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Column: Problem-solving Clippers know they can’t be one and done in NBA playoffs

Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard reacts with teammate Marcus Morris Sr., left, after hitting a jump shot.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard reacts alongside teammate Marcus Morris Sr., left, after hitting a jump shot against the Mavericks during the fourth quarter of the Clippers’ 118-110 playoff win Monday.
(Kevin C. Cox / Associated Press)

The Clippers had gotten so few opportunities this season to play with a fully healthy roster and become the championship-caliber team they were designed to be that coach Doc Rivers wasn’t thrown when injuries and absences scrambled his roster again when the season resumed inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble.

Asked whether making frequent adjustments throughout the season made him feel sure the Clippers could adapt again Monday night in their playoff opener against the Dallas Mavericks, with sixth man of the year finalist Montrezl Harrell out of quarantine and on the bench again after a month-long absence to be with his grandmother before she died, Rivers was calm. He and they had done this before, had changed rotations, had played through minutes restrictions and prolonged absences. They simply had to do it again.

“I look at rotations. It would be great that you knew exactly the rotations you wanted to play, but that would be impossible with us going into the playoffs,” Rivers said. “That’s unusual, though. That actually is unusual. ... It’s just been one of those years.”

For the Clippers, this can’t be another of those years that ends with an early playoff exit, not after all they’ve done to build this roster. They might not know their rotations anytime soon, but they’ve been sure of their goal all along. That sense of purpose carried them through a generally rocky defensive effort in a 118-110 victory over the Mavericks, despite Luka Doncic’s stunning playoff debut-record 42 points.

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It helped the Clippers immeasurably, of course, that Dallas center Kristaps Porzingis was ejected early in the third quarter, given a second technical foul for becoming the third man in a shoving match between Doncic and Marcus Morris Sr.

Porzingis didn’t deserve the first tech, which was called after he pumped his first in the first quarter when he thought he had a block that was instead called a foul. Not having to contend with Porzingis, who had 14 points and six rebounds (all on the defensive end) in his playoff debut, was huge good fortune for the Clippers, no matter that Rivers claimed otherwise.

“I don’t like him being out. I hate that,” Rivers said in a TV interview. “But we’ve got to take advantage.”

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The Clippers managed to capitalize on Porzingis’ absence, though it wasn’t easy. Kawhi Leonard’s 29 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, to go with 27 points from Paul George, gave them the foundation.

“I’m happy that we got the win tonight,” Leonard said in a Zoom interview. “Still think we’re trying to build our chemistry.”

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Dallas Mavericks vs. Los Angeles Clippers highlights.

Morris provided a morale boost with 19 points and six rebounds; Harrell’s presence on the bench and in 14 minutes on the court was another lift. Harrell, who wore a T-shirt with the image of his late grandmother over his heart, scored six points and had two rebounds.

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“You don’t miss a month and then put a guy in a playoff game and expect anything miraculous,” Rivers said.

Leonard saw Harrell’s old personality, if not Harrell’s old top conditioning.
“He went out there talking, wanted to play, play hard, wanted to win,” Leonard said. “As time goes on, he’ll get back to himself.”

It’s almost unimaginable that the Clippers are still looking for the right fits and rotations at this late date. But here they are, working through more obstacles, problem-solving as they go along. Rivers said he doesn’t have a rotation in mind now because of ongoing minutes limitations, but, again, that’s nothing new for him or his team.

“We just have a makeshift rotation,” he said. “It will probably be that way for a couple more games, until you feel like everybody’s kind of got their legs under them.”

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Their mental strength was as important as any of their other assets Monday as they rode out Dallas’ rousing response to their own early 18-2 run.

“I think we just stopped making shots and they made shots. Pretty much we just got to stay level-headed and just take it one possession at a time,” Leonard said. “The Mavs are a tough team. They’ve got a great culture over there as well. They’re not going to stop fighting.

“This is playoff basketball. You see leads like that all the time. That’s what this is about.”

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For the Clippers, playoff basketball will be about persevering and adjusting, familiar tasks.

“We had some moments, and I think it showed. We know it’s a process,” George said during on an-court TV interview. “We didn’t expect to come out here and go 16-0. We’re smarter than that.”

They’re 1-0 and still finding their footing. That’s a good start.

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