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Kawhi Leonard, Paul George help Clippers overcome Luka Doncic’s record playoff debut

In the spring, with no end to stay-at-home orders or resumption of the NBA season in sight, Clippers coach Doc Rivers tried staying positive.

But over time, Rivers grew anxious. His team had bargained away much of its future to build a roster capable of winning four rounds of postseason basketball now. In March, one month before the playoffs were set to begin, the Clippers looked better than ever — players healthy, their talent harnessed. Then the novel coronavirus shut it all down. At times, Rivers said, he felt upset.

“You’re looking at our team, like wow, man, we’ve got a shot here,” Rivers said Sunday. “And we may not have a season.”

When the postseason the Clippers feared might be lost finally arrived Monday, 300 days after the regular season began, Rivers said before tipoff that he felt relief.

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He felt the same, four hours later, after watching a 118-110 Game 1 victory against Dallas in which the opportunity the Clippers waited months for nearly slipped away.

“It’s probably a great lesson for us,” Rivers said. “It doesn’t matter what the lead is or who you’re playing, you’re in a playoffs. It’s going to be hard. I think our guys are going to understand that from this point forward.”

With the playoffs held at a neutral site for the first time, because of the coronavirus outbreak, many NBA observers predicted the postseason could have the kind of unpredictable twists and turns usually associated with the rides at nearby Disney World. It took Game 1 less than 12 minutes to deliver.

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Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points with 12 rebounds and Paul George added 27 points to help the Clippers overcome 42 points by Luka Doncic, the most in NBA history by a player making his playoff debut.

The Clippers built an 18-2 lead while looking like the team on a mission they have said they are. Patrick Beverley guarded Doncic at the point of attack, but the Clippers switched his defensive assignment, passing Doncic between three 6-foot-8 forwards — George, Leonard and Marcus Morris Sr.

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Dallas Mavericks vs. Los Angeles Clippers highlights.

Unable to find space, Doncic turned the ball over five times in as many minutes. Unable to keep pace, the Mavericks’ league-leading offense looked lifeless.

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For the game’s first four minutes, Doncic made easy plays look hard. He would finish with 11 turnovers. But upon returning after getting an ankle retaped, he made the difficult appear effortless while he engineered a stunning comeback. By the end of the first quarter, Dallas led by four. Early in the second quarter, the lead was 14 after a 48-18 run.

It took a 21-7 Clippers run before halftime to salvage the half, even if they entered the third quarter still trailing by three with Beverley and George saddled with three fouls.

“Pretty much, we just got to stay levelheaded and just take it one possession at a time,” Leonard said. “The Mavs are a tough team. … They’re not going to stop fighting. This is playoff basketball.”

Through it all, the Clippers were steadied by a player who has struggled to find consistency since joining in February: Morris. He finished with 19 points and Rivers praised his patience. It was exactly the type of floor-spacing shooting and rugged defense the Clippers hoped for when they traded for him.

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“Him becoming a Clipper was one of the biggest pickups that we’ve had,” George said. “It just adds so much value to this team.”

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic scored 42 points in NBA playoff debut despite the Clippers’ physical strategy in Game 1.

Morris’ most impactful moment came three minutes into the third quarter when his contact on a driving Doncic after the whistle led to a verbal disagreement and flared tempers. Their exchange quickly drew the attention of teammates, including 7-foot-3 Mavericks star Kristaps Porzingis, who entered the fray and quickly was whistled for a second technical foul after some pushing. His first playoff game ended with 14 points, six rebounds and one ill-timed ejection.

“They provoked us and especially me. I should have been smarter,” Porzingis said.

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“I already had a technical, which I didn’t really have in my mind. I hadn’t been in that situation really and that was smart of [Morris] to kind of grab Luka and then get into his face and get a reaction out of me. They got what they were looking for basically.”

Morris “didn’t think it was enough to get technical fouls,” he said.

“I wish that Porzingis played because it’s playoffs, man, nobody should get thrown out in playoffs,” Morris added. “I know that really hurt their team. Not my fault, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

That easily could have been the game. But in this series opener, nothing was so simple.

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Dallas closed to within one point with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but there was no second comeback.

Morris made an 18-foot jumper from the baseline in Doncic’s face. Beverley drilled a corner three-pointer when Dallas’ defense sagged off to guard a drive by George. Then George stepped into a 25-foot three-pointer with 42 seconds left and drilled it for an eight-point lead.

It was only the 12th game the Clippers have played with a full roster, and at times it showed.

Yet they are now 11-1 in those games.

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“I’m happy we got the win tonight,” Leonard said. “Still think we trying to build our chemistry.”

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