James Harden, Paul George Lead Clippers to Dramatic Game 4 Win Over Dallas Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks nearly overcame a 31-point deficit in their Game 4 loss against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Apr 28, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA;  LA Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) and LA Clippers forward Paul
Apr 28, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; LA Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) and LA Clippers forward Paul / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS — Before Game 4 of the first-round playoff series between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers tipped off, Lawrence Frank, Clippers president of basketball operations, revealed that Kawhi Leonard will be sidelined indefinitely as he deals with right knee inflammation.

Reminiscent of Game 1, when the Clippers overcame playing without Leonard in the lineup and led by as many as 29 points, a scorching hot first half from Los Angeles in Game 4 resulted in a lead as robust as 31 before halftime. While the Mavericks went to hold a lead late in the fourth quarter, the Clippers ultimately closed out a 116-111 victory to tie the series 2-2.

Apr 28, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA;  LA Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) and LA Clippers forward Paul
Apr 28, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; LA Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) and LA Clippers forward Paul / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Despite receiving 40 points, seven rebounds, and five assists from Kyrie Irving, along with Luka Doncic adding 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, the Mavericks were unable to achieve the victory. Dallas received double figure scoring performances from Derrick Jones Jr. (14 points) and P.J. Washington (10 points), but turned it over 16 times as a team and shot just 11-33 (33.3%) from the perimeter.

Doncic has struggled shooting the ball in this series and feels he needs to provide his superstar backcourt partner with a higher level of production. He's shooting 38.6% from the floor and 26.5% from beyond the arc in the series.

"I just got to help him more. I feel like I’m letting him down, so I got to be there, I got to help him more," Doncic said. "He’s giving everything he has and he’s been amazing for us the whole series.”

Irving sympathized with Doncic as he continues to work through shooting struggles and knee issues.

"Knowing how well he knows the Clippers, I know he wants to play well, and I know he wants to make a bigger impact than what he’s doing now even though he’s almost averaging a triple-double," Irving said of Doncic. "He’s a young kid in the playoffs going against a team that beat him twice. There’s a little bit of a mental fatigue there…”

George and Harden stepped up significantly without Leonard in the Clippers' lineup. George scored 26 of his 33 points before halftime, while Harden added 18 of his 33 points and five of his seven assists during that span. While George had a timely 3-pointer, Harden led Los Angeles down the stretch, often punishing the defense with floaters, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter alone.

“Give them credit. They came out—and we talked about it—Paul George and Harden. We had to keep them off the free throw line but also the 3," Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. They made 14 [3s] there in the first half. We talked about it at halftime, and we did a lot better job. They made four there in the second half."

The Mavericks were well aware of the possibility of both George and Harden having dynamic performances as the clear-cut focal points of the offense but couldn't contain them regardless. Irving described the Clippers' superstars as being "almost different players" without Leonard.

“When Kawhi is not in the lineup, you can see they are different players to a certain degree," Irving said. "I don’t want to disrespect their talent, but I think [they] play with a little bit more liberation [and] they take a lot more tough shots.

"When Kawhi is out there, I think they’re looking to be efficient and get each other going a little bit more," Irving explained. "For the second game where Kawhi isn’t playing, we came out, and I don’t think we were prepared for some of the shots they were taking.”

It wasn't until the 10:14 mark of the first quarter when Doncic, who was upgraded from being a game-time decision due to right knee soreness, drew a foul on a drive that either time had put any points on the board. It was a 4-0 start for the Mavericks, with all of the points scored by Doncic. The momentum shifted in the Clippers' favor, using a 9-4 run to take a 9-8 lead.

Los Angeles did not relent, achieving a 24-10 advantage after Westbrook hit a corner 3-pointer and let the Mavericks' bench hear it, followed by George using a snatchback move to create a mid-range jumper. With George hitting another 3-pointer, the Mavericks trailed 36-14, with George's 16 points in the period being as many as Dallas had while lifting Los Angeles up by a 23-point margin.

"Just understanding the guys that can hurt you, Paul did a good job of getting going early. Our defense, again, in that first quarter was not up to par," Kidd said. "We had great looks offensively, we missed some. It was kind of like game one all over again, having a bad quarter. ... Contested 3s is one thing, but when you give guys warmup 3s, you can put yourself in a bad position, and that’s what happened there in the first.”

Irving went scoreless in the first quarter but added 16 points in the second period to help ignite a run for Dallas to begin rallying back. Given he entered this game averaging five points in the first half of games in the series and Doncic is playing through injury, could he look to be more aggressive earlier in games?

"I think I could be a better reader of the game," Irving said. "I'm always hypercritical in my game anyway. To start off games like tonight, I kind of had the mentality just to come in and allow the game to come to me.

"I said it the other night, but I think the difference probably in the first quarter tonight was just their aggressiveness on my pick-and-rolls and then also forcing me to go or funnel to a certain area where there are a lot of guys, and our spacing wasn't that great," Irving explained. "I was just making reads and I didn't hit my first few shots in the first quarter. No time to get down on myself and get down on my teammates."

Coming out of the quarter break, the Clippers continued to pour it on the Mavericks, ultimately leading by as many as 31 points in the frame after Harden hit a step-back 3-pointer. Dallas made a rallying effort by closing the half on a 25-11 run, making it 66-49 in Los Angeles' favor at halftime.

"We just started off the first quarter when you have 16 points, it seems like it could be torture when you're out there," Irving said. "As a defender, you see them scoring 39 points; it could throw you off your game a little bit, and you start pressing. That's one thing that I know is one of the bad habits of teams across the league when you go down in the stretch, you start forcing shots. I was just gearing up for what the rest of the quarters were going to bring in."

With the energy of the American Airlines Center crowd behind them, the Mavericks made a massive push to almost completely wipe away the Clippers' lead. Dallas grew its run to being 27-12 after Irving hit a 3-pointer off a handoff from Jones, narrowing the Clippers' edge to just 78-76.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Clippers took advantage of the Mavericks' offense cooling off, using a 10-3 run to begin the period to regain an 11-point edge. With both teams trading made shots,

Irving attacked a fly-by using a shot fake by dribbling to open space then using another shot fake for a tough, contested 3-pointer, bringing the Mavericks within eight points. Later, a transition grab-and-go attack from Washington created an and-one to bring Dallas within 97-92 with 6:07 remaining in the fourth quarter.

“All four quarters. If he didn’t get going, that game would have been over in the first," Kidd said of Irving. "For him to be able to get going in the second got us back."

The Mavericks tied it up at numerous points in clutch time—once with a step-back 3-pointer from Doncic and another on Irving using a floater. However, Harden made a series of timely floaters to prevent the Clippers from trailing by scoring six consecutive points, putting Los Angeles back up 104-100. Harden repeatedly punished Dallas' small ball group with Kleber in the lineup in place of Lively and Gafford, with the decision being made for floor spacing purposes.

“Understanding offensively, we needed to space the floor. Maxi did a really good job there. Understanding the options we have of being able to play Maxi, being able to stretch the floor was the option we went with. Living with 2s in this league doesn’t hurt you but 3s kill you, and 3s killed us this afternoon. We’ve got to be better."

Kidd emphasized the importance the Mavericks' coaching staff placed on not allowing Harden to get 3-pointers off down the stretch. With elite players, there is a sense of having to live with giving up something. Dallas felt giving up floaters while still attempting to challenge them would be the best option, particularly with how Harden is a highly accurate late lob thrower—putting the big in a challenging position while facing a disadvantage.

"When Harden is taking 2s, it’s better than him shooting the 3," Kidd said. "Understanding what they were shooting from 3 in the first half, you’ve got to give up something. They’re talented. We gave up the 2s – but contested 2s – and they made them. They gave us a chance to get back in the game and actually take the lead.”

A series of massive plays from Irving shifted the momentum in the Mavericks' favor—between a 3-pointer and a drive and finish—creating a 5-0 run to push Dallas ahead 105-104 with 2:14 left in regulation. He continued to provide needed late-game heroics for his team throughout the series.

George answered back, coming out of a timeout with a fadeaway corner 3-pointer to put Los Angeles back by one. It was a memorable play from George despite his scoring flurry largely cooling off after such an explosive first half—remaining the Mavericks of the disadvantage their slow start created.

"The big thing is we fought to take the lead, go up one, and then George hits a tough corner 3, and they take the lead again," Kidd said. "Just looking at the start, we’ve got to be better."

After Irving missed a floater, Harden grabbed a defensive rebound on one end, then attacked the paint for an and-one floater with 1:20 left to play. The inability to come up with timely rebounds or force missed proved too much to overcome.

"We just talked about if we can get it within 15 there going before halftime, and we got it 17. I told the coaches I think we can get this down to four by the fourth – and we did," Kidd said. "It was a four-point game going into the fourth. But again, we had to play perfect in that fourth and we just didn’t come up with the key rebounds.

"There was one that Harden came up with an offensive rebound; we got the missed 3 but Harden comes up with the rebound," Kidd explained. "We have to be better rebounding the ball. We had the guys we wanted shooting there in the fourth. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t capitalize on it.”

Doncic drew a foul on a drive and made both free throws, but Harden answered again with another timely floater to keep the Clippers up by five. Dallas came up empty on its next possession, resulting in the need to foul intentionally. There wasn't enough time to complete the comeback.

Both teams will resume the series on Wednesday, May 1, when they play Game 5 at Crypto.com Arena.


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Grant Afseth

GRANT AFSETH

Grant Afseth is a Dallas Mavericks reporter for MavericksGameday.com and an NBA reporter for NBA Analysis Network. He previously covered the Indiana Pacers and NBA for CNHI's Kokomo Tribune and various NBA teams for USA TODAY Sports Media Group. Follow him on Twitter (@grantafseth), Facebook (@grantgafseth), and YouTube (@grantafseth). You can reach Grant at grantafseth35@gmail.com.