Finally free from the strictures of the Clippers’ defense, Dallas guard Luka Doncic made his most elusive move at the end of the Mavericks’ 114-99 loss Tuesday.
After the 20-year-old sensation, who had averaged 38 points over his last four games, had missed 10 of his 14 field goals, all eight of his three-pointers and turned the ball over seven times, he walked off the court in silence, dressed quickly and made his move, exiting American Airlines Center without talking to reporters.
The stat sheet, in some ways, said it all.
“They were incredible,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of the numerous defenders he sent Doncic’s way.
It was the Clippers’ sixth consecutive victory and their first on the road since Oct. 24. They had been 0-4 since, but two of those games were played without Kawhi Leonard and three without Paul George. They began playing together six days ago, but in that span had never practiced once. Their preparation for Tuesday’s matchup consisted of a walk-through at the team’s downtown Dallas hotel.
And still, they smothered Doncic en route to leading by as many as 24 points and snapping the Mavericks’ five-game winning streak. Doncic had 22 points, but it was an inefficient performance, and Kristaps Por-zingis, his European running mate, couldn’t compensate with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
“You have two wing players that are probably the most physical wing players — and the most athletic wing players — in the game,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “They are big, they are strong, and they are highly skilled.”
Playing together for the first time away from Los Angeles, George scored 17 first-half points and finished with 26 in 29 minutes. Leonard overcame a one-of-6 shooting start to score 28 points in 29 minutes, including nine in the fourth quarter.
Theirs is still a work in progress. But their pairing on the defensive end has produced dividends exceptionally early, leading coaches to wonder about the potential when the team actually has time to prepare.
“We talk about it a lot as a staff,” Rivers said. “When we do have a couple practices, it’s going to be nice.”
Said George: “Defensively it’s where each game we’re getting better and better. Not even just me and him but from the team, overall. We’re like doing stuff instinctively now, where we’re not even thinking.
“That’s most scary because everyone is thinking the same thing when we’re on the defensive end and we’re just scrambling.”
Doncic understood that all too well.
Patrick Beverley drew the first assignment of guarding him and Doncic put the Clippers in pick-and-rolls immediately, the action he excels at exploiting. But instead of a lead-footed center switching onto him, he was guarded by the 6-foot-10 George or 6-9 Maurice Harkless. The Clippers arrived in waves: JaMychal Green, Rodney McGruder, Ivica Zubac.
There were moments in which the 20-year-old showed why Rivers, before the game, said he saw elements of James Harden, Larry Bird and LeBron James in Doncic’s style, such as his spin move past George’s physical perimeter defense only to pass to a cutting Dwight Powell for a dunk.
“He’s one of those savants,” Rivers said. “He’s as talented as there is in the league.”
But there was also his first-quarter drive between George and Montrezl Harrell where his pass was tipped, recovered by the Clippers and pushed into a fastbreak that George finished with a right-handed tomahawk dunk. Doncic had six first-half turnovers. Playing a free safety role, George finished with six steals.
“He never had a break no matter who was switching on him,” said Lou Williams, who scored 21 points.
Dallas trailed by three when Doncic checked out after eight points in 11 first-quarter minutes but was down 16 nearly six minutes later, when he and Porzingis checked back in. The Clippers owned the minutes in which that duo sat and weren’t particularly slowed by their return, either, not after Leonard heated up to score 13 first-half points to join the scoring barrage started by George.
Needing a spark, Dallas inserted J.J. Barea, who scored 10 points in the third quarter, and switched to a zone, which led to a stagnant Clippers offense littered with missed three-pointers, and a 22-point Clipperslead was down to 14 with fewer than eight minutes to play.
And then, in a 60-second span with five minutes left, Leonard made a 16-foot jumper, contested an airballed step-back three-pointer by Doncic and, after a brief fist pump following the Doncic miss, drilled a 12-foot jumper. The lead was back to 20 and the arena began emptying.
Soon, the Mavericks’ dressing room was empty too, with a pair of Leonard’s signature New Balance sneakers and some snacks all that was left in Doncic’s locker.
“He’s been killing it lately,” Leonard said. “We just wanted to make it difficult for him.”
Up next for Clippers: Wednesday at Memphis
When: 5 PST
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570
Update: Leonard has yet to play on consecutive nights this season and after playing 28 minutes Tuesday against Dallas, his streak of sitting out one leg of a back-to-back is expected to continue versus the Grizzlies (5-11), losers of four straight. Memphis guard Ja Morant, the second overall pick in June’s NBA draft, has sizzled during his career’s first six weeks, averaging 19.1 points, 6.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds and shooting nearly 41% on three-pointers under first-year coach Taylor Jenkins.