Making one of their first 10 shots Tuesday was less than ideal for the Clippers, but it was not deeply concerning. The game was less than six minutes old and, besides, Dallas was worse, missing its first 11.
The real trouble didn’t come until later. When Kawhi Leonard grasped the ball in his massive grip with 5 minutes 30 seconds to play, his team’s eight-point, fourth-quarter lead had been vaporized by a scoreless stretch that had gone on longer than three minutes.
The Mavericks no longer were matching Clippers’ misses. Instead, they pulled ahead by two as “M-V-P” chants for guard Luka Doncic filled a sold-out American Airlines Center.
The Clippers needed a basket. And Leonard responded with three on his next four shots: a pull-up from 12 feet, another from 19, a turnaround from 12. The score was tied, but the energy had swung to the Clippers, the emotion sucked from Dallas’ comeback by the man who betrays little of it.
Leonard’s only three-pointer in nine attempts gave the Clippers an eight-point lead with 1:15 left, and he iced their 110-107 victory with two free throws with six seconds left — after teammate JaMychal Green, and Doncic, each missed two attempts of their own seconds earlier.
Leonard’s 11 points in the fourth quarter gave him 36 for the game and continued a torrid stretch for not only himself — he has scored 30 or more in six consecutive games — but also the suddenly surging Clippers (31-13), who have won four consecutive and eight of their last 10.
“It’s a team coming together,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We’re not there yet but you can feel us getting comfortable in our skin and what we should do.”
Doncic also scored 36, on 26 shots — three fewer than Leonard — and added 10 rebounds and nine assists. He also was dunked on by Leonard in the second quarter during a 16-0 Clippers run and, like his team during the quarter, appeared dazed.
“Leonard had an amazing night and just overpowered us in a lot of situations,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said.
Rivers had spent time before tipoff saying that he believed his team was making the strides that had been elusive to this point, calling it the first time “where you can see us growing.” After, he felt like a man whose premonition had come true.
About Leonard’s clutch run of baskets midway through the fourth quarter, Rivers said, “that’s the point I mean. Earlier in the year we wouldn’t have been able to get it to him or get it to him in the right spot. Everybody knows where they’re supposed to be now. We get it in transition, we get it in our sets, we get the spacing, the ball is moving. I don’t have a lot of gripes about this team.”
Lou Williams, who scored 16 points off the bench, said he felt the team was “starting to turn that corner. You start recognizing some tendencies. You start recognizing who your teammates are, what they’re going to give you in certain times of the game. I just think we’re doing a good job of understanding that.”
Landry Shamet scored a season-high 18 points with five three-pointers. His fourth, with 2:48 to play, gave the Clippers a two-point lead. His fifth came a minute later on a broken play, pushing the lead to seven.
He also fouled Doncic with 7.4 seconds left and the Clippers leading by three. Doncic missed the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, which Leonard grabbed.
“He had a great foul at the end,” Rivers said. “That’s what we wanted to do out of the timeout. That’s hard to execute.”
The Mavericks (27-16) lost forward Dwight Powell to an Achilles’ tendon injury early in the game. Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley left the game in the third quarter because of a sore right groin.
Rivers did not have an update on Beverley after the game. “He wanted to play,” Rivers said. “We’re just not going to do that.”
After a Jan. 12 loss in Denver, the Clippers threw the word “trust” around in their locker room more often than they’d moved the ball on the court. Since then, players believe they actually have found some, despite missing Paul George for a sixth consecutive game because of a strained hamstring.
“I feel like we’re in a better spot than two weeks ago,” center Ivica Zubac said. “We’re on to something on offense. It looks better, everyone can see it. When we’re playing it feels different. Defensively we’re locked in and we’re doing our stuff. I think we’re in a good rhythm. We’re still not healthy, and when we get healthy it’s going to get better, but I think we’re on to something.”
When: 4:30 PST
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570
Update: The Clippers are likely to play without Leonard, who hasn’t played back-to-back games yet this season.