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Answering the big questions ahead of Clippers-Mavericks Game 6

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One season after dropping a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, the LA Clippers once again find themselves facing elimination, this time in Round 1 against the Dallas Mavericks in a pivotal Game 6 on Saturday.

Luka Doncic, who delivered one of the league’s most iconic game winners against the Clips in last year’s postseason, has continued to give the opposition fits to the tune of averaging 35 points in the first five games of the series. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been clutch for the Mavericks as well, shooting 48.6% from 3 and averaging 17 points to help carry the load when Doncic sits.

Can Kawhi Leonard and Paul George find a solution to slow down the Mavericks’ backcourt? More importantly, can Leonard and George keep up with just Doncic? The Clippers’ stars outscored Luka by only one point in Game 5 (43 to 42), and Doncic one-upped the duo in points created (75 to 61) on Wednesday.

From what the biggest surprises have been in this series to who can be the X factor to determine whether we see a Game 7, our experts break down all things Clippers and Mavericks ahead of Game 6 (9 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App) on Friday night.


1. What is the biggest reason, aside from Luka Doncic’s play, that the Clippers trail in this series?

Kevin Arnovitz: In a span of less than five minutes in the third quarter on Wednesday night, the Clippers were outscored 22-3. They let Doncic get loose in transition without any resistance, offered poor help defense behind their perimeter traps of Doncic — never a good idea because the man loves a trap — and they coughed up the ball twice on the rare occasions they ventured into the paint on the offensive end. That’s how long it takes to muddy your fortunes in the NBA playoffs: five minutes.

Tim MacMahon: The Mavs had a pair of sizzling shooting performances to open the series. According to Second Spectrum data, Dallas’ quantified shot quality in the first two games was 48.7%, which means that was the predicted effective field goal percentage based on the looks they got. Their actual effective field goal percentage in those games was 65.5%. Tim Hardaway Jr. in particular had the flamethrower firing, hitting 11 of his 17 3-point attempts in those two wins.

Kevin Pelton: Dallas’ shot-making. According to Second Spectrum’s quantified shot probability metric, which factors in the shooter’s ability in addition to the location of shots, their type and the distance of nearby defenders, no team has gotten worse shots in the first round than the Mavericks. Yet their effective field goal percentage has still been better than average because of shot-making surpassed only by the Utah Jazz.

Andre Snellings: The Clippers have been unable to establish any sort of team identify in this series. They are built to be a strong defensive unit across the board with two excellent scorers and a team full of strong role players and shooters to fill the gaps. Instead, they’ve been a defensive sieve for the majority of the series and their non-superstar “others” have been largely cold. They’ve played like they’re on their heels, reacting instead of putting their own stamp on the game.

Ohm Youngmisuk: The Clippers’ lack of defense. Doncic has been unbelievable, but he hasn’t been doing his biggest damage in the fourth quarters. It’s the other Mavericks who are killing the Clippers down the stretch — such as Tim Hardaway Jr., Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber — when they absolutely need stops. The Clippers are supposed to be an elite defensive team, but Games 1 and 2 saw so many breakdowns that coach Ty Lue had to simplify the defense in an attempt to limit communication breakdowns. The Clippers’ defense has looked way more shaky than elite.

2. What has been most surprising about this series so far?

Youngmisuk: What has been the most surprising thing about this series so far? The Clippers’ approach to Doncic. It’s one thing to be unable to contain Nikola Jokic last year. But this team is built with elite wing defenders to be able to slow down a star like Doncic. Even if Lue says the Clippers are OK with Doncic eating but are trying to keep him from getting others involved, Doncic is averaging 35 points per game. In Game 5, the Clippers surrendered only 105 points but 42 went to Doncic. Stop Doncic perhaps three more times and the Clippers are up 3-2. Kawhi Leonard has had the most success guarding Doncic, holding him to 5-for-16 shooting (31.3%) thus far, per ESPN Stats & Information research. If they want to extend the season, Leonard has to guard Doncic more.

Arnovitz: That it has come to this for the Clippers. They’ve overhauled their roster, changed their head coach, refined their defensive approach and adopted a sense of urgency, and yet they are again in danger of being unceremoniously and prematurely dispatched from the playoffs. They’re in this position despite getting great minutes from their small (and most common) lineup and solid production overall from their two superstars. Even more bizarrely — only the Atlanta Hawks have limited their first-round opponent to a lower quality of shots. The entire thing defies explanation, yet if they bow out in this series, the Clippers will have a lot of explaining to do.

MacMahon: The Mavs have managed to put the Clippers on the brink of elimination despite Kristaps Porzingis averaging only 13.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Coach Rick Carlisle made a point to praise Porzingis for being “patient” after Games 1 and 5, when he had 14 and eight points, respectively, but contributed some clutch buckets. Porzingis’ offensive value in this series is more as a floor spacer than a focal point. “Just doing what’s best for the team and staying ready for the moment,” he said after Game 5.

Pelton: It hasn’t really affected the outcome at all, but undoubtedly the most surprising thing is that Doncic is shooting 43% from the foul line. There has been only one other five-game stretch in Luka’s NBA career in which he has failed to shoot at least 50% on free throws: Feb. 22 to March 1 of this year, when he shot 48% (15-of-31).

Snellings: The Clippers’ inability to even slow Luka down a little bit. Luka’s a great player, so you’d expect him to produce, but the Clippers are full of players reputed to be excellent wing defenders. Between Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and a string of strong defensive role players, you’d think they could keep him within the realm of merely “great.” But when healthy, Luka has been playing like the best of the NBA legends in history, surpassing even the most lofty of expectations. That’s surprising.

3. Which player on either team will be the biggest X factor in Game 6?

Snellings: Has to be Tim Hardaway Jr. In the Mavericks’ three wins. He has averaged 23.0 points on 46% FG with 4.7 3PG. In their two losses, he has averaged 8.0 points on 23 FG% with 2.0 3PG. Hardaway plays off of Luka, but for the Mavericks to win, they need him to establish himself as the clear second scorer on the team.

Youngmisuk: Marcus Morris has to play big on both ends for the Clippers. When he is hitting his 3-point shots, Morris opens everything else up for the Clippers. But just as vital as his offense is his physicality. Reggie Jackson said the Clippers played with a “villain” mentality to win two games at Dallas. No Clipper embodies this persona more than Morris, who is an agitator and can help set the tone for the Clippers. And defensively, Morris has been the second-best defender on Doncic, holding the Mavs star to 6-for-15 shooting (40%), according to ESPN Stats & Info research.

Arnovitz: Hardaway and the rest of Dallas’ perimeter shooters. Doncic’s vision is the most potent weapon in the series and it’s incumbent upon the beneficiaries of that vision — the guys receiving the ball — to optimize their opportunities.

MacMahon: Hardaway has been the biggest X factor all series. He has averaged 23 points on 50% shooting in the Mavs’ three wins, hitting dagger 3s in two of those games. He scored a total of 16 points on 5-of-22 shooting in Dallas’ two losses. Ty Lue has emphasized the importance of running Hardaway off the 3-point line. He’s a sniper who works well off of Doncic, emerging as the Mavs’ No. 2 option since returning to the starting lineup late in the season.

Pelton: Rajon Rondo. During the Clippers’ two wins in Dallas, they outscored the Mavericks by 36 points in Rondo’s 47 minutes of action, getting exactly what they hoped when they traded for him in March. Playoff Rondo was not in evidence in Game 5, when he missed all six of his shot attempts and Dallas was plus-19 in Rondo’s 21 minutes.

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Stephen A. Smith calls out Kawhi Leonard after the Clippers’ Game 5 defeat against the Mavericks.

4. Fill in the blank: The Clippers win Game 6 if _____.

Pelton: The Mavericks try another heavy dose of zone defense. The Clippers got too many open looks from 3-point range against the zone, averaging 1.15 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum tracking, as compared to 1.03 points against Dallas’ man-to-man defense.

Snellings: The Clippers will win Game 6 if they can find a way to stop Luka from doing whatever he wants. He is the absolute catalyst of everything the Mavericks want to do, and with Kristaps Porzingis held largely in check, the Mavericks don’t have a Plan B. If the Clippers’ defense stands up, they can win.

Youngmisuk: If Kawhi Leonard and Paul George play at the relentless superstar level that they did in Games 3 and 4 in Dallas and if they get a handful of critical stops. They must be able to slow down the Mavericks’ outside shooters, and they have to weather the storm in the opening minutes in what will be a frenzied, hostile environment. If they fall behind 30-11 again in the first quarter, the Clippers’ season could be over.

Arnovitz: They attack the Mavs off the dribble and not let them off the hook defensively. That doesn’t mean they have to abandon the 3-pointer, which has served them incredibly well all season. But there’s no good reason they shouldn’t be moving downhill at will and with force.

MacMahon: They get comfortable attacking Dallas’ zone. The Clippers anticipated that adjustment in Game 5, with Lue predicting during his pregame availability that the Mavs would switch their starting lineup to include Boban Marjanovic, who obviously wasn’t going to be playing man-to-man defense on the perimeter. It’s one thing to practice against it and another to see it in a game. The zone disrupted the Clippers’ rhythm — especially Kawhi Leonard’s — and the Mavs were able to keep them off balance from switching from zone to man throughout the game.

5. Fill in the blank: The Mavericks win Game 6 if _____.

MacMahon: Luka lights it up again. He hasn’t just been a superstar in the Mavs’ win. He has been historically dominant, averaging 37.3 points and 10.7 assists in those games. Of course, not even an otherworldly performance from Doncic guarantees as Dallas win, as evidenced by his 44-point, nine-rebound, nine-assist night in the Mavs’ Game 3 loss. But when Doncic has been able to look to his left — which his cervical strain kept him from doing comfortably in Game 4, the Clippers had no solutions for him.

Pelton: Luka is far and away the best player on the court, as he was in Game 5. Not only would that mean Doncic is running the show on offense, where he was responsible for 75 of Dallas’ 105 points between his own scoring and assists, it would also mean Kawhi Leonard is not reaching the level at which he played during Games 3 and 4 of the series.

Snellings: The Mavericks will win if Luka continues to be the dominant player on the court who manipulates the action like Giapetto, which starts with him being healthy. In the five halves this series in which Luka has appeared to be healthy, the Mavericks have clearly been the better team. In the three halves in which Luka looked injured, the Clippers have taken over. To close this out, the Mavericks need another dominant performance from their MVP.

Youngmisuk: The Mavericks will win Game 6 … if they play with the same urgency they have in Staples Center and can find a way to keep Doncic fresh in the fourth quarter. Doncic is shooting only 6-for-27 for a total of 17 points combined in the fourth quarter this series so far. If the Mavericks ride the momentum of returning to their home crowd and get off to a hot start again, they have to find a way to close it out and have Doncic deliver the fourth-quarter daggers.

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Rajon Rondo is none too pleased with Kawhi Leonard putting up a late air ball in the Clippers’ loss to the Mavs.

Arnovitz: Luka does what Luka does. If he gets to his left, everything is at his disposal: passes to shooters, lobs to his big men, wrap-arounds to everyone, floaters against uncommitted defenders, magical probes that yield who knows what and will haunt the Clippers for the next nine months. This is literally what generational talents do — they fill in the blanks.

Bonus: If the Clippers win Game 6, who wins Game 7?

Arnovitz: Luka renders all predictions pointless.

MacMahon: Well, my prediction going into the series was Clippers in seven, so I guess I’ll stick with it. Even if that means going out on a limb and betting on a home team actually winning a game in this wild series.

Pelton: I have given up trying to predict the Clippers in the playoffs.

Snellings: If the Clippers win Game 6, they’d have to be favored to win Game 7 at home. Granted, this would mean that the road team had won all six games thus far, but after having been largely controlled in the first 2½ games with Luka healthy, the Clippers were right there to win Game 5 and in this scenario would’ve won Game 6. A Clippers win in Game 6 would suggest strongly that they’d finally started to solve the mystery the Mavericks have presented them with.

Youngmisuk: The most Clipper-ish thing to do would be to lose the first two games at home, win two in a row on the road, return home and lose, only to force a Game 7 by winning on the road again just to lose a pressure-packed, do-or-die, future-on-the-line Game 7. BUT if the Clippers force a Game 7, it’s hard seeing them losing all four of their homes games in a series, even with their history for calamity.

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Five big takeaways from Game 3 of Jazz-Clippers

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Facing the possibility of going down 3-0 to the top-seeded Utah Jazz, the fourth-seeded LA Clippers played their best basketball of the series on Saturday in a 132-106 win in Game 3.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George led the way for the Clippers, as both stars eclipsed the 30-point mark in the postseason for the second time in their careers as teammates. LA is now 2-0 in those games. Donovan Mitchell had a team-high 30 points for the Jazz, his 14th career 30-point game in just 30 postseason contests, but exited midway through the fourth quarter after aggravating an ankle injury.

Can the Clippers keep it rolling in Game 4? Will the Jazz have a healthy backcourt to employ on Monday? Here are five things we gleaned from Game 3.

MORE: Matchups, schedules and full NBA playoffs coverage

Playoff P showed up on Saturday

Over the past several years, no one has taken more abuse for their playoff failures than Paul George. Time after time, he and his teams have fallen flat in the postseason, and George’s play — and his words — have been dissected to an endless degree.

Saturday night, though, was a reminder of why the Clippers went through the trouble to pair George with Kawhi Leonard two years ago — and why Leonard himself wanted to play alongside him.

George finished Game 3 with 31 points and five assists while going 6-for-10 from 3-point range — the kind of efficient offensive performance the Clippers desperately needed to get themselves back into this Western Conference semifinal, and one George needed to try and change the impression the basketball world has of him.

It’s been forgotten that, during his time with the Indiana Pacers, George had some massive playoff moments. But those have been overshadowed by the failures since then — from the first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, when Damian Lillard ended the series with a bomb over him from nearly half court, to last year’s collapse against the Denver Nuggets, when George fired a 3-pointer off the side of the backboard during the Clippers’ Game 7 loss. His “Playoff P” moniker has become the subject of an endless series of jokes as a result.

If he and the Clippers can dig themselves out of this hole, however, it will give George a chance to rewrite the narrative that’s sprung up around him. As my colleague Brian Windhorst is fond of saying, “Winning a championship means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Saturday night’s explosion put he and the Clippers one step closer to doing so. — Tim Bontemps


The Clippers find ways to attack Gobert

As good as Donovan Mitchell was for Utah in the first two games, Rudy Gobert‘s impact at both ends was nearly as important. The Jazz were plus-19 in Gobert’s 69 minutes of action and outscored by 10 in the other 27 minutes in Salt Lake City. That changed Saturday, when Utah was a minus-16 with Gobert on the court — similar to the plus-minus for the team’s other starters.

After going big in Game 2 with Ivica Zubac starting at center, the Clippers went back to their small starting lineup without a traditional center. That forced Gobert to defend a shooter on the perimeter, allowing the Clippers to attack without him as close to the basket. And unlike Game 1 — when they also started out-playing smallball — the Clippers avoided getting mashed on the offensive glass by the Jazz, who corralled just 22.5% of available offensive rebounds.

The result was a 44-32 edge in points in the paint for the Clippers, who shot 55% (22-of-40) on those attempts while Utah struggled to finish in the paint, going 16-of-35 (46%). — Kevin Pelton


Kawhi is still the best two-way player in the game

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Kawhi Leonard takes matters into his own hands as he makes his way to the basket and skies to vandalize the rim on a powerful throwdown.

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Kawhi Leonard takes matters into his own hands as he makes his way to the basket and skies to vandalize the rim on a powerful throwdown.

You knew Kawhi Leonard would be the best player on the court for at least one game this series.

For the Clippers to have any hope of advancing, it had to happen in Game 3. As he repeatedly did with LA in dire situations during the first round, Leonard rose to the occasion.

Credit to Paul George for making Leonard’s status as the biggest star of the Clippers’ win Saturday debatable. George had his best offensive performance of this postseason with 31 points, but Leonard’s extra-large fingerprints were all over the victory.

Leonard dominated with his strength, toughness and athleticism. He scored 34 points on 14-of-24 shooting, with more than half of his buckets coming in the paint. He grabbed 12 rebounds, several of the go-up-and-get-it-in-traffic variety. He was the Clippers’ most impactful defender, guarding Donovan Mitchell during much of the Jazz star’s scoreless first quarter and wreaking havoc as a help defender on many occasions.

You figured a two-time NBA Finals MVP wouldn’t go down without a fight. Leonard landed a haymaker on Saturday night. — Tim MacMahon


The Jazz need Mike Conley Jr.

Donovan Mitchell’s heroics in the first two games served as a great coverup, but the Jazz have been missing Mike Conley Jr. When Spida is off the floor, Conley is often tasked with running the offense and creating good looks for non-Mitchell teammates.

In the first two games of the series, Jazz players not named Mitchell shot just 38% from the field (46-for-121). Conley is the only other starter that can create a good look for himself, and without him, the offense is too one-dimensional. The Clippers were eventually going to adjust to the Jazz’s offensive schemes, and did so in Game 3.

With Mitchell having seemingly tweaked his previously injured ankle multiple times in this series, Conley’s offensive creation is even more vital if Mitchell were to slow in any way. — Andre Snellings


Reggie Jackson, the X-factor

When the Clippers were rounding out the pieces on the roster to complement their two stars, they probably didn’t exactly expect Reggie Jackson to become a deadeye spot-up shooter and critical third scorer.

But as this series progresses, Jackson’s importance is becoming obvious. Not only is he a shot creator and shot maker, he’s the spacer and pressure release that can open avenues for Leonard and George. Jackson’s late shot clock ability to either drive the lane or hit a difficult step-back are the kind of bailouts that playoff wins are often built on.

Against a team like the Jazz, that moves the ball dynamically, balances their scoring and hits barrages of 3s, relying on a two-headed attack wasn’t ever going to be enough. But if Jackson is going to consistently provide the kind of production of a pseudo third start, suddenly the Clippers start looking like the super team they were assumed to be. – Royce Young

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Paul George sets tone with bounce-back effort as LA Clippers rout Utah Jazz in needed Game 3 win

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LOS ANGELES — Paul George used a cross-over dribble to move to his left before drilling a rainbow step-back 3-pointer over Royce O’Neale and letting out a scream.

After hearing Jazz fans chant “overrated” at him for two games in Utah, an aggressive George had his best game of the playoffs, scoring 20 of his 31 points in the first half to set a much-needed tone for the LA Clippers on Saturday night. Kawhi Leonard then scored 24 of his 34 points in the second half to help the Clippers rout the Utah Jazz, 132-106, and get their first win of this Western Conference semifinal series.

George’s first 30-point game since April 23 came when the Clippers needed it to keep their title hopes alive. The Clippers now can even the series at 2-2 with a win Monday night in Game 4.

George found his rhythm and got hot, burying 6 of 10 3-pointers, four coming in the first half while playing with even more confidence on his home floor. After he hit the step-back 3 over O’Neale, George buried a 32-foot 3 and held his follow-through pose with confidence as the Clippers opened a 57-41 lead with 2:54 remaining in the first half. The Jazz never got any closer than eight in the third quarter.

“Oh, we’re a different team,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said of when George has his offense going early. “We know that. It’s been like that all season long. He’s been great. You know, he had one bad game, whatever, but people going to have bad games.”

George scored 20 points in Game 1 but Utah fans badgered him whenever they could as he shot 4-for-17 in Game 1. In Game 2, George scored 27 points and shot 8-for-18, but Jazz fans love taunting him dating back to when George was with Oklahoma City and the Thunder played Utah in the 2018 playoffs. George also has seen his fair share of Joe Ingles defending him, as the two have had their back-and-forth.

When asked what his relationship is with Ingles, George said, “I don’t care about him. Next question.”

For the Clippers, there is no question how good they can be when George and Leonard shift their games to another level like they did on Saturday. Not only did they combine to make 26 of 48 shots but they also took the challenge of slowing down Donovan Mitchell.

While Mitchell finished with 30 points before tweaking his sore right ankle, he was held scoreless for the first 16 minutes and 26 seconds of the game. After contesting 71% of his field goal attempts in the first two Jazz wins, the Clippers contested all but one of Mitchell’s 24 shots in Game 3, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“We just made an emphasis that he’s not going to beat us tonight,” George said of Mitchell, who played just four minutes and 55 seconds in the fourth quarter to rest his ankle with the game out of hand. “We’re going to force everybody else to play and we’re just not going to let him walk into shots tonight and get the looks that he wanted early tonight.”

Lue challenged his team to defend Mitchell better 1-on-1 but the Clippers also sent some doubles at the Jazz’ scorer, who scored 45 and 37 points in Games 1 and 2.

Mitchell did not score when defended by George on two shots and scored four of his points when guarded by Leonard.

After losing the first two games of first round at Staples Center against Dallas before winning the next two on the road to even the series, the Clippers will try to rebound from their second straight 0-2 deficit at home. No team in NBA playoff history has ever successfully overcome a 2-0 deficit and win multiple times in the same postseason.

They’ll take the momentum of their most decisive win of the playoffs and Leonard and George playing one of their best games together into a critical Game 4. The Clippers improved to 5-0 in the regular season and playoffs when their two All-Stars score 30 points or more each in a game together.

“With our two guys, we know that they are two of the best in the league,” Lue said. “I don’t go to Mastro’s [restaurant] to order the ketchup. I go to order the steak. And tonight, our guys were steak. That’s what we need.”

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Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell exits with ankle pain, says he’ll be ready for Game 4

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Utah Jazz star guard Donovan Mitchell exited Saturday’s 132-106 Game 3 loss to the LA Clippers because of pain in his right ankle, but the decision for him not to return was due to the lopsided score.

“I feel like I was able to go back, but no need to risk it down 16, 18 at that point,” Mitchell said. “I’ll be fine.”

A right ankle sprain sidelined Mitchell for the final 16 games of the regular season and the Jazz’s playoff opener, when he was angered by the Utah medical staff’s decision to make him a late scratch.

Mitchell has averaged 32.3 points per game during the playoffs, including 30 point on 11-of-24 shooting in Game 3, despite dealing with persistent pain in the ankle.

“It’s when I land,” Mitchell said. “It’s been just trying to manage it. I don’t really know what else to tell you; I don’t want to say too much. It was just the landing, but I’m good. I’ll be ready for Game 4.”

Mitchell limped off the court after a driving layup attempt with 7 minutes, 5 seconds remaining. He briefly went into the tunnel before returning to the Jazz bench.

With the game slipping away from the Jazz, Mitchell had a conversation with coach Quin Snyder. He did not return to the game, although the Utah medical staff had cleared him to return.

“He’s in good shape,” Snyder said. “He could have gone back in the game, but at that point, the lead had stretched. In fact, while we were talking, I think Kawhi hit a 3. That was my decision not to put him back in at that point. The game had gotten away from us at that point, but he’s fine.”

In the final moments of the game, Mitchell sat on the bench with his right shoe off and ice on the ankle.

“Obviously, it’s not going to be 100 percent, but you go out there and you try to compete,” Mitchell said. “Things like this are going to happen. You just got to find ways to manage it and get out there and get ready. It’s not going to be perfect, but it is what it is.”

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