Substance 130, Style 122.
Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks may be maturing into a bright future before our playoff eyes, but Kawhi Leonard and the angry, flexing Los Angeles Clippers reminded us in Friday night’s dominating blowout that they are not yet fully grown.
Embarrassed by Doncic’s record scoring through two games and Dallas’ 127 points in an upset Game 2 win, the Clippers injected an increased defensive intensity and physicality into the series in the first half of Game 3. Los Angeles, one of the best defenses in the NBA all season, trapped and transformed Doncic into a passer in the paint and ratcheted Game 2 nudges into Game 3 shoves.
The result: The finesse, up-tempo, ballroom dance preferred by the Mavs deteriorated into the Clippers’ trademark version of a violent rugby scrum.
Dallas didn’t lose its cool in falling behind in the series 2-1 – in their two losses it finished the game without either Doncic or Kristaps Porzingis on the court – but it certainly lost its vibe.
And – hold your breath – it may also have lost a full-speed Doncic.
The Most Valuable Player candidate horribly rolled his left ankle – without contact – while guarding Leonard in the third quarter, hopping on one foot all the way to the locker room. Showing his grit, he waved off a wheelchair, had the ankle taped and returned – albeit with a noticeable limp – for the start of the fourth quarter. But he played only three minutes before succumbing to the pain, hobbling to the bench and dejectedly putting his head in his hands before heading back to the locker room after recording a 13-point/10-rebound/10-assist triple-double.
At his initial injury, the Mavs trailed 85-71 with 3:58 remaining in the third quarter. When he exited for good, the Clippers were firmly in control, 110-95. Dallas managed 67 points in the second half, but the Clippers set the tone early and kept the Mavs at a comfortable arms’ length down the stretch.
With adrenalin, players often immediately play through sprained ankles. It’s the day after when swelling, stiffness, pain and debilitating mobility downgrade Superman into street clothes.
"We'll know more (Saturday),'' said coach Rick Carlisle of Doncic, who underwent X-rays on the ankle and figures to have more testing. "He'll come back and try it, obviously. ... We’ve got to see if we can get him significantly better by (Game 4). If it’s not Sunday, then (Luka will try Game 5).”
Added Luka: “It’s not that bad. A little sprain.”
Doncic’s ankle is the most significant Mavericks’ playoff injury since Dirk Nowitzki sprained his left knee in Game 3 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals against the Spurs. Nowitzki’s injury put the Mavs’ head coach and training staff at odds, with Don Nelson finally winning the debate and refusing to let his 24-year-old star play in Games 4, 5 and 6 of the series Dallas lost, 4-2.
Punched in the mouth and knocked to the canvas in a game it trailed by double-digits for most of the final 30 minutes, the Mavs need to get up – and grow up – in Sunday afternoon’s Game 4 in Orlando.
"What do you mean, 'Can we still make a run?,'' Tim Hardaway Jr. answered to a question. "It's only 2-1. Last time I checked, first one to four wins."
Sure. But they'll need Luka. And even then ... Doncic, only 21, has been brilliant all season and even better this series. But, um, he ain’t Leonard. Not yet.
The two-time champ dominated at both ends for L.A., blocking Hardaway Jr., stealing a pass from Doncic and continually bullying the valiant defense of Maxi Kleber. Leonard finished with 36 points, several times stymieing sniffs of a Dallas rally with key baskets.
Doncic should be flattered by the Clippers’ attention. But he was also flattened.
Weary of Doncic’s relentless drives into the paint in the first two games, Clippers coach Doc Rivers threw his entire toolbox at the Mavs’ star early. In the game’s first six minutes, Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris and Montrezl Harrell all took turns crowding Luka beyond the 3-point line. When he got into the paint, L.A. surrounded Doncic and made him pass.
The Mavs, who made 13 of 29 3-pointers in Game 2, missed 26 of their 43 Friday night.
Doncic, who was whacked in the face twice in the first quarter, responded with five points, two assists and one resolute bark. Harrell nudged Doncic with an accidentally-on-purpose elbow to the lower back, to which Luka retorted with a purposeful left-arm flail that somehow sent the rugged, 240-pounder sprawling to the court.
Yelled Doncic at Harrell, “Stop flopping, man!”
Each received a technical foul, and also sent their respective messages. The Clippers were determined to bully the Mavs; Dallas wasn’t backing down.
“I liked the intensity,” said Rivers after the first 12 minutes. “I love our defense.”
The game was tied at 35-35 midway through the second before L.A.’s defense began taking its toll. Harder fouls. Pushing the Mavs’ shooters out a step further. Challenging at the rim.
The Mavs poked the bear in Game 2. In Game 3, the Clippers mauled back.