Clippers, burned badly by Luka Doncic, get a second shot at stopping him
As Luka Doncic got what he wanted over and over, a sound and fury built inside American Airlines Center’s crowd whenever he touched the the ball.
Yet it signified nothing out of the ordinary, he said. Until the All-Star guard looked up at the scoreboard and saw his first-quarter point total.
“I was like, whoa, I didn’t even know I had 28,” Doncic said.
The highest-scoring quarter by any player this season might have been a surprise to Doncic, but it shouldn’t have been to the Clippers because the numbers suggest Doncic always saves something extra for them.
Seven of Doncic’s 10 highest-scoring games during his four-year NBA career, including the postseason, have come against the Clippers. There have been three games with 42 points and games of 43, 44 and 46, the latter of which tied his career high — until he reset it with Thursday’s 51-point game, a Mavericks victory that dropped the Clippers to 27-30 entering Saturday’s rematch in Dallas.
Kawhi Leonard, whose defense helped shut down Doncic late in Game 6 of last season’s first-round playoff series, could only watch in street clothes from the sideline.
On the day the Mavericks parted ways with Kristaps Porzingis, Luka Doncic scores a career-high 51 points to send the Clippers to a 112-105 loss.
Switching Dallas’ ball screens and leaving Doncic’s favorite target, center Ivica Zubac, to guard him alone beyond the three-point arc was a choice made by coach Tyronn Lue, because experience against Doncic in two postseason series taught Lue that the worst-case scenario is to allow Doncic to hurt an opponent with both his passing and shooting. In a bet to curb Doncic’s assists and keep his teammates out of rhythm, Lue largely resisted from rushing a second defender toward him in the opening quarter, believing that the Clippers could wear down Doncic and live with his shot-making in a season when his 32% three-point shooting is below his career average. Doncic also showed improved patience, mixing in drives once he’d gotten his defender off-balance rather than taking the first shot available.
“The funny thing is, a few of us at times were like ‘yeah, do we want to switch coverages?’” guard Reggie Jackson said. “I think even Zu, [Marcus Morris Sr.] and myself were like, ‘We could, but we know what he does.’ We’ve known that we have worn him out to 40 before and 50 in three quarters and made it tough on him in the end. So I think that is the approach we took.”
Said guard Norman Powell: “I thought we did a great job in the coverages that we had on him. I mean, he was hitting some tough shots over a seven-footer.”
When the quarter was over, the Clippers trailed by only eight and Lue felt his team was in “really good shape,” and then their defense began to gain traction by mixing in what they’d held off from early on, blitzing and “firing” at Doncic to force the ball out of his hands. By playing without a traditional center the final 16 minutes, the Clippers’ collection of wings were more capable of switching and rushing at Doncic in hopes of continuing to wear him down.
“I might have stayed too long with the switching with Zu and I mean, those step-back threes, I’ll live with that,” Lue said. “That’s his shot, but if he misses a couple, a few of those, the game is different.
“But he made them, and that’s why he’s a great player.”
Doncic took only three shots in the second quarter and one in the fourth quarter, when his scoring depended on free throws — he made 10 of 14. For much of the second half, as the Clippers drew down their deficit from 17 points to three, Doncic was hounded by Terance Mann, a familiar foe whose history knows no international borders.
Since their first meeting in Canada during the 2019 preseason — a game without stakes except to Mann, a rookie looking to make his impact felt — each has refused to back down. Sometimes they produce technical fouls and they always generate trash talk and combativeness. On Thursday, Mann’s protests to an official that Doncic had flopped led the Mavericks star to roll his eyes. Even walking to their respective timeouts at the end of the third quarter led to a brief exchange of words.
Occasionally they smiled at one another too, perhaps because their fiery nature is more similar than different.
“Those two guys, they’re fighting but it’s staying in the game, nothing bad between those two; they won’t throw hands or something like that,” forward Nicolas Batum said. “Of course, Luka’s a great player, T-Mann’s a good player, a great player, he’s going to try to make him work and get into him. They’re going to get better; they’re two young guys, so they face each other for a while. I mean, that’s fun.”
When: 5:30 p.m. PST, Saturday
On the air: TV: Bally Sports; Radio: 570, 1220
Update: Despite finishing Thursday’s game, Powell said he was “dealing with a lot of pain” after bruising what he said was the joint near the bottom of his big toe. He also sprained his right ankle, “but I sprain my ankle every game. So I live with those, being bow-legged. That’s nothing.” … Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith agreed to a four-year, $55-million contract extension Friday.
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