No NBA team, no matter how good they might be, wants to go down 2-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series. (Thank you, Captain Obvious!) Especially not when the next two games are on the road in front of a fired-up and raucous crowd of almost 18,000 fans.
And yet, when the L.A. Clippers, who have become synonymous with franchise heartbreak, found themselves in that very situation — following two home losses to begin their first-round matchup against the underdog Dallas Mavericks — instead of letting the cascade of doomsday prophesies get to them, they managed to spin their dire situation into playoff gold.
Playing in front of two of the largest crowds this COVID-addled season has seen so far, the Clippers scored impressive road victories in Games 3 and 4 to even the series and swing the momentum firmly back in their favor. Game 5 is tonight in Los Angeles.
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If the Clippers do advance, which appears ever more likely given the neck strain Dallas superstar Luka Doncic suffered in Game 3, coming back from two games down may turn out to be just the kind of role-reversal the Clippers needed.
‘Loving Being Hated’
Now, for some Clippers, like forward Kawhi Leonard, who has been one of if not the best player in the entire playoff tournament (Leonard’s PIE, or player impact estimate, is second only to Brooklyn’s James Harden, and his 62.7% shooting is tops amongst those averaging 15 shots or more), the team’s turnaround required little more than getting their defense back on track.
“There’s no magic,” Leonard said after Game 2, repeatedly redirecting questions to the matter of defense. “We just got to come out and play basketball. Like I said, get stops. That’s the name of the game right now.”
But for guard Reggie Jackson, who started Games 3 and 4 in place of Patrick Beverley and will start Game 5, the Clippers being recast as visiting underdogs — particularly in front of Dallas fans still feeling the insult of L.A. more or less tanking their last two regular-season games so that they could face the Mavs in the first round — was its own kind of alchemy.
“It was a great experience for us,” Jackson told reporters on Tuesday. “I think we definitely enjoyed it, just going out there and trying to have a villain’s mentality, showing up to try to be a spoiler.”
“When we go on the road I think we’re enjoying and embracing the idea of loving being hated,” said Jackson later in the press conference.
After 51 years of franchise futility and a recent string of distressing playoff failures, “villain” and “spoiler” aren’t the words that come to mind with the Clippers. “Untrustworthy” is more like it.
And while the fans’ lack of trust is something Jackson believes is justified — especially after last season’s meltdown against Denver in the second round and losing Games 1 and 2 this year — it’s something he feels the team has already begun to reverse with their recent consecutive victories.
“We know basketball playoffs is a series of adjustments, and I think we’ve made some. We’ve found a way to come out and compete, found a way, a formula that’s working for us right now,” said Jackson, who, after a poor Game 1, averaged 15.3 points on 38.5% three-point shooting over the next three games. “Hopefully we’ve gained some more trust and we’ll continue to do so throughout these playoffs.”
Certainly, the Clippers have gained trust on the defensive end. Over the last six quarters, Dallas has averaged a mere 21.3 points, including a 15-point third quarter in Game 3. In Game 4, the Mavericks shot a miserable 34.8% from the floor and 16.7% from three. Doncic is still getting his (39 points in Game 3) but Dallas’ supporting cast has cooled off considerably.
Lue Looks for Clippers Fan to Bring It
While the role of villain and spoiler might’ve suited them on the road in Dallas, the Clippers know it’s time to take advantage of their home court. With protocols being loosened by the day and more fans being allowed back in arenas (some in desperate need of a societal refresher, like this guy and this guy and this guy), head coach Ty Lue has been vocal about his expectations for the Staples Center crowd.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Lue said he hopes those in attendance are “ready to go” during Game 5:
“You always feed off your fans, the crowds, the energy, what they bring to the arena. When your team doesn’t have it that day, you really need to feed off the fans. Like I said, we’re going to need our fans tomorrow night. We want that place rocking. I know we’ll have half the fans that [the Mavericks] have, but we still want to make sure it’s rocking and bringing the energy. So home court does mean a lot. It’s just both teams play well on the opposing team’s floor, so we’ve got to come out and establish home-court advantage tomorrow night.”
Of course, Lue knows that just the fans won’t cut it — the players need to bring it, too.
“We’ve got to be ready to be in attack mode for 48 minutes on both sides of the basketball,” said Lue.