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Clippers and first-round opponent Mavericks still seek postseason breakthroughs

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard missed the first of three meetings with the Dallas Mavericks this season.
(Jacob Kupferman / Associated Press)

As their number of potential first-round playoff opponents dwindled during the regular season’s final days, and Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and his staff tightened their focus on Dallas, they compiled a refresher course on the Mavericks’ preferred plays, what to do if they run out of timeouts and who Dallas coach Rick Carlisle wants to get the ball to in certain scenarios.

In all that film study, however, little of what the Clippers watched might have come from the teams’ own head-to-head matchups.

Though opposing coaching staffs will surely find some utility from studying the 144 combined minutes during the season series won by Dallas, 2-1, none of the games reflected the rosters that will take the court when the seven-game series begins this weekend.

“Seen a lot of crazy things throughout the course of the regular season, and when the playoffs come it’s a whole different season,” Lue said Sunday, after the Clippers clinched the Western Conference’s fourth seed. “Mentality changes, a lot of things change. We can’t read into anything that happened in the regular season as it’s a whole totally different season.”

Dallas mauled the Clippers by 51 points in the season’s third game, but Clippers All-Star Kawhi Leonard and Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis both sat out because of injuries. In the final two games played in March, Leonard and Porzingis were back, but the Clippers didn’t have starting guard Patrick Beverley or center Serge Ibaka because of injuries, nor backup point guard Rajon Rondo, whom the team would trade for less than two weeks later.

The Clippers will play the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs after losing to the Thunder 117-112 to end the regular season.

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Yet nine months after these teams met during the first round of last season’s playoffs in the NBA’s isolated Disney World campus near Orlando, Fla., what is irrefutably the same is that each enters with the shared goal of breaking through.

With the length of their title window uncertain, given Leonard’s unrestricted free agency after the season, the Clippers are chasing the franchise’s first appearance in a conference final, and beyond. They’re counting on the league’s second-best half-court offense, as gauged by points per play, to get them there. Dallas ranks fourth.

In half-court defense, the Clippers rank 13th and Dallas 15th.

The fifth-seeded Mavericks aren’t playing under such burdensome title expectations in two-time All-Star Luka Doncic’s third season, yet after pushing the Clippers to six games last season despite Porzingis’ absence during the final three because of a knee injury, the rematch offers a chance to push deeper, ahead of schedule.

“It was extremely important for us to get that first experience in the playoffs” last season, Porzingis said Sunday. “Just to understand what’s the intensity like and what’s the emotional and mental state that you’re in when you go into the playoffs. Each game, it’s like life or death.”

That emotion trickled into last season’s series, which featured three ejections, three flagrant fouls and 16 technical fouls. Doncic and Clippers forward Marcus Morris were frequently entangled; in the fifth game, Morris’ foot landed on Doncic’s injured left ankle, a play with which the Mavericks took issue. Doncic said Sunday that Morris this season had apologized for the play.

Officials get between Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, right, and Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr.
Officials get between Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, right, and Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. during Game 3 of the teams’ 2020 playoff series.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Porzingis said there was “no personal beef” lingering with the Clippers.

“It was fun to play, I’m not going to lie, it was fun,” Doncic said. “It was a lot of trash talking, a lot of hard plays, but it was fun. That’s what basketball is about.”

Lue suggested Sunday that the team’s playoff rotation would include starters Leonard, Morris, Beverley, Paul George and center Ivica Zubac, with Ibaka, Rondo, guard Reggie Jackson and forward Nicolas Batum coming off the bench to play alongside either of George or Leonard. Guards Luke Kennard and Terance Mann could be used situationally.

Getting to the point where the Clippers could field such a rotation has taken months of injury rehabilitation. Among their projected playoff starters only Zubac played in more than 57 games this season, and he played in all 72. George missed 18 games, Leonard 20, Beverley 35 and Ibaka 31.

Lue described himself as “very happy” that the Clippers left Sunday’s regular-season finale with their projected rotation intact.

“I feel good,” Lue said. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs this season with our injuries and guys being in and out of the lineup, starting different lineups, playing different guys, different rotations, and I thought our guys handled it well, so a lot of guys have a lot of experience in different positions. Like I said, the main thing for us is just making sure we go into the playoffs healthy.”


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