Kawhi-Less Clippers Handily Defeat Luka Doncic's Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of NBA Playoff Series

Despite the LA Clippers not having Kawhi Leonard available to play, they achieved a blowout victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
 Apr 21, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Russell Westbrook (0)
Apr 21, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Russell Westbrook (0) / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — Despite not having Kawhi Leonard available to play in Game 1, the Los Angeles Clippers achieved a 109-97 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. After trailing by as many as 29 points, the Mavericks couldn't rally back and now face a 1-0 series deficit.

While James Harden revealed the Clippers knew Leonard wouldn't play two days before Game 1, the Mavericks had to prepare without knowing if he would. Leonard was listed as questionable due to right knee inflammation but wasn't ruled out until pre-game media.

“We prepared like he was going to play obviously. But that should not change our mentality," Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic said. "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.”

Doncic finished with 33 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists, while Kyrie Irving added 31 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. Irving had an efficient scoring display—going 10-18 (55.6%) from the floor, 3-6 (50.0%) from deep, and 8-9 (88.9%) on free throws—after a slow start. Doncic had an uncharacteristically inefficient display, shooting 11-26 (42.3%) overall and 4-12 (33.3%) from deep, but he did shoot 7-8 from the free throw line.

 Apr 21, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Russell Westbrook (0)
Apr 21, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Russell Westbrook (0) / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of Doncic and Irving, the Mavericks received 33 points from the rest of the team, shooting a combined 10-36 (27.8%) overall and 3-15 (20.0%) on 3-point attempts. P.J. Washington was the only other player to score in double figures with 11 on the night, while Derrick Jones Jr. went scoreless as a starter, and Daniel Gafford had three.

Despite Leonard being sidelined, the Clippers received a trio of 20-point scoring performances. James Harden led with 28 points and eight assists. Ivica Zubac, who Doncic described as being the "X-factor" in the game, contributed 20 points and 15 rebounds. Paul George added 22 points, six rebounds, and three assists.

The Clippers had the momentum in their favor early, extending their lead to 16-9 after Paul George converted on a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer midway through the opening period. Los Angeles continued to pour it on Dallas by achieving a 34-22 lead to end the first quarter, with Harden and Zubac scoring double figures.

“Yeah, we did dig ourselves a hole. The positives is that we kept fighting in the second half," Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. "We expected the Clippers to come out physical, and we just didn’t respond that first to their physicality. I thought in the second half, we were a little bit like the team that ended the season with the physicality."

While George and Harden naturally are heavy focuses for game planning, Zubac got the better of Gafford early on by scoring on multiple post-ups for deep paint-scoring chances. Dereck Lively II checked into the game at the 8:41 mark, with Gafford picking up a second foul. Zubac continued to pose problems, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds in the opening period.

“We’ve done that pretty often this year. That’s it, just trying to be physical on my post-ups," Zubac said. "Try to get as close to the basket as possible to get some layups. It worked well tonight. I felt pretty confident in the post. I feel like I can post up pretty much anyone”

Gafford admitted he needs to be better in Game 2, telling reporters, "I just didn't come out here to play, honestly. ... I have to be able to be better in areas that I was always succeeding throughout the regular season. I got to come out and I got to play playoff basketball."

Early on, the Clippers often stuck with traditional pick-and-roll coverage with Zubac playing in a drop. Los Angeles did have him switch against Zoom actions while playing close to the level, while generally switching guard-guard screens. The goal was to protect the paint, allowing only eight points in the first half, while the Mavericks often settled for challenging jumpers. The formula worked for the moment, with Dallas being held to eight points in the second quarter.

“Just giving Luka [Doncic] different looks to try and wear him down because he is a great player. You have to throw different looks at him," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. "You have to play hard, compete. He’s going to make some tough shots, as we saw tonight, but just make it hard and make it work. Don’t let your guard down. Make him work."

Even the mechanisms the Mavericks typically utilize to make teams pay for playing up-to-touch or just a bit higher with the big in pick-and-roll—like having Tim Hardaway Jr. set a back-screen in Stack or Spain action—were stifled by the Clippers' preparedness in anticipating this approach. In the first half, Dallas didn't use much double drag or play out of Horns sets as they tend to, but did try to play out of Zoom actions and handoffs. Doncic acknowledged he settled too much for jumpers and needs to be more aggressive in getting to the rim.

"I just have to stay aggressive," Doncic said. "That was my bad in the first half. It wasn't aggressive enough, so I just got to stay aggressive and find the open man."

The Clippers' switch-hunting efforts frequently targeted Doncic in the first quarter. Whether needing a double team from a teammate after denying a drive middle or simply resulting in a spray-out pass creating an open look, Los Angeles capitalized often, with Dallas not having an answer.

Russell Westbrook's checking into the game provided a spark for the Clippers, including a momentum-furthering corner 3-pointer after the Mavericks left him open trying to contain a drive. He continued to deliver electrifying plays, including a highlight reel worthy dunk early in the second quarter and sparking energy into the crowd by getting into it with P.J. Washington after breaking up a finish attempt.

Harden scored 20 first-half points, often playing out of isolation and pick-and-roll actions, stepping up as the Clippers' top option without Leonard in the lineup. In the second quarter, he began operating out of double drag and used George as a screener. With his step-back jumper and floater clicking, Harden picked apart Dallas.

“We were generating really good shots. I mean, if we could do that over the course of a game, you know what I mean," Harden said. "We live with the results. This is a make-or-miss league, so if you make shots, it obviously makes your job a lot easier. But for us, it was just being engaged. Like, we had a really good week of practice, and at the end of the day, it's only one win, so we’ll watch film and be better for game two.”

The Mavericks struggled mightily to generate positive results when facing a 56-30 deficit at halftime. Dallas shot 9-40 (22.5%) from the floor and 2-18 (11.1%) from beyond the arc. It was the lowest-scoring half Dallas produced as a team during the 2023-24 season, marking the second time the team scored below 40 points. The other instance occurred against the Houston Rockets on Dec. 22, 2023, in a 122-96 loss against the Rockets, with a starting backcourt of Jaden Hardy and Hardaway in place of the sidelined Doncic and Irving.

“In a playoff game, man, scoring eight points feels like forever and that’s what it felt like out there," Irving admitted. "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."

The Mavericks took solace in that while they only scored eight points in the second quarter, they managed to contain the Clippers to 22—becoming a focus of the team's halftime conversation. Regardless, Dallas faced a substantial deficit after the break that proved too much to overcome ultimately, but the game essentially became about the process from that point.

"If we are not making shots, I thought we did a great job of keeping them in that second quarter to 22 points," Kidd said. "We couldn’t throw it in the ocean. We missed layups, free throws, and wide-open shots. But to hold a team that is as talented as that to 22 points is a positive, and that’s what we talked about at halftime."

With the Mavericks' subpar perimeter shooting wings, the Clippers benefited from shrinking the floor to make it challenging for Doncic to operate in the half-court. The goal was to prevent him from reaching the restricted area, reducing high quality finishing chances and passing chances after drawing help defense.

Irving aggressively attacked early in the clock coming out of the break and became more of a focal point operating out of a side ball screen with an empty corner. Doncic also made a finish. However, between George hitting a pair of contested 3-pointers and Coffey converting a wide-open catch-and-shoot look in the corner, the Clippers regained a 70-41 advantage.

The Mavericks deployed a small ball lineup in the third quarter, with Maxi Kleber playing the five spot. Dallas needed to do whatever possible to spread the floor and handle containing the Clippers on the other end. Dallas was unable to succeed for an extended run using this personnel, with Kleber being reluctant to shoot and struggling to execute when he decided to while still being unable to contain.

Irving continued to attack the paint aggressively throughout the third quarter, bringing the Mavericks back within 19 points with 2:55 left in the third quarter after drawing a foul and making a pair of free throws. A flashy right-to-left crossover after contact to set up a baseline drive for a reverse finish. Irving then hit a tough 3-pointer that left George shaking his head. However, the Clippers continued to have answers on the other end, preventing Dallas from making a run.

The Clippers continued to make the Mavericks pay on the offensive boards even after forcing an initial miss. With a struggle to contain dribble penetration, Gafford would pressure a finish attempt, and then Los Angeles would finish a putback. Dallas consistently proved unable to help the helper in these situations. The Clippers began to heat up on corner 3-pointers with multiple makes, ending the third period with an 87-64 edge. Los Angeles held the Mavericks in check despite Irving scoring 20 points on a perfect 8-8 shooting in the third period alone.

"In the second half, I feel like once we pick up the physicality, we started demanding that greatness out of ourselves and stopped being afraid of the moment and started settling into what we're in," Irving said. "It's a war out there in the playoffs, metaphorically speaking, of course, so we have to enjoy it and have fun, but at the same time, bring it to these guys. We're going against some Hall of Famers, so they're not going to make it easy."

After Lively split a pair of free throws, the Mavericks forced a turnover, leading to Doncic hitting a step-back 3-pointer operating out of double drag, reducing the deficit to 90-75 with 8:22 left in regulation. Los Angeles began heating up from the perimeter, including a tightly contested look from George over Doncic, followed by a wide-open shot for Mann. The Clippers were back up by 22 midway through the period.

"I was just being aggressive, period. They did a great job of shutting the floor down," George said. "They weren’t letting me play, they were pressuring me up, and then they were cutting the lanes off for me to drive, trying to get to the rim. I just thought they did a really good job of trying to make me uncomfortable. I’ll be better. I’ll look at the film and see how I can be more efficient, and just take what they give me."

Given the Mavericks' significant deficit, there wasn't enough time to make a rallying effort. Outside of the final two minutes, the closest they came was trailing by 14 points after Doncic was blitzed. Washington ultimately made a floater after grabbing an offensive rebound following his missed 3-pointer.

The Mavericks and Clippers will play Game 2 on Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. CST, completing a two-game series start at Crypto.com Arena before shifting to American Airlines Center for the next two contests.


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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.