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The Clippers Wanted the Mavericks. Now They’ve Got ’Em.

Los Angeles did its best to avoid facing LeBron in the playoffs, but it couldn’t do anything to stop Luka Doncic in Game 1, leading to a loss and plenty of difficult questions

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers - Game One Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

There was pretty clear logic behind how the Clippers finished the regular season. Had Los Angeles won out and locked in the no. 3 seed in the Western Conference, it would have put themselves in position to play the winner of the 2-vs.-7 matchup in the second round; as you might have heard, the Lakers wound up finishing seventh. You might not like the call—perhaps you have firm and deeply held opinions about the spirit of competition or irking the basketball gods—but you could at least see the argument behind the Clips preferring to take their chances with the top-seeded Utah Jazz in Round 2, and doing what was in their power to try to land on the other side of the bracket from LeBron and the defending champs.

So in the final two games of the season, out went nearly every member of the Clippers’ rotation, in went Jay Scrubb and Daniel Oturu, and down slid the Clips to the no. 4 seed. Head coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t give a damn what any of us think about it, and that’s perfectly fine. He might consider caring about what Luka Doncic thinks about it, though. Because the All-Star conductor of the fifth-seeded Mavericks—whom the Clippers knocked off in six games in the first round of the 2020 bubble playoffs, and whom the Clippers clearly wanted to face in the opening round of this postseason—sure seems intent on reminding Lue and Co. that they should be careful what they wish for.

Doncic was brilliant on Saturday, scoring 31 points while pulling down 10 rebounds and dishing 11 assists to lead the way in a 113-103 win—Dallas’s first victory in Game 1 of a playoff series in a decade. (That’s Luka’s third career playoff triple-double, by the way; he has played seven career playoff games.) It’s a little too early to say whether this postseason will work out as well as that one did 10 years ago, but taking a 1-0 lead and wrestling home-court advantage away from the favored Clippers represents an awfully solid start.

As was the case throughout most of last postseason, when Doncic scored 38 or more in three of the six games and drilled an all-time game-winning buzzer-beater before bowing out in the first round, the Clippers had absolutely no answers for the Slovenian superstar on Saturday. He got wherever he wanted, repeatedly picking and exploiting his preferred matchups. He worked switches to attack center Ivica Zubac in space, pressing his speed and quickness advantages over the Croatian 7-footer to either get to his stepback or tunnel into the lane for short jumpers. (Zubac, to his credit, hung tough and contested a lot of them well. Luka’s just really friggin’ good.) He drove through and around Paul George and Marcus Morris, and he attacked the smaller Patrick Beverley in the post, bulldozing his way to the rim or the foul line.

When he wasn’t creating comfortable shots for himself, Doncic also orchestrated for others with his customary brilliance. The mark of a great pick-and-roll playmaker isn’t whether he can hold the attention of the two defenders directly involved; it’s whether he can also keep the helpers on the weak side rapt, and manipulate them as he sees fit. Luka’s as good as it gets at that, and his ability to command those eyeballs—and, as the game wears on, to demand more and more aggressive traps and double-teams to try to get the ball out of his hands—opened up lanes through which he could rifle passes to waiting spot-up shooters like Tim Hardaway Jr. (21 points, 5-for-9 from 3-point land) and Dorian Finney-Smith (18 points, 4-for-5 from distance).

Ten of Doncic’s 11 assists produced layups, dunks, or 3-pointers; he scored or assisted on more than half of the points the Mavericks scored in a glacially paced game. Dallas only totaled 87 offensive possessions on Saturday, according to PBPstats.com, about 10 fewer than their regular-season average. It certainly made them count, though, scoring at a blistering clip of 129.9 points per 100 possessions—miles ahead of what even the Nets’ league-leading offense averaged this season.

Despite Dallas landing the first punch by opening the game with a 17-6 run, the game was still in the balance midway through the fourth quarter, thanks to the scoring and playmaking of stars Kawhi Leonard and George and some timely contributions from veteran reserves like Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka. But after four straight points from Rajon Rondo gave the Clips a 98-95 edge with just over six minutes to go, the Mavs tightened up on both ends en route to an 18-5 run that left the hosts in the dust:

Luka running roughshod and Dallas shooting the lights out was, to put it mildly, not quite the optimal postseason start for a Clippers team looking to make a clean break from their devastating bubble collapse.

George, who bore the brunt of the public mockery after L.A.’s second-round meltdown last year, got off to a rocky start in his efforts to shed all that “Pandemic P” slander, missing six of his first seven shots with a couple of eyesore airballs. A Clipper team that ranked 26th in the league this season in the share of its attempts that came at the rim again struggled to get downhill in the first half, attempting more shots outside the paint than in it. They also shot just 6-for-23 from outside the lane in the opening two quarters; for long stretches, it felt like the only things keeping them in the fight were taking care of the ball (just one turnover in the first half, only five for the game) and Leonard’s shot-making.

That’s part of a viable recipe for success, but the Clippers need more—from George, from Morris (just 2-for-8 from the floor and 0-for-6 from 3-point range), from everybody—against a Mavericks squad that finished behind the Clips in the standings, but actually had a better record and offensive rating than L.A. since Feb. 1.

The glass-half-full take: There’s reason to believe they can get more.

George got it going in the second half, scoring 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting with five rebounds and four assists. Lue found some matchups to target in Dallas’s defense, with Leonard working switches to go at Doncic off the dribble or try to take the smaller Hardaway into the post. Batum, Ibaka, and Rondo all pitched in, contributing on both ends in second-unit lineups that helped the Clips weather the storm and go on brief spurts like a 9-1 run to start the fourth quarter. And while several Dallas role players had big games, no. 2 option Kristaps Porzingis struggled (4-for-13 from the floor, 1-for-5 from deep) and continues to loom as a potential defensive liability that the Clippers can exploit.

There’s also a decent chance that some regression tilts the math back toward L.A.: The Mavs shot 17-for-36 from 3-point land in Game 1; the results (an effective field goal percentage of .612, which is league-leading stuff) far exceeded their expected eFG% (.496) based on the quality of the shots that Dallas took. The Clippers, on the other hand, made only 11 of their 40 long balls, a 27.5 percent hit rate—far below what you’d expect for a team that just posted the fourth-highest team 3-point percentage ever in a season. Ditto from the free-throw line, where the Clips—the best free-throw shooting team ever—missed six freebies, five of them coming in the fourth quarter.

If some of those shooting numbers level out in Game 2, the pendulum could swing back in the direction of a Clippers team that, according to its famously low-key top dog, didn’t seem to be sweating things too much after the loss.

“Everybody was pretty up, nobody was really down on the game,” Leonard said after finishing with 26 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and four steals in 41 minutes of work. “Obviously no one wants to lose, but our spirits are pretty high and we believe in ourselves. Nothing good comes easy.”

That mantra’s a departure from the overarching truism of Clipper history—nothing good comes, period—but it’s one that could help Lue’s team hold steady in the run-up to Game 2. The Clips have talent to burn, but they’ll need all the nerve they can get come Tuesday, because they’ve got a 22-year-old force of nature bearing down on them, eager to remind them that the choices you make come with consequences, and that sometimes they can be painful.