LA Clippers pledged to be ready for Game 1 without Kawhi Leonard — then proved it

LOS ANGELES — Eleven times this season, the LA Clippers started a game in the afternoon. And each of those 11 times, the Clippers had a double-digit deficit at some point of the game. The Clippers came back to win six of those eleven games, including a 26-point turnaround against the Cleveland Cavaliers this month.

With Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Dallas Mavericks being a 12:30 p.m. Pacific Time start, the questions were raised about how well the Clippers would perform at a time of day where they hadn’t always performed their best. Tyronn Lue acknowledged the team’s afternoon starts and emphasized the need for them to hit the ground running.

“We can’t ease into the game,” Lue said Sunday morning. “We got to have an attack mentality on both ends of the floor. And so we don’t want to come in and try to ease into the game. And I know guys talk about a ‘feel-out game’ — no. We’re going to win the game. And so, we’re not trying to feel anything out. We got to go for it.”

That is what was done on Sunday afternoon as the Clippers led by as many as 29 points in the first half of Game 1 and defeated the Mavericks, 109-97, to take a 1-0 series lead. The Clippers never trailed while holding the Mavericks to 38.8 percent from the field and outscoring the Mavericks 22-8 in the second quarter.

“Especially at home, you want to take care of business at home,” said Clippers All-Star Paul George, who shook off a five-point first half to finish with 22 points. “With us being the home-court advantage team, it’s very important to start off on the right note.”

A good start to the series was imperative because Kawhi Leonard did not play in Game 1. Leonard was listed as questionable heading into Sunday’s game and, according to the team, is  progressing daily to resolve right knee inflammation that kept the two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player out since he last played on March 31. The team’s final four-game win streak of the regular season, a stretch that included comeback wins against the Denver Nuggets and Cavaliers, readied the Clippers to play without him.

“We prepared like he was going to play obviously,” the Mavericks’ MVP finalist Luka Dončić said. “But that should not change our mentality. Their mentality was next-man up, and they did very well, very well. We just got to stay focused 48 minutes. It’s the playoffs so we got to stay focused 48 minutes.”

The hurdle that the Clippers had to overcome, especially without Leonard, was their bad habit of trailing by double-digits in every matinee game this season. The issues would often show up defensively, marked by a lack of energy, before finding a way to play the kind of defense in the second half of games that allowed comebacks to happen.

But in Game 1, the Clippers found that defensive spark from the jump. While Dončić had 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting in the first quarter, he missed four of five 3s while failing to pass for an assist in the period, and the rest of the Mavericks missed 9 of 12 shots. In the second quarter, Dončić was held scoreless on five shot attempts, while the Mavericks as a team missed 19 of 21 shots overall in an eight-point period. Dallas was held without a field goal for the last 7:18 of the first half, missing 12 shots in a row.

“In a playoff game, man, scoring eight points feels like forever, and that’s what it felt like out there,” Irving said. “I think it started with how we started off the second quarter and allowed them to feel very comfortable in that first quarter and there was carry over. I think we got to give them credit for hitting shots and doing the right thing. Capitalizing off our turnovers and our lack of physicality. So, it was a combination of a lot of those things where we allowed them to feel comfortable on the offensive end and defensively made it easier due just in terms of our spacing.”

Ultimately, Dallas got 33 points from Dončić (11 of 26 field goals), 31 points from Irving (20 in a perfect third quarter) and 33 points from every other player on 10-of-36 shooting (27.8 percent). That mirrored the Nov. 25 win the Clippers had in the Mavericks’ last visit to LA, when Dončić had 30, Irving had 26 and the rest of the Mavericks had 32 points on 11-of-42 shooting (26.2 percent) in a 107-88 Clippers win. The additions of power forward P.J. Washington and center Daniel Gafford did little to change the equation.

“We had a chance to game plan,” Lue said after the Clippers held the Mavericks to 30 first-half points on 22-percent shooting in Game 1. “We had four or five days to really understand what they were doing and understand what we want to take away and what we were willing to give up. So, I thought our guys were pretty good. We got to be better. We understand that. But for the most part, just looking at it, I thought our scheme was really good. So, going into Game 2 we got to clean a couple of things up and just kind of go from there.”

Offensively, the Clippers leaned on other options to take advantage of the strong early-afternoon defense. Center Ivica Zubac, who was played off the floor three years ago against Dončić and the Mavericks, held up defensively and punished the Mavericks early and often via the post-up. Zubac had a double-double at halftime and finished with a postseason career-high 20 points on 10-of-17 shooting, giving the Clippers offensive diversity without Leonard available.

 “I know we’re a great defensive team and I got to be one of the leaders out there on the defensive end,” Zubac said. “That’s something I’ve been doing for this team for a little bit. And no matter who it is, I just got to lock in for the game plan. They’re going to make shots; Luka, Kyrie, they’re going to make tough shots. But we got to make it harder for them.”

Playing in afternoon games has also been an issue for James Harden this season, especially with those games coming on weekends often. Harden shot only 37 percent from the field on Saturdays and 35.3 percent from the field on Sundays this season. But without Leonard, Harden was ready on a Sunday afternoon, scoring 20 of his team-high 28 points in the first half.

“It’s going to be different matchups,” Harden said after being guarded by Washington in the first half and Derrick Jones Jr. to start the second half. “They tried Luka. I mean for me, my mindset doesn’t change.”

The afternoon start time bugaboo was answered in Game 1, but it will be a factor again in this series at least one more time. Dallas will host the Clippers next Sunday for Game 4 in a game scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. local start. And if the series goes to seven games, the Game 7 will likely be a Sunday afternoon start as well.

But the Clippers answered a regular-season question with a standout performance in the playoffs, and they did so without Leonard. If nothing else, the Clippers are fully into the postseason now.

“We did what we’re supposed to do,” Harden said. “Game 2, teams are going to make their adjustments. They’re going to figure things that didn’t work, you know what I mean? And try to correct those things. So for us, it’s just finding out what worked, finding out what didn’t work and things that we can get better at and then we can control what we can control and then not focus on anything else.”

(Photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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