June 12, 2021

Clippers will try to beat Dallas at home with new outlook and game plan

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DALLAS, TEXAS - JUNE 04: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers rebounds the ball against the Dallas Mavericks.

As soon as Kawhi Leonard’s work was over Friday, more began for statisticians turning to basketball’s annals to find precedent for his performance.

In franchise history, only Bob McAdoo in 1975 has scored more in a single postseason game than the 45 Leonard produced to stave off elimination in Game 6 of this first-round series in Dallas.

Since the institution of the NBA’s shot clock, Leonard is just the sixth player to score at least 45 points in a playoff game while shooting at least 72%. His performance, coupled with his earlier output, has made him the first player in NBA postseason history to score at least 29 points while shooting at least 66% in four games in a single series.

And it still wasn’t his most memorable postseason moment.

Two seasons ago, in the waning seconds of Game 7 in a second-round series against Philadelphia, Toronto’s championship season hinged on four bounces of the basketball that danced around the rim after Leonard fired a three-pointer while sprinting toward the corner. The shot, when it finally fell through, capped his 41-point night and sent Toronto to the Eastern Conference finals.

When the Clippers host Dallas in Game 7 on Sunday at Staples Center, Leonard’s teammates “are going to lean on Kawhi a lot because he’s been through it and he understands what it takes,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “So just his poise and his approach, we are going to be fine.”

Yet Leonard, 2-3 all-time in Game 7s, said he won’t be dispensing wisdom from his past.

“I don’t live in the past, I don’t think about stuff like that,” Leonard said Friday. “It’s about tomorrow. That’s all it’s about, taking what I see from tonight’s game and try to bring it into the next one.”

The Clippers might be wise to follow Leonard’s lead. Only nine months ago, their season ended in a Game 7 loss to Denver that they led by 12 points before being outscored 50-33 in the second half. Six players who earned minutes in Friday’s season-saving win in Dallas were part of that roster, along with Lue, then an assistant.

The Clippers are 3-5 all-time in Game 7s, though 3-1 in the first round.

Clippers Game 7 outcomes.

(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

There is also the tipoff time to consider. The Clippers are 3-4 this season when playing before 1 p.m. at home, and players routinely describe not feeling sharp because of the early tipoff. One of those losses was December’s 51-point rout at the hands of the Mavericks.

If the Clippers should remember anything entering Game 7, Leonard said, it is the urgency they played with to win Game 6.

“We have got to bring this same energy again and even more,” guard Reggie Jackson said Friday. “It is a Game 7. Unfortunately we haven’t won one yet at home in the playoffs, so we feel like we are due one and they feel confident in our building.”

The Clippers who return to Staples Center are different than the roster that fell behind by 50 to Dallas in the season’s third game, just as they are also different than the team that lost Game 5 at home last week. During that most recent defeat, Lue continued to play center Ivica Zubac when Mavericks star Luka Doncic was on the court, and in the 17 minutes they overlapped the Clippers were outscored by 23 points. In Game 6, however, Lue never allowed Zubac’s minutes to overlap with Doncic’s, taking away one of the guard’s easy targets for a one-on-one matchup out of their pick-and-roll plays.

Lue played backup guard Luke Kennard rotation minutes for the first time in the series to add spacing offensively and to prevent Jackson from guarding Doncic by himself as the game progressed, instead blitzing a second defender in hopes of getting the ball out of his hands. Doncic recorded just one fourth-quarter assist. And more than ever in previous games, Leonard guarded Doncic after asking for the assignment, according to Lue.

On the 65 possessions he has been guarded by Leonard in the series, Doncic has made nine of 24 shots, including four of 13 on three-pointers, according to NBA tracking data.

Lue’s own experience in Game 7s, coaching Cleveland to the 2016 NBA championship on the road, is one reason why players have described him as unflappable amid high stakes. Jackson described the coach as “cool as a satin pillow, smooth as peanut butter.”

But Lue won’t be playing Sunday, requiring his players to stay composed with their season on the line for the second time in three days. Marcus Morris Sr. made just one of his 10 shots in Game 6, and for as much as Paul George praised his running mate Leonard, he criticized his own play, when he scored 20 points and had 13 rebounds but committed five turnovers that Dallas turned into six points.

“[Leonard] was doing everything to stop, making it tough on the other end. You saw one of the best, if not the best two-way players at his best, and so it was fun to watch,” George said. “But you know, I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to be better. We can’t put that pressure on him on a nightly basis.”

Since the collapse against Denver that ended last season, Lue described witnessing an evolution in the team’s resilience.

Sunday will put those changed ways to the test.

“We just found ways to win when guys went down, and you can kind of see this carrying over now throughout the course of the playoffs and just finding a way to come back and win games,” Lue said. “Even we don’t shoot the ball great, finding ways to win. We’ve done it three times on their home floor, which their crowd was amazing. We were able to fight through that. And now we go home for Game 7.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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