Down 30-11 just minutes into Game 3 before the biggest and most hostile crowd they’ve faced all season, the LA Clippers responded Friday night with a performance that might have saved their season.
After head coach Ty Lue said they would show what they’re made of in a must-win game, the visiting Clippers overcame another monster night from Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic with perhaps the best combined effort they’ve received from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with all that was at stake.
Leonard and George combined to score 65 points in a 118-108 win over the Mavericks in front of a raucous 17,705 fans at American Airlines Center, cutting Dallas’ first-round series lead to 2-1.
“We’re down 2-1. We haven’t shown anything,” said George, who scored 22 of his 29 points in the first half. “We’re not the favorites [to win it all]. We’re not the defending champs. We haven’t shown anything.
“We have to continue to keep doing it. We’ve got to win this series, but it’s one game at a time. We’ve got to win Game 4 and send it back to L.A. Take home-court advantage. But off one win, we haven’t shown anything.”
Lue might disagree. The Clippers, a team that blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round last year against Denver, were staring at the possibility of falling behind 3-0 and what would almost certainly be yet another postseason failure.
With their season on the line, the Clippers opened Game 3 looking like they were heading straight toward the offseason. Despite inserting Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup in place of Patrick Beverley, the Clippers trailed 30-11 with 4 minutes, 38 seconds left as Doncic scored 11 points in the first quarter. The Mavericks’ star — who finished with 44 points, nine assists and nine rebounds — continued to torch the Clippers’ defense, especially on switches onto big man Ivica Zubac.
But the Clippers went to a small lineup, and their offense took off. They outscored the Mavericks 52-31 the rest of the first half, including a 20-4 run in the first quarter.
The Mavericks could not stop Leonard for the second straight game. After scoring 41 points in Game 2, Leonard made 11 of his first 12 shots before finishing with 36 points and eight rebounds. He made 13 of 17 shots in Game 3 and joined LaMarcus Aldridge as the only players with 35 points on 67% field goal shooting in consecutive playoff games in the shot-clock era (since 1955), according to data from ESPN Stats & Information.
With George carrying the Clippers in the first half and Leonard scoring from his spots, the duo halted the Clippers’ five-game losing streak in the postseason dating to last year.
“Those guys are killers,” said Marcus Morris, who broke out of his playoff shooting slump with 15 points after getting an encouraging phone call from his twin brother, Markieff, at halftime. “No matter what’s being said in the media and what’s being said in the outside world, them guys come in and work their ass off every single game.”
Entering Game 3, Lue said that everyone would see what the Clippers were made of with their backs up against the wall. Lue simplified the defense to help limit the breakdowns and communication issues. And even though the Clippers didn’t have Serge Ibaka (back), they played their best defense of the series by getting enough stops to win.
On Friday, the Clippers held Tim Hardaway Jr. to 12 points and 4-for-14 shooting. They also outscored the Mavericks 46-24 in the paint, which was a major point of emphasis for the Clippers.
“We felt like we weren’t playing our game to begin with to be down 0-2,” George said. “We felt like we weren’t playing our style, and I thought tonight we got to that. This is where we hang our hat on, playing on the defensive side, and we didn’t show any defense the first two games.”
Now they’re back in this series and have a chance to even the best-of-seven series at 2-2 in Game 4 on Sunday and take home-court advantage back to L.A.
“Obviously, backs against the wall,” point guard Rajon Rondo said of the Clippers showing veteran poise and their playoff experience. “Champions respond. We can’t crown ourselves too early, but understand to have that mindset that when things get wrong, we got to fight, and tonight we stuck to the fight, down 19. I think that’s one of the biggest obstacles in the playoffs.
“We haven’t done anything special though. We won one game, and we’ll watch the film tomorrow and see how we can come out better on Sunday and hopefully have the same type of outcome.”