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Avoiding Another Collapse May Have Scared the Clippers Straight

The Clippers came thisclose to another playoff calamity, but the adjustments they made against Luka and the Mavs may be exactly what they need to get back on a path to the NBA Finals

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Sometimes winning a playoff series is a statement, and sometimes it’s just survival. Or if you’re the Clippers—the NBA’s most inscrutable contender—it can feel a bit like both. Making it out of the first round didn’t have to be this hard, but we only know that because the Clippers changed the dynamics of the series by making its defining adjustment. Since Tyronn Lue opened Game 4 by abandoning his initial rotation and downsizing the Clippers’ starting lineup, his team outscored the Mavericks by 42 points—capped off by a 126-111 effort in Sunday’s pressure-cooker finale.

By the end of the series, Lue had taken two of the Clippers’ usual starters not just out of his first five, but more or less out of the mix entirely; had reformatted his team’s defensive coverages; and ultimately wound up pulling the plug on two-time champion Rajon Rondo for Terance Mann and Luke Kennard, who combined for a critical 24 points in Game 7. For a team with the Clippers’ particular baggage, there may have been no healthier outcome than winning a series that didn’t go according to plan.

Luka Doncic can force a seventh game on his own by shredding an opponent’s game plan to ribbons and forcing them to start over. It was clear Lue didn’t want to burden Kawhi Leonard with the double shift of hounding Doncic full time and steadying the Clippers’ own offense, and with a bit of maneuvering, he stole enough possessions with Paul George and Marcus Morris for his team to get by, holding Doncic to a modest 46 points and 14 assists. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t easy, but what in the history of this particular Clippers team would make us think it would be?

It meant something to see the Clippers respond to a potentially game-turning Mavericks run by digging rebounds out from crowds and continuing to swing the ball to open shooters. It validated their depth to see that Lue could stretch the roles of Morris and Nic Batum further and further in this series and still manage to win their minutes. In three games against the Dallas zone, L.A. found smarter and smarter angles, often by way of George’s patient reads and Leonard’s tactical strikes. The Clippers worked their processes and trusted that when they needed him, Kawhi would be there to make the game’s biggest momentum plays—and he was.

The Clippers toed the line between confidence and hubris by manipulating their playoff seeding to keep them out of the Lakers’ side of the bracket (now known as the Suns’ side of the bracket) and all but guaranteeing a meeting with the Mavs. It should be clear at this point that no team should ever want to be stuck in a playoff series with Doncic, but can it really be hubris if the Clippers were right? Even if they did take Dallas too lightly at the start, there’s something to be said for a team marked by its 2020 playoff implosion calling its shot and measuring up.

After all, the West is even more open now than it seemed a few weeks ago, with the Lakers off the board and every other remaining team unsettled by injury. That includes the Clippers; Serge Ibaka attempted to play a part in this series but could only manage 18 total minutes due to a back injury. Yet because of Ibaka’s absence, the Clippers moved into more dynamic alignments that the Mavericks had no way to counter. Even in Game 7, Lue answered Morris’s foul trouble by replacing him with the even smaller Mann and daring the jumbo Mavs (who started 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanovic next to 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis) to keep up. They couldn’t; running a towering zone was a clever play for Dallas given its roster limitations, but even the best-run zones leave themselves vulnerable to a spaced floor and hot perimeter shooting. Morris returned to the action and punished the Maverick defense with seven made 3s, and the Clippers (the best 3-point shooting team by percentage in the regular season) made 20 in total.

This series, however, also offered lessons in what the Clippers can do when those shots aren’t falling. When their deep shooting dips below 30 percent as it did in Game 6, they can still seal a win on the strength of their fourth-quarter defense. Or when they come out of halftime in a Game 7 and miss their first four long-range attempts, they can settle in, adjust course, and break a tie game into a 15-point lead. The Clippers are a jump-shooting team at their core, though even jump-shooting teams can be precise in how they work and diligent in their pursuit of the fringe opportunities that would put them over the top. It won’t always be easy. And it can’t be all Kawhi all the time, either, no matter how inevitable he may seem; Leonard’s shot-making is never more powerful than when it’s reserved for the moments it’s needed most.

The Clippers are now closer to that balance than they’ve ever been. “I think Dallas did a good job preparing us for the next series,” Lue told reporters after the game, though in basketball terms, the experiences of playing against the Mavericks and the Jazz are hardly alike. Donovan Mitchell presents a very different challenge than Doncic. Porzingis and Rudy Gobert are roughly the same size but barely play the same sport. The preparation comes from this Clippers team stretching itself to its limit and still finding ways to persevere. Some of the biggest plays of this first-round series were made by Morris and Reggie Jackson. Next round, they might come from Ivica Zubac or Pat Beverley, back from the bench. The Clippers have good reason to feel confident in what they’ve done here: being pushed, taking hits, facing a player they couldn’t solve—and surviving anyway.