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Clippers fall short against Kyrie Irving and new-look Mavericks

Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and Dallas Mavericks' Kyrie Irving during their game at Crypto.com Arena.
Kawhi Leonard, left, of the Clippers holds off Kyrie Irving of the Dallas Mavericks during their game Wednesday at Crypto.com Arena.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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The spotlight entering Wednesday night revolved around seeing, for the first time, the fruits of the Dallas’ big trade-deadline move.

The question leaving it centered on how far their opponent will go with their own.

With the league’s moratorium on trades looming at noon PT Thursday, the Clippers lost 110-104 while facing Kyrie Irving in his Mavericks debut, only days after the Clippers had tried to pry him away from Brooklyn. All the while the Clippers kept mulling their own options for how to optimize their tandem of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to keep pace in a Western Conference that is getting stronger after the Phoenix Suns reportedly struck a deal for Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant late Wednesday.

“It’s just that much more competitive in the West,” said George, who scored 20 points on 20 shots. “It’s never going to be easy.”

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According to people around the NBA not authorized to speak publicly, size in the frontcourt and ballhandling skill in the backcourt are said to remain priorities for the Clippers. The team inquired about Charlotte guard Terry Rozier and big man Mason Plumlee in recent days while Russell Westbrook, traded to the Utah Jazz by the Lakers and expected to be bought out by the team, has interest in joining the Clippers should he become a free agent, though whether that interest is mutual remains to be seen. Also yet to be traded is Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, the source of so much speculation.

Against the backdrop of trade talks and the buyout market that will follow played out a game that could be viewed quite differently based on your perspective. It was perhaps the result of circumstance, a team with tired legs after returning from a 12-day trip facing a rejuvenated opponent, with Leonard and George playing a limited number of minutes as the Clippers attempts to limit their workload before the All-Star break.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue will replace Phoenix’s Monty Williams on the USA Basketball men’s national team coaching staff for World Cup and next year’s Paris Olympics.

Feb. 8, 2023

Alternately, the game could be read as a microcosm of the inconsistencies leading to their 31-27 record — reasons why the team might feel compelled to reshape its roster.

“[Dallas] came in and played well, they were going to be energized,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “What we’ve done over the last 10-11 games, that’s who we want to be. We’ve got a lot of work to do and so I’m just happy to coach the team we have here.

“I can’t worry about trades or whatever maybe or could be, whatever. I’m focused on the guys in the locker room and I have a great respect for everyone in the locker room. ... We do have enough to succeed and win, especially when our guys are playing, PG and Kawhi are playing at a high level. When we’re able to get their minutes back up, we’ll be fine.”

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But now the Suns have reportedly upped the ante, following Dallas’ lead, making the path to the NBA Finals through the West more treacherous than it was four days ago.

Leonard said he was informed of the Durant news right before his postgame news conference but was “just focused on what we got to do.”

“Just keep buying into what we’re doing,” he added. “Making sure that we’re in the right spots coming out of timeouts or just overall the flow of the offense. It’s just the same thing, if you want to be a competitive team it’s just gonna rely on your defense and you’ve got to execute on the offensive end. It’s an easy game.”

Clippers' Norman Powell gets fouled by Dallas Mavericks Josh Green during fourth-quarter play.
Clippers’ Norman Powell, middle, gets fouled by Dallas Mavericks Josh Green, right, during a fourth-quarter play at Crypto.com Arena on Wednesday.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Norman Powell led the Clippers with 24 points off the bench and Leonard had 18 points.

In his Dallas debut, Irving finished with 24 points while his fellow All-Star teammate Luka Doncic watched in street clothes, sidelined because of an injured heel.

Irving received a loud, and chilly, reception inside Crypto.com Arena upon touching the ball on the first possession, then missed two shots. But the cheers grew louder as he scored eight unanswered points amid a Dallas run that pushed its lead to 15 not even halfway through the opening quarter, and as many as 19.

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When Mavericks guard Jaden Hardy drove with nine minutes to play in the second quarter, there wasn’t a single Clippers defender who stepped in his way as he finished with a dunk for a 46-27 lead. Irving later shook Clippers reserve Robert Covington at the top of the key and found an open lane to the basket.

In the fourth quarter, Lue took out Reggie Jackson — the player who has remained in the rotation because he fits what Lue has called the “traditional point guard” archetype — after he couldn’t complete an entry pass to Leonard at the elbow, leading to one of the Clippers’ 11 turnovers. George, still pressed into more duty as a ballhandler, was responsible for four.

The Clippers concluded their trip with a 4-2 mark by winning 124-116 on Monday night over the Brooklyn Nets, who were led by Cam Thomas’ 47 points.

Feb. 6, 2023

There were also stretches that displayed why the Clippers could also opt to search for upgrades around the margins, more content than concerned about the makeup of their core rotation.

Using a nine-man rotation in the second half, featuring Jackson, Covington, Powell and Nicolas Batum off the bench, the Clippers pulled to within one with three minutes left in the third quarter on a Leonard jump shot after he isolated against the defense of Irving. Dallas scored 40 points in the first quarter, then only 41 combined during the next two.

Terance Mann, the nominal point guard whom opposing teams have called about with great interest for weeks, showed why the Clippers have protected him thus far in scoring 21 points, with four assists and three rebounds.

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But midway through the fourth quarter, their deficit was again 10 points and the Clippers never got to within five again. When the team plays Friday, it could look quite different.

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