With no NBA championships in 51 years as a franchise, and still wearing the yoke of last year’s epic playoff collapse to the Denver Nuggets, it’s safe to assume a lot of Los Angeles Clippers fans weren’t betting the house on winning a title this season.
Even so, heading into the postseason last week, sporting the fifth-best record in the league, a bevy of battle-tested veterans and a lethal 3-point arsenal that put up the fourth-highest regular-season percentage in NBA history, there was definitely cause for confidence among the L.A. faithful.
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But after dropping their first two playoff games to Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, both at home and both in ways that insult the very concept of defense, whatever confidence Clippers fans had is almost certainly fading fast. According to Land of Basketball, of the 426 playoff series that have begun 2-0, only 27, or 6.3 percent, have ended in a win for the chasing team.
In other words, the odds are grim. But don’t tell the Clippers players and coaches that.
Clippers Not Doubting Themselves (Yet)
“I’m not concerned,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue following the team’s 127-121 loss Tuesday evening, during which Dallas sank 18-of-34 3-pointers (52.9%), somehow bettering their 17-for-36 (47.2%) performance in Game 1.
“They got to win four games, and you come in on the opposing team’s floor and you play. There’s no pressure, you can make shots, because you just try to come in and steal a game or steal two games. But now they got to go home and try to keep up the same shooting. It’s easy to come out on the road and do that when there’s no pressure on you, so we’ll see in Game 3,” Lue said.
Moments later, forward Paul George, who, right or wrong has become the poster child for big-game underperformance after shooting 38% from the field and 30% from three in 15 career series finales, including a 4-for-16 clunker in Game 7 last year against the Nuggets, echoed Lue’s sentiments when asked about his level of concern.
“I mean, there is none,” said George, his head down for much of the press conference. “It’s a competition. We got to rise to the occasion. The fact of the matter is if we don’t, we’re done for. But it’s no level of concern.”
Who knows if Lue and George are truly unconcerned, but if they aren’t, perhaps they should be. The Clippers appear to have no answer for Doncic, the 22-year-old phenom who scored 39 points Tuesday following a triple-double in Game 1.
And Doncic is not the only Maverick giving the Clippers headaches. Over the first two games, Dallas shooting guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. is averaging 24.5 points on 62.9% shooting and point guard Jalen Brunson has come off the bench to the tune of 12 points per game on 57.1% from the field.
In Game 2, during which the Mavericks shot 58.5% from the field as a team, big men Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber combined for 33 points on 13-for-18 shooting, and forward Dorian Finney-Smith scored 18 points in Game 1 on only nine shot attempts.
“They’re making shots,” said Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard after his 41-point performance in Game 2. “They’re playing great basketball. You got to give them credit. I mean, some of those wide-open looks is on our part, for sure. But they’re making shots. They’re stepping into it with confidence.”
But even Leonard, who won two rings before coming to L.A. (in San Antonio and Toronto), doesn’t appear to be shaking in his boots, instead insisting that the Clippers still have time to turn things around defensively.
“We got to figure it out,” Leonard said. “Just like the regular season, you might lose two in a row, and then you go on a winning streak. We’re playing the same team, so we know what they’re doing […} Just got to stay focused and make sure that we are keeping our eye on the prize.”
‘They’ve Got Home-Court Advantage for a Reason’
While the Clippers are putting a stoic face on their big task ahead, the Mavericks are doing their best to stay grounded and focused despite heading home with a two-game advantage.
“I even thought we celebrated a bit too much.,” Porzingis told reporters Tuesday. “We just won the second game. We’re not nowhere yet. That’s a good step where we want to go, but there’s still work to do.”
There’s no doubt that the Mavericks, who came in as the heavy underdog after L.A. more or less intentionally lost their last two games of the regular season to ensure this matchup, are playing loose and with great confidence. The Clippers, on the other hand, are carrying the burden of championship expectations.
“That’s the team that’s the most dangerous,” said George. “They were the underdogs and when you’re a lower seed you really don’t have high expectations. So they’re playing free, they’re playing with confidence. I think we were giving them a little too much confidence, so that’s on us to shut that down.”
Feeding off Doncic’s poise and fun-loving style, the Mavs have managed to jump out to early, confidence-building leads. Dallas led 19-8 in Game 1 and 22-13 in Game 2.
“When [Doncic] looks like he’s having fun they’re all cool, calm and collected,” said guard Reggie Jackson. “So we got to figure out a way to rattle him, rattle the head of the snake first and then let everybody else kind of get rattled as well.”
Rattling Doncic, however, may be easier said than done. According to Elias Sports Bureau, per NBA.com, Doncic is the first player to produce more than 250 points, 70 rebounds and 70 assists in his first eight career playoff games.
Doncic’s excellence notwithstanding, Hardaway and Porzingis are far from counting their chickens when it comes to the Clippers.
“I’m not sensing anything on that side,” said Hardaway when asked if he sensed any deflation or doubt from the Clippers. “We know what type of ball club they are. They’re a hell of a team. They’ve got home-court advantage for a reason.”
“It’s not over. They’re a good team. They’re a talented team. Anything can happen,” concurred Porzingis.