‘Locked and Loaded’: Clippers Get Massive Game 7 Boost From Young Guns

Luke Kennard and Kawhi Leonard

Getty Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Morris celebrate a three by Luke Kennard

Back on March 22, in the 44th game of the season, Luke Kennard and Terance Mann led the Clippers’ second unit to an electrifying comeback win over the Atlanta Hawks, erasing a 21-point second-half deficit and reversing a downward spiral that had seen the Clippers lose eight of their last 14 games. After the Atlanta win, L.A. would go on to take 15 of their next 18.

On Sunday, this time in Game 7 of a bizarre first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks — a series in which, for the first time in NBA postseason history, no team had won at home through six games — Kennard and Mann played heroes once again.

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The two combined for 24 points off the bench as the Clippers won a playoff game at Staples Center for the first time since April of 2017 and now move on to face the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the second round.

“Luke Kennard and Terance Mann played in big games this year because of our injuries and guys being out,” said Clippers coach Ty Lue following the 126-111 victory. “For those guys to step in and play the way they did was huge for us.”

Mann Enters Game Early, Contributes Immediately

Mann was nothing short of spectacular in 26 minutes on Sunday. When Marcus Morris was called for his second foul not four minutes into the game, Mann was subbed in and quickly made an impact by hitting a jump shot, going in for a dunk and draining a 3-pointer all within a five-minute span.

His 13 total points were only four less than his total through the first six contests, and his five rebounds were sorely needed in a game where the Mavericks mostly dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Clippers 47-35, including a 10-1 advantage in offensive rebounds through the first half.

“Yeah, I could imagine it,” Mann said afterward when asked if he could imagine playing so well in a Game 7. “I believed in myself, so yeah I definitely could imagine it. Feels good just to be out there playing my game, big game like that in a tough environment.”

Since seeing his first minutes of the series in Game 2, Mann, in addition to rebounding, had brought versatility and athleticism to the Clippers’ defense, allowing L.A. to more effectively guard Dallas on the perimeter, switching on picks and running shooters off their spots. That he was also able to make an impact on offense in Game 7, while perhaps surprising to a national TV audience, was something the Clipper faithful and Mann’s teammates have come to expect.

“T-Mann has been great all year,” said Paul George after the game. “He’s been bringing the energy all year. You know, young guy stepping up, playing huge for us. Again, he’s just another guy you can plug in there and play multiple positions for us.

“He’s just playing with a lot of confidence. His ceiling is off the charts. The kid can do just about everything on the floor, and so it’s definitely a luxury to have, especially [since] there’s just no liabilities when he’s on the floor. He can guard, he can rebound, he shoots the three, he finishes amongst the trees. He can do so much, and so he helps us big-time when he’s on the floor,” George said.

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But it hadn’t been all rosy for Mann in the Mavs series. In the closing seconds of L.A.’s Game 5 loss, which put them in a 3-2 series hole, Mann made a huge steal on a Doncic pass but then passed up a seemingly open lay that would’ve given the Clippers the lead. Mann was widely ridiculed on social media for his questionable decision, but George, who was seen talking to him after the play, tried to make sure it didn’t shake the second-year player’s confidence.

“Just next play, just tell him next play,” said George when asked what was said. “He was playing too well to be hung up on one play. Just tell him next play.”

Defense in Game 6 Paved Way for Kennard’s Game 7 Minutes

Kennard scored 11 points in 14 minutes on Sunday, shooting 4-for-6 from the field and connecting on three of his five attempts from long-distance — all in the second half and all to help stave off mini Maverick runs that threatened to pare down L.A.’s commanding lead.

“Hats off to everybody for being ready, especially my man from Duke, Luke Cool Hand, playing special,” said Clippers guard Reggie Jackson, who scored 15 points and was especially effusive about his former teammate from his days in Detroit. “It’s been great, being in my second playoffs with [Luke], being in a playoff in Detroit, now seeing him mature and being ready for the moment. Him and Terance were special for us.”

Kennard’s contribution was far more surprising than Mann’s, given that the 4th-year wing, who was a free agent acquisition by the Clippers this past offseason, played exactly no minutes over the first five games of the series and was only a minor inclusion for Game 6, going 1-for-4 from the floor, 0-for-3 from behind the arc in 10 minutes.

“I thought I had some good opportunities in Game 6,” said Kennard, “but they just kind of rimmed out. It gave me a little momentum coming into tonight, keeping it locked and loaded.” 

Kennard’s scoring prowess has never been in doubt, so it was his hustling steal on Jalen Brunson, in the second quarter of Game 6, that ultimately made Lue’s decision to play Kennard in Game 7 an easy one.

“We knew he was going to make shots. The biggest concern was just the defensive part of it with Luka (Doncic) on the floor and how they played,” Lue said about Kennard, whose 44.6% from three was 8th-best in the NBA this season, but for whom defense has always been an Achilles heel. “In Game 6 I saw he had great shows on Luka, he was able to guard Brunson, got a big steal, got down on the floor and got a steal for us to get out in transition. So I knew defensively he wouldn’t be a problem.”

Jackson was particularly impressed by Kennard and Mann’s ability to stay ready, despite their erratic minutes.

“For T-Mann and Luke, for their minutes to fluctuate the way they have throughout the season, not necessarily always playing in this series, to come in and play big minutes, not be afraid of the moment in Game 7 — hats off to them,” said Jackson. “They were just as much a part of this win as anybody, so thankful for them, thankful for what we were able to accomplish.”

And their impact was not lost on Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle either. “Their bench stepped up and had a great game,” said Carlisle afterward, specifically mentioning Mann and Kennard. “When role players step up like that, those are difference-making type situations. Their guys did a good job.”

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