LOS ANGELES — Once the buzzer sounded, the Los Angeles Clippers could exhale. At least for a moment.
The Clippers finished with a 126-111 win in a decisive Game 7 over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday at Staples Center, which avoided at least for now an underachieving postseason run for a second consecutive season with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. So, Leonard high-fived teammates. George blew kisses to his parents in the stands. And the Clippers collectively sensed a turning point on whether they truly could become championship contenders instead of remaining an underachiever.
“They pushed us to play really well,” George said of the Mavericks. “They challenged us. We stuck in there, hung in there and played for one another.”
The Clippers did not show those qualities last season when they squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. The Clippers mostly blamed injuries for their chemistry issues instead of personality conflicts. Still, the Clippers surprisingly did not handle adversity well despite signing Leonard as a free agent and acquiring George in a separate deal from Oklahoma City. Though that required the Clippers parting ways with key young players and draft picks, they still had one of the league’s best benches.
“We have to look going forward,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We can’t keep looking behind and what happened in the bubble. That’s over. We got to do what we got to do and keep moving on and get ready for the second round.”
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Therefore, it remains too early to say the Clippers have experienced a break through after becoming only the fifth team in NBA history to win a playoff series after facing an 0-2 deficit. After all, the Clippers survived the Mavericks in the first round before falling short in the second round last year. The Clippers also have never appeared in the Western Conference finals in franchise history.
The Mavericks primarily centered on star Luka Doncic, whom Leonard noted “did everything” after posting 46 points in Game 7. The Jazz have three All-Stars (Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley), the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year (Jordan Clarkson) and an NBA coach of the year candidate (Quin Snyder). The top-ranked Jazz eliminated the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round after also squandering a 3-1 playoff series lead to Denver.
Nonetheless, the Clippers seemed encouraged with how they overcame a 0-2 deficit and survived a Game 7 against Dallas.
“That meant a lot to me this season,” Leonard said. “Obviously, it got us to this next round. It’s all about this year. Now we got to see what we can do this year to higher our chances with winning in the next round.”
How the Clippers advanced through their first-round series traces back to how they responded to last year’s postseason failures.
They parted ways with longtime coach Doc Rivers and promoted Ty Lue in hopes a new voice and tactics would lead to better results. They upgraded their frontcourt by acquiring more positional versatility (Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum) and parting ways with an offensively dynamic albeit defensively challenged forward (Montrezl Harrell). Leading up to the trade deadline, the Clippers sought veteran leadership and playmaking (Rajon Rondo) in exchange for a secondary scorer (Lou Williams).
Leonard and George remained relatively healthier to ensure more practices together. But with the Clippers still missing 146 combined games with injuries, they expanded their depth by fielding 25 different starting lineups.
“This team has been resilient all season long,” Lue said. “We had the attitude of no excuses and doing what we have to do to win a game.”
Nonetheless, the Clippers still showed varying degrees of inconsistency throughout the season. Hence, they finished with a fourth-place seeding and faced an 0-2 deficit after offering no solution for Doncic’s brilliance.
But after facing a 29-point deficit in Game 3, the Clippers have proven more capable both of handling adversity and playing up to their potential.
So by the time Game 7 started, Lue already sensed his team felt prepared. They liked their focus and calm demeanor during the team’s walk through and film session.
That carried over into the game itself.
“It’s all about the moment,” Leonard said. “Sometimes when you’re overconfident, you play bad. Sometimes when you’re down on yourself, you play well. For me, it’s about focusing on that moment and having fun.”
Though Doncic finished with 46 points while shooting 17-for-30 from the field and 5-for-11 from 3-point range, the Clippers counteracted that with depth. Along with Leonard (28 points) and George (22), the Clippers received contributions from Marcus Morris Sr. (23), Reggie Jackson (15), Terance Mann (13), Nicolas Batum (11) and Luke Kennard (11).
After Dallas grew a 81-76 lead midway through the third quarter, the Clippers then went on a 24-2 run. Even when Dallas showed signs of creeping back, the Clippers did not let up. After Dallas trimmed the Clippers’ lead to 114-107 with 2:07 left, Jackson and Morris drained two consecutive 3-pointers to put the game away.
“You know to keep faith and what you have going through at times when we’re at our worst,” Leonard said. “You can propel from that and dig yourself out of a hole to get yourself out of it. It gives you confidence.”
The Clippers demonstrated their confidence everywhere.
Lue showed confidence when he called a timeout only 75 seconds in the third quarter after Dallas opened the second half with an 8-2 run.
“Just got to take advantage of this opportunity,” Lue reminded his players.
Morris showed confidence when he went 7-of-9 from deep after going 0-of-3 in Game 6 and 0-of-6 in Game 1.
“I never really went back and thought I’m missing or got down on myself,” Morris said. “I knew there would be a turning point. I knew if I made some early or got something going for my team, it would break the game open.”
Kennard showed confidence with his double-digit effort after only playing infrequently in Games 4 and 6.
“My mindset was coming in and playing hard and doing whatever it takes to help us win,” Kennard said. “It’s not about how many points you score. It’s about what can you do to help us win?”
Lastly, George and Leonard showed confidence both with their leadership and play. Teammates praised them for becoming more vocal this season on and off the court. They backed up their words with strong play after George (10 points on a 4-of-16 clip and five turnovers) and Leonard (14 points on 10-of-22 shooting) both underachieved in Game 7 last year against Denver.
“This team forced us to play on a nightly basis a full 48 minute game,” George said. “Last year? Let’s not even get into last year. We went through a whole other season. We just hung in there and stuck together, gutted it out. We knew what it took to win.”
And by doing that, the Clippers will now face the top-seeded Jazz on Tuesday.
“Can we enjoy this first?” Lue joked.
Not really. Lue planned to pore into Utah’s game footage late Sunday night, mindful that the Clippers’ ability to translate their first-round success against Dallas into something bigger partly hinges on keeping their Game 7 performance in the proper perspective.
“It’s just one series,” Leonard said. “We have to focus on the next one.”