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Clippers win Game 3 battle of wills. Here are five takeaways

Officials separate Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, right, and Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr., during a squabble in Game 3.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Luka Doncic smiled at the question.

It was Sunday, the day before his first NBA playoff series, and the Dallas guard was asked whether he had prepared for the mental games the Clippers might try to play.

The unspoken implication, that the 21-year-old might be rattled by the new stage, was shrugged off. This was the player who made his professional debut with Real Madrid’s senior team at just 16. At 18, Doncic led Slovenia to the EuroBasket championship. At 19, he led Madrid to a European club title and was named the EuroLeague most valuable player.

Through three games in the series, with the Clippers leading 2-1 after a 130-122 victory on Friday, Doncic has yet to back down against his favored opponent. After scrapping with Marcus Morris Sr. in Game 1, Doncic traded words with Montrezl Harrell early in Game 3, telling him to stop flopping. A later dust-up between the two resulted in technical fouls for each.

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The scrappy play might have emboldened the Mavericks and created much-needed motivation inside a Disney World campus bubble that lacks any.

Instead, it hardened the Clippers’ resolve to not let Game 3 unravel the way Game 2 had.

“I just liked that we didn’t get distracted,” coach Doc Rivers said Friday. “I thought the game started out defensive, we were very physical without fouling, which is key. Then it got chippy a little bit. We just stayed the same. We didn’t change.

Paul George had another poor shooting night in the Clippers’ Game 3 win over Dallas on Friday. The Clippers need him to be Kawhi Leonard’s superstar partner.

“It’s a good sign. Teams are going to test us. We have to be mentally tough as well, and I thought we were tonight.”

Here are five takeaways from Game 3:

1. Friday’s outcome changed for good once Doncic came up limping after injuring his left ankle late in the third quarter. He returned in the fourth quarter but said afterward that, “I could run a little bit but I couldn’t push off of my left leg.” He will undergo an MRI on Saturday.

The injury had a profound effect on the game and perhaps the series. And yet Friday felt as though it tilted toward the Clippers in the second quarter, when Landry Shamet achieved liftoff.

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Seeing Doncic slow to recover on a screen set by Paul George, Shamet dribbled around Dorian Finney-Smith’s hedge at the three-point arc and saw 23 feet of open space between him and the basket. At the rim, he dunked with two hands over Boban Marjanovic, the center who is a foot taller than Shamet. The dunk broke a 35-all tie and began a 7-0 Clippers run.

Basketball is a rhythm game and Shamet had yet to find his since arriving to the NBA bubble three weeks late because of the coronavirus. The leader in three-point accuracy among rookies last season at 41%, Shamet made only 21% of his threes during the seeding round. It’s why his strong play Friday, while starting in place of Reggie Jackson, was critical for a Clippers team that has tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to fill the void left by injured starting guard Patrick Beverley.

Shamet finished with 18 points but also “took pride in his defense tonight,” said Kawhi Leonard, who scored a game-high 36 points. “He didn’t want to make mistakes. Even when he made them, he just put it behind him. He was aggressive going to the rim offensively. His three-pointers started falling. I think he did well.”

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2. Morris was another Clipper who’d endured up-and-downs to find his rhythm in the bubble but has played his best basketball in the postseason. Of the Clippers’ five best postseason lineups, as gauged by plus-minus, only Leonard and Morris have played in each.

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Highlights from the Clippers’ 130-122 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 3 on Friday.

Leonard’s contributions draw headlines — that’s what scoring 100 points in three games will do — but the Clippers are outscoring the Mavericks by 13.3 points in the 33.2 points per game Morris plays and have been outscored by 12.3 points in the 14.8 minutes per game in which he sits. Those numbers lead all Clippers who have played in all three games of the series.

3. Rivers never expresses concern publicly when a player is in a shooting slump. When it’s a star, Rivers takes an even more hands-off approach.

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“Those are the guys you just kind of leave alone and let them work it out,” the coach said before tipoff.

Still, Paul George’s slump is now a trend. In Games 2 and 3 he has combined to make seven of his 33 field goals. He finished with 11 points on three-of-16 shooting in Game 3 while adding nine rebounds and seven assists.

“I’m no James Harden,” George said. “That’s not my knack is to just shoot the ball, score the ball. I can and I pride myself on being effective on both ends. But there’s going to be nights like this where I just can’t make a shot and I can’t allow that to affect my game.

“I still got to be aggressive and still try to make plays. I will do everything I can to win a ballgame. Some nights are just going to be like that, I am not going to make shots but I got to find a way to make an impact.”

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Leonard followed the lead of his coach by expressing little doubt about the state of George’s offense.

“This is playoff basketball,” Leonard said. “He’s a confident player, he’s going to turn it around. We got his back.”

4. The Clippers allowed a team-best 103.1 points per 100 possessions when Clippers center Ivica Zubac was on the court defensively Friday. Contrast that with the eye-watering 144.7 defensive rating allowed when Zubac sat.

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Zubac would go on to play a playoff career-high 29 minutes, including a rare appearance with a closing lineup by playing the final 6:32 of the fourth quarter. He’d played six minutes or more in a fourth quarter only four times in the regular season.

His effectiveness was on display from the start as he turned away several drives by Doncic often while left alone against him in one-on-one situations. Yet he was pulled from the game and replaced by Harrell after fewer than five minutes. Why the shorter-than-usual opening stint?

“We wanted to get [Harrell] in early, try to speed the game up a little bit,” Rivers said. “I thought he did that.”

The adjustments with Zubac began from the first possession when he started by guarding Finney-Smith and not 7-foot-3 center Kristaps Porzingis, who plays well beyond the three-point line, a place where Zubac’s footwork can get stuck in quicksand. As the game went on, Rivers ensured the 7-foot Zubac stayed on the floor whenever Marjanovic played to negate the sizable advantage Marjanovic had displayed when guarded by Harrell in Game 2.

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“Being on Finney-Smith help us more because it puts me in a low man position a lot, I can help a lot,” Zubac said. “I think that’s the biggest reason. He’s in a corner, I get to be in a low man position more. Rather have him take threes than Porzingis. I think that was a good strategy for us.

“Doc told us before the game, me and Trez, that he was going to try to match my minutes with Boban. I think I got the size to fight a battle with Boban underneath the basket. Whatever our coach wants us to do we’re going to do it. Whoever he wants me to guard, I’m going to do it. I’m happy to play my role, happy to help this team win.”

5. For all of the concern produced by George’s 24.1% three-point shooting in this series, Leonard has made 23.1% of his threes.

Leonard, however, has begun the postseason scoring like no other Clipper in history by staying aggressive and getting to the free-throw line an average of 10 times per game, tied with Miami’s Jimmy Butler for third most in the postseason. Once there, Leonard is converting 93.3% of his attempts.

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