Confidence will only take you so far in the NBA playoffs.
Sooner or later the team with better talent, more experience and the clear advantages will assume the dominant position.
It was late Friday night in Orlando, in the second quarter of Game 3 against of this Western Conference playoff series, when that moment arrived for Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers. They finally located that sweet spot against the Dallas Mavericks, who played the final 9 minutes of the game without the MVP candidate Luka Doncic, who sprained his left ankle.
After playing on their heels during much of the first two games in this series, the Clippers asserted themselves early and often in a 130-122 win to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
Leonard had another monster night (36 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists) , joining Elton Brand as the only players in franchise history to run up those numbers in a playoff game. Leonard’s 100 points through his first three playoff games as a Clipper is also a franchise record.
It’s the other half of the superstar duo, Paul George, who struggled mightily for the second straight game. George scored just 11 points (on 3-for-16 shooting, 1-for-8 from beyond the 3-point line). He’s managed a combined 25 points on 21-percent shooting in two games after scoring 27 in the Clippers’ Game 1 win.
“It is what it is,” George said. “It didn’t affect us winning tonight.”
And it shouldn’t have, with Leonard picking up all the slack.
“He put this game on his back,” George said of Leonard, “and won the game for us.”
Leonard did get plenty of help from a supporting cast that finally came to life.
Starters Landry Shamet, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac alll scored in double figures, as did Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the Sixth Man of the Year award finalists, who resembled their regular-season selves for the first time in this series.
Shamet scored 18 points in his first starting assignment in the series, serving as the ideal complimentary piece with starting point guard Patrick Beverley sideline with that strained calf.
“I thought Landry was fantastic,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He knows our guys better. He definitely knows our system better. And he’s going to play off of Kawhi and PG and he’s going to let the game come to him. I just thought we needed the ball to be in PG and Kawhi’s hands more and with Sham on the floor you just can’t leave him because he can make shots, so thought he was great.”
Morris shot 4-for-5 from deep and finished with 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while providing the relentless defensive pressure on Doncic that keeps Leonard and George from having to regularly expend that energy.
The boost certainly allowed Leonard to stay in attack mode all game.
“I was just being aggressive,” he said. “The whole team was being aggressive and they were helping me get easy shots, I’m just out there playing man, trying to win a basketball game and shots went in for me today.”
With all that went right, the Clippers still had to fight off the Mavericks, who got a playoff career-high from Seth Curry (22 points) off the bench and big nights from both Kristaps Porzingis (34 points, 13 rebounds) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (22 pts, 6 reb). They refused to go away without Doncic available.
Whether or not they can keep that up, either without Doncic or with him limited because of that ankle injury, will determine how long this series lasts.
“Obviously Luka being out wasn’t good for us,” Porzingis said. “You know when he tried to come back then his ankle wasn’t right. We need him for the next game, next games, and hopefully the medical staff can get him right so he can be back with us next game.”
Doncic actually suffered the injury with 3:58 to play in the third quarter, when he stepped on Leonard’s foot. He had to hop to the locker room with the Mavericks down 86-71.
He came back to start the fourth quarter but his mobility wasn’t the same. Frustrated and and clearly still in pain, he went back to the locker room with 9:02 to play with a triple-double (13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) already in the books.
“I’m unsure of the exact severity of Luka’s left ankle,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “One of the good things is it’s the good ankle, it’s not the one that he’s sprained a few times in the last couple years. We’ll know more tomorrow. He did come back and try it, obviously, and wasn’t moving great. We’ll see where he is come tomorrow and Sunday morning.”
Doncic said he could run but could not push off his left left, and simply couldn’t play at the level his team needed him to in the final nine minutes.
There’s no guarantee things would have ended any other way with the way Leonard was playing. He was locked in from the start.
“He’s always in the zone,” Doncic said of Leonard. “He’s a top-three player in the league. It’s really tough to stop him. He’s an amazing player, amazing defender. It’s really hard to stop him.
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