better for Game 2 and I plan on this team bouncing back.”

Tim Hardaway Jr. (21 points), Dorian Finney-Smith (18 points) and Jalen Brunson (15 points off the bench) punished the Clippers when they were able to get the ball out of Doncic’s hands. After scoring just three points in the second and third quarters combined, 7-foot-3 Mavericks shooter Kristaps Porzingis glared at a pocket of Clippers fans near the baseline when one lobbed a less-than-charitable description of his game. He answered with six fourth-quarter points.

“A lot of defensive breakdowns that we went over for the last five days that we didn’t execute,” Lue said. “So we gotta be better in those areas. We can’t gift them points; they’re too good. Luka makes you pay every time you make a mistake. So we just gotta be better with our coverages and understand what we’re trying to do, and we’ll be able to clean it up going into Tuesday.”

In the playoffs as a head coach for the first time since 2018, Lue had called the postseason his “happy place” before tipoff, and it largely was his comfort here, having won three combined championships as a player and coach, that led the Clippers to turn to him as their coach.

Yet happy was not the word to describe him early in the first quarter as the Clippers, after a week of preparation and with many of their starters having not played in nine days, fell behind by 11 within six minutes, prompting a timeout. And he looked blankly at his defense when Porzingis cut baseline for a dunk with 59 seconds left.

After spending days deflating the talking point that his team was under unique pressure to perform, Lue repeated himself.

“We’ll be fine,” Lue said. “One game. They won. Hats off to those guys, they came in and played well.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.