The most compelling matchup of the first round, but one that surprisingly flew under the radar, is the suspected tanking of the Clippers in the last week of the regular season to ensure a rematch of last year’s first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks. Two games in, and with the Mavericks leading 2-0 as the series shifts to Dallas, it seems their young star Luka Dončić was hoping to see the Clippers in the first round. Luka had 39 points to go with 7 rebounds and 7 assists that came in dominant fashion. When asked about how he and his team have been able to come into Staples Center playing with such confidence, his answer validated what NBA fans have been thinking all along.
“We have a good team, we just need to play tough and play smart…The Playoffs are fun man, that’s all I have to say.”Luka Dončić
The game sure has looked fun to Luka so far in this series, with last night being the epitome of someone enjoying the havoc he was unleashing on the opposing team. There was no answer for Luka as Patrick Beverley, Paul George and even Kawhi Leonard often looked helpless when isolated against Dončić or in pick-and-roll action involving the young star. He was having so much fun that he decided to pull up for a one-legged three-pointer going to his left, and guess what – he made that too. Luka had some serious help from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzinigs, who contributed 25 and 20 points respectively with great efficiency and contributed significantly on the defensive end. The Mavericks played with a delicate balance of composure and a sense of urgency that helped them thwart a furious late-game comeback by the Clippers en route to another win and a 2-0 advantage in the series.
The Clippers, on the other hand, looked lost. Yes, the game was close, but even when they cut the lead to four with a little over a minute to go, it never seemed like they were ready to take control of the game. The box score may not show it, but late in the game, the demeanor of a Clippers team about to go down two games to none seemed to be rather complacent and lifeless. Fortunately, they made shots that kept the score close, but the lack of a connected effort on defense led to open dunks, layups, and threes for the Mavs to close out the game.
The Clippers and their two superstars are no stranger to locker room drama; after blowing a 3-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets in rather embarrassing fashion, stories about the loss of trust and respect of certain players towards Paul George came to the surface. Kawhi and PG have had trouble with organizations in the past, which eventually resulted in their departure. Yes, they are both amazing players, but is it time to question their maturity and ability to lead a team? Given that the Clippers are so eager to prove themselves as the team to beat in LA, is this a case of a lack of focus looking too far ahead to a potential conference finals battle against the Lakers and what that would mean for their franchise? Right now, it seems like the only logical explanation to the situation they are in, and with the star duo bound for free agency in the next year or two, the pressure is mounting and alarm bells ringing.
The series is far from over as, interestingly enough, the Mavericks had a much better record on the road this year than at home. Yet, somehow, they played with a sense of confidence, knowing that they would take these first two games in Los Angeles. As the series moves back to Dallas, their regular-season record on their home floor may not look as impressive, but with all the momentum against a Clippers team that seems to have more questions than answers at this point, the next two games will be interesting.