Column: Clippers’ Game 1 loss to Mavericks reminiscent of past playoff failures

The Mavericks' Luka Doncic is fouled by the Clippers' Serge Ibaka in the fourth quarter May 22, 2021.
The Mavericks’ Luka Doncic is fouled by the Clippers’ Serge Ibaka during the fourth quarter Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

There are no excuses left for the Clippers. Just questions, after their playoff-opening loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, about whether they’re destined to repeat the same old failures they’ve produced year after year after year.

Unlike last season, when they rarely had their whole lineup together, they approached this first-round series healthy, rested, with enough time together and enough practice behind them to become comfortable with their rotations and familiar with the details coach Tyronn Lue values so highly. They were so eager to put that into action that they asked Lue to let them stage a scrimmage one day last week. He set aside his fears that someone might get hurt, and gave in. “They competed, played really, really hard,” Lue said.

Too bad they left that on the practice floor.

Luka Doncic had a triple-double and Dallas Mavericks role players outperformed the Clippers late to win Game 1 of the first-round series 113-103.


The Mavericks had every reason to be encouraged by their 113-103 victory over the Clippers at Staples Center on Saturday. Luka Doncic scored only one point of his game-high 31 in the fourth quarter, yet Dallas outscored the Clippers by four in the final 12 minutes. Kristaps Porzingis, who was ejected during the opener of the Mavericks’ first-round series against the Clippers last season, stayed on the floor and contributed six points in the fourth quarter. Dorian Finney-Smith hit a pair of three-point shots in the fourth. Reserve Jalen Brunson, who was recovering from shoulder surgery when the Mavericks were eliminated by the Clippers in six games last season, scored nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter of his postseason debut.

Doncic allowed the Mavericks to soar on the strength of his stellar 31-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound triple-double. Role players kept them aloft while he missed all five shots he took in the fourth quarter. It should worry the Clippers that they stopped him down the stretch but couldn’t win a game that would have enabled them to keep home-court advantage and set a tone for the series.

“We’re a strength-in-numbers operation,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “Luka is a great player and KP is a great player, but as a team we know that everybody has got to be ready and everybody has got to pull their weight when called upon and today we were able to do that, which is great. The challenge going forward is going to be to maintain the edge and keep the fight.”

Porzingis, who had 14 points on four-for-13 shooting, also applauded Dallas’ depth.

Highlights from the Clippers 113-103 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on May 22, 2021, at Staples Center.

“We have a lot of weapons. We have a lot of tools,” said Porzingis, who missed the last three games of last season’s series because of a sore knee. “I had an off night tonight and we were still able to get the win. Other guys stepped up, played great. Luka had a huge game. Sure, they’re going to make some adjustments, but we’re also going to get better and it’s going to be a fun second game.”

Doncic said his legs were “kind of sore” late in the game because of his efforts to escape the Clippers’ double teams but he didn’t mind. Doncic and his teammates adjusted well to whatever the Clippers threw at them.

“When they don’t double, attack it. When they double, there’s somebody is going to be open and you’re just going to read the game,” he said.

His low production in the fourth didn’t bother him.

“We won the game and that’s all that matters for me, if I have zero or 15 points the last quarter,” he said.

Clearly, he wasn’t fazed by the Clippers’ defense. He’s rarely fazed by anything.

“Luka’s seen virtually every coverage known to mankind. Every kind of double team, every kind of switching scenario, switching and then double-teaming 30 feet away from the basket, et cetera, et cetera,” Carlisle said. “It’s a matter of getting to the right spots when he gets double teamed. He’s obviously very good against switches. He mixed up the stepbacks and the drives and I thought there were a couple times he could have gotten to the free throw line….

Clippers-Mavericks first-round playoff schedule.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

“He’s a very unique player for a 22-year-old. The level of poise he has, his ability to slow down the game, to see what’s going on. He was great tonight and I thought this defense was very good too. This is his time of year. He’s one of the smartest basketball players you will ever meet at any age, at any level. He knows that we’ve got to be a next-play-mentality team and he’s got to be the leader.”

The postseason never has been the Clippers’ time of year. After blowing a 3-1 series lead over Denver in the second round last season they brought in Lue, revamped their roster, and tried to develop a strong, confident identity. Their loss Saturday left room to wonder if they’ve made any real gains. If they thought they were lucky to escape a first-round matchup against the defending champion Lakers, they might have second thoughts as this best-of-seven matchup continues against the Mavericks, who were fearless during crunch time Saturday.

“That poise comes with experience. Being in those situations and having lost last season to them gives us that extra bit of experience that we need,” Porzingis said. “But the series are long. First game. We did what we expected ourselves to do and now it’s off to the next one.”

That next one Tuesday will say a lot about whether the Clippers’ postseason journey will turn out to be the same old, same old failures.

The Lakers and Clippers open the NBA playoffs on May 22-23. Here’s a guide to the Los Angeles Times’ complete coverage.