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Clippers dominate Game 4 to even series against Mavericks

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard splits Dallas defenders Maxi Kleber (42) and Luka Doncic (rear) on a drive toward the lane.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, who had 29 points, splits Mavericks defenders Maxi Kleber and Luka Doncic, rear, on a drive toward the lane during Game 4 on Sunday night in Dallas.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

The first fans to have seen enough left after three quarters Sunday night. Picking up the free blue T-shirts that had been left on every seat inside American Airlines Center before Game 4, they said their goodbyes and walked out on a home team down 22 points.

They left in waves eight minutes later. The final straw was seeing guard Reggie Jackson make a corner three-pointer to push the Clippers’ lead over the Dallas Mavericks to 24, then strut back into the arms of a gleeful, whooping bench.

Days earlier, at the height of the concern about the Clippers’ future, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue saw a team not melting down but warming up. Surveying the film after Game 2, a loss that dropped the Clippers into a two-game deficit in this best-of-seven series, Lue spotted what he thought could change the outcome.

“We found out how we want to attack this team,” Lue said.

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For four quarters Sunday, they took what they had learned through losses and attacked, relentlessly — to the point that, for many fans, it became unbearable to watch. After a dominant 106-81 victory, they return home officially tied in the series but looking like they have cracked Dallas’ code, possibly for good.

Clippers forward Paul George flexes from the sideline as he watches the end of Game 4.
Clippers forward Paul George flexes from the sideline as he watches the end of Game 4 on Sunday night in Dallas.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

Lue cautioned that “we still haven’t done anything yet,” but what they did do, most importantly, was not overreact before arriving in Texas.

“We knew our mistakes,” said forward Nicolas Batum, whose start in place of center Ivica Zubac was the first key adjustment that swung Game 4. Since falling behind by 19 points in the first quarter of Game 3, the Clippers have finally solved those mistakes, outscoring Dallas 213-159.

Batum said he saw no panic.

“We’re helping each other. We’re trusting each other a little bit more,” Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said. “We played pretty good defense the last two games.”

The Mavericks are not yet broken, but Dallas star Luka Doncic is certainly “in pain,” coach Rick Carlisle said, after he played through a strained neck for a second consecutive game. Doncic bent over, wincing at times, on his way to 19 points on 24 field-goal attempts.

A home team still has not won in this series, but the Clippers looked very comfortable inside an arena with more than 17,000 fans for a second straight game.

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Leonard scored 29 points, making 11 of his 15 field-goal attempts, and Paul George scored 20 points, making six of his 16. In one stretch during the second quarter, George stepped into a three-pointer and swished it. He ripped through the paint for a layup. Pulling up from 19 feet, he drained his third basket in a row, an onslaught that forced Dallas, down 13, to call a timeout.

Before George retreated to the huddle, he stopped to yell to the crowd, exorcising the playoff demons from one year ago, when he shot poorly against Dallas and was widely mocked for it. He has made 50% of his shots through four games to create a two-superstar battering ram. Since the NBA instituted the shot clock in 1954, Leonard is only the third player to have scored at least 29 points while shooting at least 66% from the field in three consecutive playoff games.

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Highlights from the Los Angeles Clippers’ 106-81 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on May 30, 2021, in Dallas.

Lue made no small adjustment by choosing to go small from the start — replacing Zubac with Batum. With no starter taller than 6 feet 8, the result was an oft-swarming defense that, coupled with the Mavericks’ shooting regression, has been a turning point.

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Starting in a postseason game for the first time since 2016, Batum was a plus-15 in the first half, tying Rajon Rondo for the team’s high, with his contributions quiet but vital, such as breaking up three entry passes in the first quarter as Dallas tried to exploit its height advantage through post-ups. He finished with 10 points and five rebounds, and his four steals tied a season high.

Playing small opened up the floor for the Clippers on offense, pulling 7-foot-2 Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis away from the rim to defend the perimeter. George and Leonard were determined to score in the paint as often as possible, attacking the lack of rim protection.

Lue called Leonard’s speed driving into the paint, where he scored 18 points on 11 shots, “unbelievable.”

“With Kawhi, he’s phenomenal, also catching the ball and making assists and attacking early,” Lue said. “We need to continue to keep doing that. We have some work to do, but I like the direction we’re trending in.”

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The Clippers finished with 44 points in the paint.

“I just knew we had to simplify some things,” Lue said. “I knew we had to get better with our game-plan mistakes.”

Carlisle’s response was to insert 7-4 Boban Marjanovic against the Clippers’ tiny lineup, and he scored two quick baskets. The Clippers countered by inserting Zubac. But every adjustment afterward by Dallas was made null by its inability to shoot.

The Mavericks shot 34% overall and made just five of their 30 three-point tries. Doncic, playing with tape running from his neck down his left arm because of pain, said his neck had felt better Sunday morning, but he never looked comfortable in making nine of his 24 field-goal attempts, including just one of his seven three-point tries. He was 0 for 5 on free throws.

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“We lost by 20, and the injuries are part of basketball,” Doncic said. “But I played terrible, so just gotta move on to the next one.”

Doncic’s supporting cast was missing in action for a second consecutive loss. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored four points, eventually writhing in pain on the court after being undercut in the fourth quarter. It was difficult to watch, as Hardaway pulled himself on the court before being helped up — for those who were still in the building, anyway.

“Job’s not done yet,” Leonard said.

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

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