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The Clippers' Season Is on the Line in Game 2

Kawhi Leonard and L.A. need to win Tuesday against the Mavericks, or everyone is in trouble.

Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

You don’t have to say it.

Kawhi Leonard already did.

“I feel like we got a good team,” Leonard said, days before the start of the most important postseason in recent Clippers history. “We got some depth on us. It’s just about between the ears now. How much are we willing to sacrifice to get a win? How much of our mind and body are we going to put into these playoffs? That’s where I’m at.”

The Clippers trail 1–0 in their first-round matchup with the Mavericks, and make no mistake: This series is no longer about talent. It’s not about L.A.’s All-NBA forwards, Leonard and Paul George. It’s not about its frontcourt of Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka. It’s not about (Playoff) Rajon Rondo or Patrick Beverley.

It’s about mental toughness.

And if the Clippers really have it.

This is it, Clippers. Tuesday night, Game 2, Staples Center—your season is on the line. You fall into an 0–2 hole against Dallas, and it’s over. You aren’t winning four of the next five against Luka Dončić. Dončić posted a 31-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound stat line in the opener and, frankly, it looked like he could play better. Tyronn Lue has hinted that Leonard will get deployed on Dončić earlier, but even that may not slow him down.

Play with confidence, Clippers. The Mavericks will. Dallas bowed out 4–2 to L.A. in the first round last season. But Kristaps Porziņģis was lost after three games in that series and Dončić played the back half with a bum ankle. This Mavs team has an improved Tim Hardaway Jr. and an emerging Jalen Brunson. Said Rick Carlisle, “We’re a strength-in-numbers operation.”

Dallas isn’t in this series to compete.

It firmly believes it can win.

The Clippers like to talk about how they are a different team … but are they? Lue has replaced Doc Rivers. Ibaka is in the role once occupied by Montrezl Harrell. (Playoff) Rondo was acquired at midseason to supplement the oft-injured and offensively challenged Beverley. Said Marcus Morris, “Everybody wants to be here.”

Fine. But the Mavericks punched the Clippers in the mouth on Saturday and is anyone really confident about how L.A. will respond? With confidence? This is a team, after all, that tanked a game against the Thunder to avoid the Lakers in the second round. The Clippers vaunted three-point attack (an NBA-best 41.1% during the regular season) was stifled in Game 1. It wasn’t the first time Dallas has done it. In two regular-season losses to the Mavs, the Clips shot 20% from three. The 27.5% they connected on in the opener was an improvement.

Kawhi Leonard tries to move past Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic

Lue talked about adjustments on Monday. About getting to the rim more, especially down the stretch. “Get to the paint,” Lue said. “Or die trying.” About boxing out. About getting Morris more involved and doing more to keep Brunson in check.

“We’re trying to see where we made mistakes offensive and defense,” Lue said. “There’s a lot of places we can improve and when we knock down those three-point shots with those open looks we get we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

O.K. But it all has to come together Tuesday … or else. “We’ve got the same pressure as every team that's in this,” George said. Nope, sorry, PG—you don’t. Other teams aren’t haunted by blowing a 3–1 series lead to the Nuggets in last season’s playoffs. Other teams didn’t deal away its future draft capital for one player. Other teams don’t have a $137 million payroll—fourth-highest in the NBA—with nothing to show for it.

The Clippers need to win Tuesday, or everyone is in trouble. Think Steve Ballmer is writing luxury-tax checks for first-round exits? Think Leonard is sticking around? Leonard can—and will—opt out of his contract after this season. For months it has been widely assumed that Leonard, a Los Angeles native, will re-sign with the Clippers this summer, joining George, who inked a $190-million extension before the season, as Clippers cornerstones for the foreseeable future. Leonard would be as responsible as anyone for L.A.’s playoff struggles. But would anyone be shocked if he took his talents to, say, South Beach?

Lue projected confidence on Monday. “We’re not overreacting,” Lue said. “It’s just one game.” Zubac talked about the impact Lue—an NBA champion in Cleveland—has had since sliding over from his assistant’s seat. “Our attention to detail is very, very high,” Zubac said. “We’re discussing about everything, about every single play, every single coverage, offense, defense, whatever.”

Great. But this game isn’t about adjustments. It’s about attitude. It’s about George, a playoff underachiever since leaving the Pacers, being more than a regular-season star. It’s about Leonard regaining the swagger that has made him one of the best postseason players of his generation. It’s about Morris, Beverley, Zubac and everyone else connected to last season’s disaster stepping up and making sure it doesn’t happen again.

“You gotta win four games,” Lue said.

No—the Clippers need to win one. 

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