NBA playoffs 2021 – The LA Clippers are showing their best look at the right time
After a Game 7 win, the head coach or players all talk about a look the team has — a certain look that lets everyone know they’ll be ready for the moment.
LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said his team looked like it was locked in as it went through a walkthrough before Sunday’s 126-111 win to close out their first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks in front of 7,342 at Staples Center.
In Leonard’s case, however, the look never changes. He might show a little fire after a big dunk. He might show a little disappointment after missing a game-tying 3-pointer, like at the end of the Clippers’ Game 5 loss.
He might even look mortal at times, tending to the myriad injuries he’s dealt with in recent years.
But Leonard has earned his reputation as one of the NBA’s elite playoff performers — and his two Finals MVP trophies — because of the poise with which he handles games and moments like this.
Leonard finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals Sunday. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Leonard is the fourth player in NBA history to score 200 or more points on at least 60% shooting from the field in a playoff series.
He was also the Clippers’ most effective defender on Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic, holding him to 0.80 points per play as his primary defender in this series. That’s easily the fewest for any Clippers defender against Doncic — and it takes a tremendous amount of energy. But the Clippers had no choice but to put Leonard in that role, once they were facing elimination.
That is because Doncic is now one of three players to lose back-to-back playoffs despite averaging 30 points, 5 boards and 5 assists in both series. Tracy McGrady (2001-02) and Michael Jordan (1986-87) are the only others to suffer defeat despite such massive performances.
“Oh, man, you know, he did everything,” Leonard said of Doncic. “Shooting it very efficiently from three for sure off the dribble shots. You know, just doing it all for his team. You know he’s a great player and you’ll see him for many years to come. He plays at his own pace and he makes it look easy out there.”
Said George: “S—, he was a star last matchup too. He played off the charts last year in the playoffs and to be honest at a young age like that, you knew he could get better — knew there was room for improvement. Of course. He was even more awesome. He plays with so much confidence. His game is beyond his age. He can pick up and read almost any defense.”
Lue said after Game 6 that the Clippers staff decided to move Leonard onto Doncic, and he embraced the challenge.
But it’s Leonard’s mental toughness that helped the Clippers get through a series that seemed as mentally and emotionally exhausting as it was physically.
Kawhi Leonard drops 28 points and grabs 10 rebounds to propel the Clippers to a second-round matchup vs. the Jazz.
Athletes will tell you there’s a muscle memory to performing under pressure. But Leonard’s approach is different. He doesn’t think back on any of his previous playoff performances before big games like Sunday’s Game 7, or draw confidence from the moments and games he’s delivered in the past. Each game, he said, is its own challenge.
“I mean, it’s like that for me,” Leonard said. “I don’t know how other players think, but just for me, it’s about the situation that’s in front of you. Just because you played great in whatever, nine Game 7s, doesn’t mean you play great in Game 10 and vice versa. It’s all about the moment.”
“Sometimes when you’re over-confident you play bad, and sometimes when you’re down on yourself, you play good. For me, it’s about focusing on that moment, having fun and playing hard. That’s it. It’s a game of basketball.”
There’s a lesson in there about controlling the moment, not letting it overwhelm him, that explains Leonard’s unique wiring, and why it’s led to so much success in the biggest moments over the years.
It’s why signing Leonard was such a landmark achievement for the Clippers two summers ago. Winning in the playoffs isn’t just about talent. It’s about having the mental toughness to win a game or a series like this.
The Clippers didn’t just pull out a seven-game series against a budding superstar whose game looks ready to take over the league. They pulled out a seven game series in which they lost the first three games at home, faced withering criticism, and had to confront all their demons from last season’s playoff meltdown.
“I’m not thinking about last year,” Leonard said. “I’m thinking about what we are doing today and what the next step is tomorrow. “I’m glad that we showed character and we showed poise going down 2-0 going on the road, and that Game 3, that meant a lot to me this season. Obviously it got us to this next round, but it’s all about this year.”
The Clippers won this series because they didn’t panic. Lue decided to go small after the first two losses at home and stuck with that alignment despite the Mavericks going extra-tall by inserting 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanovic into the starting lineup in Game 5. Dallas won that game, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Lue to counter.
Instead, he stuck with the small lineup, trusting in his players the work they’d put in all year. Los Angeles had been the best 3-point shooting team in the league this year (41%), but had shot just 35% from behind the arc (74-for-209) in the first six games.
Lue also knew when to make changes. Rajon Rondo helped them win Games 3 and 4 and was +41 heading into Game 5. But when Dallas adjusted the way it was defending him, Lue swapped in young point guard Terance Mann, who responded with 13 points in Game 7, and rode with starter Reggie Jackson — whose hot hand (25 points in Game 6, 15 points in Game 7) helped LA win the final two games.
“They definitely got us war-ready. It’s a great team we played. Unbelievable superstar in Luka. They pushed us,” George said. “But you know, we stuck in there. We played for one another. We played hard and you know, we continue on our season. Onto the next.”
There was plenty that went wrong in LA’s three losses that can go wrong again. The Clippers coaches and players would be the first to tell you they haven’t done anything yet.
But with Leonard back destroying at both ends of the court, as Doncic so eloquently put it after his sublime Game 6 performance on Friday night, the Clippers have that look again.
Luka Doncic makes Game 7 history but says he’s proved ‘nothing yet’ as Dallas Mavericks lose to LA Clippers
Luka Doncic made Game 7 history on Sunday afternoon but exited the Staples Center with no satisfaction.
Doncic scored or assisted on 77 points against the LA Clippers, the most in NBA history by a player in a Game 7, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. But Doncic’s 46 points and 14 assists weren’t enough, as the Mavs’ season ended with a 126-111 loss.
The performance capped a sensational series for Doncic, who averaged 35.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 10.3 assists despite suffering a cervical strain that severely hampered him during Dallas’ Game 4 loss. Doncic joined Russell Westbrook in 2017 as the only players to average at least 35 points and 10 assists in a playoff series, but he doesn’t consider his statistics to be worth celebrating after a series loss.
“I mean, nothing yet,” Doncic said when asked what he proved during the series. “We made the playoffs twice since I’ve been here. We lost both times. At the end, you get paid to win. We didn’t do it.”
Doncic certainly impressed the Clippers — led by two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard — during the series. His dominance was the primary reason L.A. scrapped its regular starting lineup and went small midway through the series, preventing Doncic from hunting switches to attack overmatched big man Ivica Zubac. The Clippers mixed in traps and double-teams to try to force the ball out of his hands, and the 22-year-old Doncic still produced three 40-point games while shooting 49.0% from the floor and 40.8% from 3-point range in the series.
“Oh man, he did everything,” said Leonard, who had 28 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in Game 7. “Shooting it very efficiently, from 3 for sure, off-the-dribble shots, just doing it all for his team. He’s a great player. You’re going to see him for many years to come. He’s playing at his own pace, making it look easy out there.”
It was the second straight postseason that the Clippers eliminated the Mavericks in the first round despite Doncic’s individual brilliance. He averaged 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists in last year’s six-game series.
“He was the star last matchup, too,” said Clippers star Paul George, who had 22 points and 10 assists in Game 7. “He played off the charts last year in a playoff. And to be honest, you knew he could get better, you knew there was room for improvement, of course, but [Doncic’s performance this series] was even more awesome.
“He just plays with so much confidence, and his game is just so beyond his age. He pretty much can pick up and read almost any defense. We threw a lot at him, and he was still able to keep his team afloat and just improvise. He’s going to be great. He’s got a big, huge future ahead of him.”
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle called Doncic “a top-five player in the world,” saying this series validates that status.
“We’ve just got to keep building the team around him,” Carlisle said. “And this is going to be an important offseason on many levels.”
Mavs owner Mark Cuban halted any speculation that the team’s offseason could include a coaching change. Cuban told ESPN that he would not consider moving on from Carlisle after the Mavs failed to get out of the first round again, extending their playoff series victory drought to 10 seasons, dating to Dallas’ 2011 title run.
“Let me tell you how I look at coaching,” Cuban told ESPN. “You don’t make a change to make a change. Unless you have someone that you know is much, much, much better, the grass is rarely greener on the other side.”
NBA playoffs 2021 – Luka Doncic’s superstar ascent has created a timetable for the Dallas Mavericks
THIS ISN’T WHAT Kristaps Porzingis expected when he arrived in Dallas.
As the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade, he anticipated forming one of the NBA’s most potent duos with Luka Doncic, a fellow rising star. Porzingis anticipated it’d be a 1A-1B sort of situation.
Doncic has certainly held up his end of that deal. At age 22, he’ll soon become a two-time All-NBA selection, and he just averaged 35.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 10.3 assists in the second playoff series of his career.
But that happened in a losing effort, as the Dallas Mavericks fell to the LA Clippers in a seven-game series in which one of the most prominent storylines was how little Dallas relied on Porzingis, who has battled injuries and adapted to a secondary role over the past two seasons. Porzingis averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds, often utilized offensively essentially as a decoy while Doncic carved up a Clippers defense designed to slow him down.
The Mavericks are obviously Doncic’s franchise. But one of the biggest questions for the Mavs moving forward is how Porzingis fits into the picture.
“Good question,” Porzingis said after Game 7, pausing to collect his thoughts. “How do I feel? I mean, I’m good. I tried to put in the work, tried to work hard. I do my part, listen to the coaches, what I’m asked to do, and that’s it.
“I try to keep it simple for myself, so I’m not overthinking, and I try to focus on what I can control. That’s being a better basketball player, going into the offseason hungry. I want to get better physically [and] on the basketball court. I’m going to put that work in to get better, and then the rest of the stuff will resolve itself.”
A superstar of Doncic’s caliber naturally creates pressure on a franchise to compete for championships. As a result, every decision the Dallas front office makes is viewed through the prism of fitting with its franchise player.
WHEN THE NEW YORK KNICKS made Porzingis available at the 2019 trade deadline, a Mavs team that had just drafted Doncic pounced. Dallas was confident that Porzingis would be an ideal complement and knew a commitment to extending the 2015 fourth-overall pick to a maximum contract that summer would come with a trade. Despite the fact that Porzingis had yet to play a second for the Mavs — he took a full season to recover from a torn ACL suffered in February 2019 — the deal was completed in the opening moments of free agency.
Porzingis’ health and durability have been problematic for the Mavs, particularly a torn meniscus in his right knee that prematurely ended his 2020 postseason. He played in only 43 games this regular season, missing the first nine games while recovering from offseason meniscus surgery and then several more due to soreness in that knee.
Those injuries — and the resulting diminished mobility — made him a defensive liability, and they are among the reasons it would be difficult for Dallas to get value for Porzingis in a trade. He is owed $101.5 million over the next three seasons, a contract that executives and scouts around the league view as an albatross.
If Porzingis isn’t a championship-caliber sidekick — and he isn’t likely to be a ticket to one in the trade market — it’s hard to see how the Mavs get a second star in the near future. The Mavs plotted to have the salary-cap space to chase one this summer, but the free-agency class has weakened considerably, with several stars signing extensions with their current teams. And signing any big-money free agent could come at the cost of Tim Hardaway Jr. Considered a salary dump in the Porzingis deal, Hardaway had an inspired 2021 postseason (averaging 18 points on 45.8% shooting from deep) and emerged as an essential player for the Mavs.
Then there are questions about the chemistry between Doncic and Porzingis. The Mavs’ franchise cornerstones admittedly aren’t friends, a distant dynamic that Cuban has compared to the early stages of the partnership between Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, which ultimately produced two NBA Finals appearances and a championship.
But Porzingis has been frustrated, often feeling more like an afterthought than a co-star as Doncic dominates the ball and the spotlight, sources told ESPN. He frequently made thinly veiled references during his postgame media availabilities such as saying the “ball actually moved tonight” after high-scoring performances or stating that the offense didn’t involve him on low-scoring nights.
“It’s just the plays we were running,” Porzingis said after an April 7 loss to the last-place Houston Rockets when asked why he didn’t get any shots in the fourth quarter despite scoring 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting in the game. After a pause, he added: “Happened before also.”
A LACK OF on-court interaction between Doncic and Porzingis, who rarely high-fived or communicated directly to each other, has become apparent. Asked directly about it on April 8 after a win over the Milwaukee Bucks, Porzingis made no attempt to downplay the awkwardness.
“Yeah, we’re trying to play together and help each other,” Porzingis said. “We want to win. At the end, we all want to win here — and that’s it. We have to keep playing and keep playing together and keep playing well and help each other.”
It’s a sensitive subject that coach Rick Carlisle — who has had his own tension with Doncic, a star that has shown up his coach on the court or bench several times when disagreeing with decisions — has declined to discuss publicly. He often refers to the dynamic between Doncic and Porzingis as “evolving,” pointing out how well the threat of Porzingis’ perimeter shooting complements Doncic’s ability to create off the dribble.
The Mavs did produce some impressive numbers when that duo played together this season. They were 24-16 with a 118.2 offensive rating when Doncic and Porzingis both played. That included a 20-8 record with a 122.2 offensive rating after Feb. 5, when Dallas began its climb from 14th place in the Western Conference and five games under .500 to the fifth seed. (The downside: Dallas allowed 117.7 points per 100 possessions with Doncic and Porzingis on the floor, which would have ranked dead last in defensive rating.)
According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Mavericks averaged 1.18 points per possession during the regular season when Porzingis set a ball screen for Doncic, the most efficient duo in the league to run at least 300 picks.
That success became irrelevant in the playoffs, when the Clippers consistently defended the 7-foot-3 Porzingis with a wing with the intention to switch every pick-and-roll. They dared Dallas to feed Porzingis post-ups, which Carlisle called “not a good play” and “a low-value situation” in response to criticism last season.
Porzingis spent the series as a bystander on most offensive possessions, standing in the corner or on the wing to space the floor, getting fewer than half as many touches per game than he did in the regular season. With the stakes high, Porzingis had been turned into a max-contract role player.
“Just here to do whatever we need to win,” Porzingis said after scoring eight points on six field goal attempts in the Mavs’ Game 5 win.
After Game 7, Porzingis called it a “mental battle” to play a role that wasn’t comfortable for him. He said he tried to channel the focus from his rookie year on playing hard and doing little things to help his team.
“And whatever I do, it seems like it’s always something,” Porzingis said, acknowledging the scrutiny on him. “I just try to be as professional as I can.”
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