Sports

When will the Clippers come into the spotlight?

LOS ANGELES — There are a lot of things different inside Staples Center, and all NBA arenas, this season. Cardboard fan cutouts and masks — including for the 7,000 fans allowed in for the LA Clippers113-103 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday afternoon in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Western Conference first-round playoff series.

But gone are the provocative “Streetlights over Spotlights” banners that caught the eye — and ire — of the Clippers’ crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, last season. It was a clever rebrand after the team signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George in the summer of 2019. But it also was easy to throw it back in their faces when the Lakers ended up winning the championship a year ago and the Clippers flopped in the playoffs.

No, the Clippers would not be talking or flexing this year until they proved themselves. But under the radar only works if you deliver when the spotlight is back on you — which did not happen Saturday. If anything, the Mavericks’ 22-year-old superstar, Luka Doncic, stole it from everyone, with 31 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, as Dallas led after every quarter and closed the game out on a 13-3 run to steal home-court advantage away from the fourth-seeded Clippers.

It was Doncic’s third career playoff triple-double. According to research from ESPN Stats & Information, Doncic’s 217 points through his first seven playoff games are the eighth most all time, behind legends such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

“He’s a very unique player for a 22-year-old,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of Doncic. “The level of poise that he has and his ability to slow down the game to see what’s going on. Even when the clock is at six or seven seconds, he’s still able to slow it down and hold that ball just long enough to get a teammate a great look.

“This is his time of year. He’s one of the smartest basketball players you will ever meet at any age at any level.”

The Clippers opted to throw a variety of defensive looks at Doncic, instead of having Leonard, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, on him. According to ESPN Stats & Info data, Doncic didn’t take one shot with Leonard as his primary defender. Instead, the Clippers had Leonard on Kristaps Porzingis, expecting the Mavs would force them to switch if Leonard started on Doncic.

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Kristaps Porzingis gets the pass and throws down the monster baseline dunk.

That left the much smaller albeit gritty defender Patrick Beverley to start on Doncic, who promptly attacked Beverley in pick-and-rolls to draw out Clippers center Ivica Zubac.

Doncic feasted on that matchup, scoring 15 of his points on 6-of-9 shooting with Zubac as his defender. According to Second Spectrum, Dallas averaged 1.43 points per direct pick when Doncic was the ball handler and Zubac was the screen defender (22 plays). They averaged just 0.88 points per direct pick (35 plays) against all other Clippers defenders.

“The game is so different; they’re going to pick who they want anyway,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We allowed breakdowns that we went over the last five games. We didn’t execute. We gotta be better in those areas. We can’t gift them points; they’re too good. Luka makes you pay every time you make a mistake.”

The Clippers eventually found some success when they started double-teaming Doncic, forcing four turnovers on the 14 plays they did so. But Dallas is used to teams blitzing their young point guard.

“I just have to adjust,” Doncic said. “When they don’t double, attack it. When they double, someone is going to be open.”

Dorian Finney-Smith (18 points on 4-of-5 shooting from 3) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (21 points on 5-of-9 shooting from 3) were the Mavs’ biggest beneficiaries of those looks. It also opened the door for Doncic to get Porzingis (14 points) more involved in the offense.

“Porzingis was very patient in this game,” Carlisle said. “He’s got a top-five defensive player in the world guarding him in Kawhi Leonard. They have that much respect for his abilities on the offensive end.”

Doncic scored just one point in the fourth quarter, with the Clippers essentially forcing the rest of the Mavs to beat them. And on this day, they did.

“When Luka gets going, I just try to stay ready,” Finney-Smith said. “Because I know they’re about to start trapping. That’s when he gets to finding people, slinging the ball across the court, finding guys when we’re open.

“I just know they’re going to send two guys at Luka. You’ve just got to be ready to shoot. Most times, at the end of games, people are trying to get the ball out of LD’s hands. I just know us four have got to be ready to shoot.”

Leonard finished with a team-high 26 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals. George rallied from a cold start to finish with 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.

But for a team trying to undo it’s playoff failure from last year and live up to its championship expectations, dropping the first game of this playoff series wasn’t a great start.

“We are not looking at it as just because of who we have we’re expecting to win,” George said. “We got the same pressure as every team that’s in this. It all comes down to who’s the last team standing, and that’s just the pressure every team goes through. It’s no different than how we’re approaching this. We want to be the last team standing regardless of however many games it takes or how tough the road is.”

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