Elliott: Clippers' playoff crisis arrives early. Can they fix it?
Clippers guard Reggie Jackson pulled the front of his T-shirt away from his chest and held it toward the camera recording his postgame interview.
The shirt's design featured a smiley face, which seemed an odd choice after a stinging loss that put the Clippers in an 0-2 hole in their first-round playoff series against Dallas. But it fit the theme for the Clippers, who insisted one after the other — and with more consistency than they showed during their 127-121 loss to the Mavericks on Tuesday — they’re not worried about the deficit they so deservedly face.
“Have a good one,” Jackson said, ending the interview session. “No worries. Remember, no worries.”
If the Clippers aren’t worried after having lost the first two games at Staples Center and having let the Mavericks hit 18 of 34 three-point shots Tuesday and 35 of 70 in two games, when will they be worried?
Coach Tyronn Lue didn’t wear a smiley-face T-shirt after the game, but he also insisted he’s not panicked. “I’m not concerned,” he said. “They’ve got to win four games, and you come in on the opposing team’s floor and you play. There’s no pressure, you can make shots, because you just try to come in and steal a game or steal two games. But now they’ve got to go home and try to keep up the same shooting.”
Maybe the Clippers’ pulses will speed up and their concern will grow if they go down 0-3 when the series resumes Friday at Dallas. That’s a distinct possibility for the Clippers, who are experiencing their annual playoff flop a little earlier than usual. They appear to have found a way to avoid blowing a 3-1 series lead, as they did in the second round against Denver last season: Don't hold a 3-1 lead. Or any series lead at all.
This is their last chance at a deep playoff run before Kawhi Leonard decides whether he will decline his contract option and become a free agent, a journey that conceivably could take him down the hallway at Staples Center to join the by-then two-time defending champion Lakers. This is when the Clippers must stop dreaming and hoping and start winning enough to justify the expectations they created when they brought Leonard and Paul George to Los Angeles.
Maybe Lue and his players are seething inside. Maybe they’re angry and will channel their emotions into a cohesive defensive effort in Game 3. That’s their best hope of staying competitive against the Mavericks, who scored 48 points in the paint and 54 points off three-point shots Tuesday.
Leonard had 41 points. George had 28. And still the Clippers found ways to lose, to allow their defense to be shredded while Luka Doncic romped to 39 points and Tim Hardaway Jr. had 28.
Jackson said the key for the Clippers to turn things around is to frustrate Doncic. “When he looks like he's having fun, they're all cool, calm and collected. So we got to figure out a way to rattle him, rattle the head of the snake first and then let everybody else kind of get rattled as well,” Jackson said. “So I think we're going to get the film, we're going to watch it, we're going to figure out how we can be better.
“We already have a ton of pride in this locker room, but we're going to amp it up a little more, have some more individual pride in what we're doing and continue to harp on each other, hold each other accountable and just continue to stick to our game plans and just put more energy and effort out there.”
Asked about the Clippers’ level of concern, George said, “There is none. It’s a competition. We’ve got to rise to the occasion. The fact of the matter is if we don’t, we’re done for.”
He got that much right. Now, fix it.
“We’ve got to incorporate our defense. Luka’s going to get his touches. We’ve just got to do a better job defensively of quieting everyone else,” George said. “I think the mistakes we’re making, they’ve just been crucial. I don’t think they’ve missed many on mistakes we’ve made to bail us out. Give them credit. They shot almost 60 [percent] tonight. They’re making shots. If we don’t dial in, if we don’t honor the coverages, if we don’t do a better job defensively, they’re showing that we’re going to pay for it.”
The Mavericks, 42-30 during the regular season, began the playoffs as the fifth seed in the West. A late slide dropped the Clippers (47-25) to fourth. A quick first-round exit would be a huge embarrassment for them. “I’m pretty sure everyone expected us to win this. They were the underdogs,” George said. “And when you’re a lower seed, you really don’t have high expectations. They’re playing free, they’re playing with confidence. I think we’re giving them a little too much confidence so that’s on us to shut that down.”
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle understandably likes what he has seen from his team so far. “Our guys are hungry to compete and they’re hungry to play for each other. We’ve done that well for the first two games,” he said. “The challenge is always when you win a game or two games in a playoff series, how do you measure up against the human nature curve, when a lot of teams will have letdowns? One of our real challenges will be to keep up this level of intensity and this level of fight.”
It's on the Clippers now to get back into this series and avoid the regrets that come from missed opportunities. Clipper postseason journeys always seem to end that way, and they should be concerned that this one is on a path to continue the pattern of failure that even Leonard and George haven't been able to alter.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.