The ending of Game 5 between the Clippers and Mavericks featured enough big moments that if someone who didn’t watch the game simply checked Twitter on Thursday morning, they might think it was only a few seconds long.
With 39 ticks remaining, Kawhi Leonard converted a three-point play to bring the Clippers within one, having trailed by 10 not two minutes earlier. Then Terance Mann stole a lazy pass from Luca Doncic, forewent a relatively open, lightly-contested layup, and passed instead to a trailing Nicolas Batum who promptly blew a two-footer in traffic. One possession later, following two Dallas foul shots, Leonard airballed an off-balance 3-pointer from the corner that would’ve tied the score.
That final shot went so astray that even Rajon Rondo, who was 0-for-6 in the game, was seen excoriating Leonard as the team walked back to the bench. But the truth is, the most crucial moment from the 105-100 loss, which put LA on the brink of elimination, came way back at the beginning of the third quarter, when Paul George effectively removed himself from the game.
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Two Quick Fouls Changed Entire Game
Coming out of the locker room at halftime with the Clippers down two, Paul George only had two fouls. But with 7:21 remaining in the third George drew a whistle defending a Doncic shot, and less than a minute later was called for an offensive foul, his fourth overall, when he pushed off on Tim Hardaway, Jr. while driving to the hoop.
The fouls forced coach Ty Lue to sub out George for center Ivica Zubac, who has struggled defensively all series, and placed the burden of maintaining a slim three-point lead squarely on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard, who had averaged 39.8 minutes over the previous four games.
“PG committed his fourth foul and then when he came out of the game, we [had] to ask Kawhi to do a lot,” said Lue. “I think Kawhi got a little tired.” Leonard played 42 minutes in Game 5.
Questionable or not, the burden those two quick fouls created was ultimately too much for Leonard and the Clippers, and by the time George re-entered the game, with 14 seconds remaining in the quarter, Dallas was up by 14, a lead they would not relinquish.
“PG having four fouls early on in the third quarter really hurt us,” Lue concluded.
‘Don’t Know What’s a Foul and What’s Not’
It was not the first time George’s foul trouble has caused problems for the Clippers in this series.
In Game 2, George entered the fourth quarter carrying four fouls with LA down nine points. And though George managed to go foul-less over the final 12 minutes, it’s not the kind of situation you want your star — one who thrives off defense and driving to the basket — to be in during a comeback. Perhaps not coincidentally, forward Marcus Morris, who also entered the fourth with four fouls and is a key cog in LA’s switch-heavy defense, fouled out with 3:54 left in the 127-121 loss.
Foul trouble was also an issue for George in last season’s first-round matchup with the Mavericks. After Game 2 of that series, George complained about the “cheap” fouls he picked up early in the game, saying they took him out of rhythm. George shot 4-for-17 in the Clippers’ 127-114 loss.
The Clippers, of course, went on to win last year’s series with Dallas. But they never faced elimination like they will tonight in Game 6 on the road. The Clippers no longer have the luxury of putting themselves in foul trouble, which should make avoiding unnecessary whistles a priority.
But that could be easier said than done, especially since George still seemed a little hazy on what does and doesn’t constitute a foul following Game 5.
“Those same contact plays down the stretch, under three, four minutes, weren’t called on the other end. So I don’t know what’s a foul and what’s not a foul,” George claimed.