Column: Clippers showcase their resilience and growth in playoff series win over Mavericks
Kawhi Leonard’s stoic expression rarely changes, no matter the circumstances on the court. The Clippers forward is reassuringly calm through the chaos of runs and slumps, a two-time NBA Finals most valuable player for reasons that extend well beyond his formidable scoring ability.
His composure isn’t a disguise he puts on along with his uniform and sneakers. It’s real. “I’ve been the same player my whole career,” he said. “You know, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to where teams want to get to and win it.”
Putting his modesty aside, Leonard permitted himself a brief smile when he returned to the bench with a team-high 33 points late in the Clippers’ 111-97 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, which closed out their first-round playoff series. Leonard had earned that moment of satisfaction after six feisty, sometimes tense games. So had the Clippers.
Ending the series on Sunday was vital because they didn’t allow Dallas wunderkind Luka Doncic to enhance his growing legend and go off in an anything-can-happen Game 7. Defending Doncic — who scored 23 of his 38 points on Sunday in the second half — should be good preparation for the Clippers as they look ahead to facing another dynamic young guard in Denver’s Jamal Murray or Utah’s Donovan Mitchell.
Kawhi Leonard finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Clippers to a series-clinching 111-97 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6.
“I think two years ago, his rookie year, I had a man-crush on him. It’s grown,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Doncic. “He’s just a terrific player. I love his toughness. We made it hard for him these last two games and he just kept going.”
Doncic, who earned technical fouls in each of the last four games, returned Rivers’ compliment and called the Clippers “amazing” as a team. “They have a lot of good defenders,” he said in a postgame webinar. “Switching a lot so like every other quarter there was somebody else defending me, but they have great defensive team so it was tough to score.”
The Clippers won the series despite losing tenacious defender Patrick Beverley to a calf injury after the opener, and advancing without him gave him time to heal before their second-round series against the Utah-Denver winner begins this week. Rivers said he’s hopeful Beverley will return for the opener “and we can get back to our normal rotations,” but that’s idealistic for a team that has rarely had everyone healthy enough at the same time this season to come up with regular rotations.
To win this series the Clippers also overcame Paul George’s poor shooting in the early going, and they won with different lineups. On Sunday they got a timely contribution from reserve guard Reggie Jackson, whose back-to-back three-point baskets padded a 10-point lead to a forbidding 16 in the fourth quarter after the Mavericks had closed within six. “He gave us that separation we needed,” George said. They also got a boost from center Ivica Zubac’s 15 points and 11 rebounds.
“Zub had the playoff of his life,” Rivers said.
Highlights from the Clippers’ win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6.
That’s a small sample size for Zubac, whose previous postseason experience was 39 minutes in four games against Golden State last season. “It’s hard not hard to have playoffs of my life because I’ve been in the playoffs one time before and it was not really good,” he said cheerfully. “But it’s great to hear that from a coach. I really love the trust he’s putting in me, and every time I step out on the court I want to return the favor. I want to play good for the team. I want to do the stuff they’re asking me to do. I still get that trust from him and I love the team, love the coach, and I’m happy to be in this spot.”
The Clippers also won the series despite giving up a 21-point lead in Game 4 and losing in overtime, bouncing back to score a franchise playoff-record 154 points in their Game 5 romp. They won by mustering a clutch defensive effort when they most needed it on Sunday, holding Dallas to 37.9% shooting (25 for 66) in the final three quarters after the Mavericks enjoyed a 34-point first quarter. Game 6 was the only time the Mavericks scored fewer than 100 points.
“I thought we grew through the series,” Rivers said. “You know, a little bit of adversity early on was very good for us. We didn’t have any of that all year. I look at that as good, positive growth.”
That growth must continue for them to become the championship-caliber team they’ve insisted they can be. Rivers took many positives and few negatives from the series. “I don’t think we played well, quite honestly, for the first three games and yet we still were [leading] 2-1,” he said. “I thought we joined the series late. I thought our intensity joined the playoff intensity late. I thought our execution gradually got better.”
Asked what the Clippers must do in the second round, Leonard was concise. “Just got to focus,” he said. “That’s what we got to do. Less mistakes for sure, and more execution.”
He was serious again, saving his smile for another win on another day.
Elliott reported from Los Angeles.
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