After looking as though they had figured out the Dallas Mavericks in Games 3 and 4, the LA Clippers appeared puzzled on Wednesday night in their 105-100 loss at home.
The Clippers fought from behind and failed to establish any sort of momentum almost all night long — a pattern similar to the one that played out in the first two games of the series.
Dallas threw the first punch, opening the game on a 7-0 run and attacking the Clippers inside. Luka Dončić was responsible for most of the damage in the opening frame, recording 19 points and four assists in his first 12 minutes of action.
Despite their early struggles, the Clippers went into the break down just two points. Dončić, at the time, led all scorers with 27 points, while the Clippers had yet to have a player emerge from the crowd. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. combined for 31 points in the first half.
LA did manage to build a six-point lead in the third quarter — their largest lead of the game — but Dallas responded with a 25-5 run that essentially put the game out of reach for the Clippers. LA had led 64-70 with seven minutes to play in the frame, but the team went into the fourth quarter down 89-75 following the run.
"We couldn't get nothing to go in," Leonard said of the team's third-quarter collapse. "Turnovers. Missed shots. They did a good job of making us turnover the ball, collapsing and just missed shots."
The Clippers did recover in the final frame, putting themselves in position to take the lead with a little less than 10 seconds remaining in the game. A 9-0 run had them down just one point, and after forcing a turnover, LA charged down the floor. The ball ended up in the hands of Terance Mann, who had as good a look as you can get at the rim in a late-game situation. Perhaps expecting more resistance, Mann passed the ball back to Nicolas Batum, who missed a contested jumper in the paint.
LA was forced to foul following the miss, and after Tim Hardaway Jr. sank both of his free throws, the Clippers got the ball back. Trailing by three points with eight seconds on the clock, the Clippers looked to Leonard off the pass-in. With very little space, he pulled up from the right corner but caught nothing but air as his shot sailed over the basket.
"Turned, felt him right behind me, tried to pump-fade and was just off-balance," Leonard said about his final shot. "Pretty much was laying back, ended up shooting it. Got to do a better job."
With the loss, the Clippers now face a 3-2 deficit ahead of Game 6 — Dallas's final home game of the series. If LA wants to move on, they'll need to win back-to-back elimination games and figure out a way to neutralize Dončić — a task that's much easier said than done.
Let's take a closer look at a few of the things we could glean from Game 5.
Leonard Cools Off
Kawhi Leonard was enjoying an uber-efficient series coming into Game 5, averaging 33.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.3 steals and shooting 62.7% from the field through the first four contests.
He looked like a different player on Wednesday night.
Leonard finished the night with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists, a steal, two blocks and a game-worst five turnovers in a little more than 41 minutes of action. He went 7-for-19 from the field and 1-of-7 from three-point range, struggling to find consistency from anywhere outside of the paint.
"They packed the paint to make sure Kawhi got off of it," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. "I thought we got some great shots that we didn't make. They enticed us to take threes instead of attacking because we were so wide open."
As Lue pointed out, Leonard's struggles weren't exclusive to him. Nearly half of LA's shots came from beyond the arc, and the team was far less efficient in the paint than it had been in Games 3 and 4. Part of that likely had to do with the Mavericks starting Boban Marjanovic, an imposing seven-footer.
With that said, the Clippers will need more from their star player moving forward if they plan on winning the series.
Turnovers Sink the Clippers
Through the first four games of the series, the LA Clippers had done a relatively good job of limiting turnovers. At 9.5 per game, the team was taking much better care of the ball than they had throughout the regular season. And although their 12 turnovers in Game 5 aren't the most they've had in a game this series, it certainly felt like these were the most costly.
The Clippers committed nine of their 12 turnovers in the second half of Game 5. Five of them came in a four-minute span during the Mavericks' 25-5 run, and three of the other four came late in the fourth quarter as LA attempted to climb back into the game. On each occasion, the Clippers trailed by no more than six points.
Missed opportunities like that will come back to haunt you every single time, and that's what happened in Game 5. Had the Clippers been even a little bit better and scored on a couple of those possessions, there's a good chance that they'd be heading to Dallas up 3-2 rather than down.
"PG having four fouls early on in the third quarter really hurt us," Lue said after the game. "And so we had some turnovers, delayed the easy baskets for those guys, and then we couldn't score the ball like we needed to. Only having 21 points in that third quarter really hurt us offensively."
LA will need to clean up some of those mistakes in Game 6.
After the Clippers lost their first two games at home, coach Lue said he would find out what his team is made of in Game 3. With their backs against the wall, the Clippers found a way to win that contest by 10. They followed that performance up with a 25-point blowout in Game 4.
Now, down 3-2 in the series with a must-win road game ahead, it's time for the Clippers to show just how resilient they really are.
LA has shown a tendency to bounce back after losses this season, but they've never been in a win-or-go-home situation. There was always another game, another opportunity to prove why they're a force to be reckoned with. This time, as well as in a potential Game 7, they'll be one loss away from elimination.
"We just got to take it one game at a time right now," Leonard said. "Try to win Game 6, and that's the mindset. See what we can do better from this game and just come out, be ready to fight... Every year presents a different challenge, and this is what's in front of us right now."
The LA Clippers will take on the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6 on Friday at 6:00 p.m. PT.