Kawhi Leonard played 1,773 minutes in this NBA regular season. That ranked 91st in the NBA.
Out of sight was not out of mind.
The Clippers did not keep on using Leonard until they used him up. They were fine with his disappearance from NBA regular-season awards competition. They anticipated nights like Sunday, when they would ride Leonard’s relatively fresh legs to the type of playoff game that some of their fans had forgotten they could summon.
Leonard and Paul George have comfortably carried the weight in this first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks, one that seemed desperate four days ago and seems secure now. It wasn’t and isn’t either of those things, of course, and the Mavericks are still capable of 3-point fury when the series returns to Staples Center on Wednesday. But Leonard, so hard to find at times during the early-spring grind, is the axis of this series.
Leonard scored 29 points on 11-for-15 shooting in a contemptuous 106-81 Game 4 victory, one that tied the best-of-seven series 2-2. George, who sizzled like a Dallas sidewalk as he broke it open in the second quarter, had 20 points and shot 6 for 16.
It is difficult to calculate the impact of Luka Doncic’s neck strain injury. He didn’t get off to a good start, but the Clippers also used a different defensive plan. He seemed pained and uncomfortable as the game progressed, but he certainly wasn’t a hindrance.
“Injuries are part of it, but I played terrible,” Doncic said. “It felt better this morning, and with some massages it’ll get better before Wednesday.”
Some of Dallas’ problems are a reversion to the mean, as Tim Hardaway hit 11 of 17 3-point attempts in the first two games and has missed six of 10 since.
“We’ve done a real good job making Tim drive the ball,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’ve had a lot better awareness against he and Luka in the last two games.”
But a team that leans so hard on Doncic seems lost when he isn’t himself. The Clippers played lots of basketball this year without Leonard or without George or both.
When an NBA team finds its best player shelved or reduced by injury, it’s like any NFL team losing a quarterback. There are no “game managers” who can fully compensate for Doncic or Anthony Davis, and the Mavericks faced that reality in the first half Sunday, as they trailed by 19 at one point and got to intermission down 61-45.
Doncic was 2 for 8 in the first quarter, as the Clippers benched center Ivica Zubac. Nico Batum gave the Clippers far more defensive virtuosity when switches were required.
Regardless of what was going on beneath Doncic’s black therapeutic tape, the Clippers’ efficiency was nearly epic at times, with Leonard and George operating like a murderous WWE tag team. The two combined to go 14 for 22 from the field for 35 points in the half.
Lue went with a rock-solid, simple approach. Ditch the pick-and-rolls and let the two Master Class lecturers rip through any matchup Dallas offers. Remember, the Mavericks’ effort to win the same series against the Clippers last year evaporated when the Clippers decided Dallas couldn’t guard them.
“We didn’t run as many plays because Nico was in there and he doesn’t know all the plays from the five position,” Lue said. “But we made quick decisions, and Kawhi is playing with a pace that’s unbelievable.”
One of the benefits of such a ground game was the elimination of unnecessary ball-handling. The Clippers had only three turnovers in the half. But when it was necessary, the Clippers had an impressive, everybody-touches-it possession that ended with a corner swish from George. That gave L.A. a 52-35 edge.
Mavericks who aren’t named Doncic shot 12 for 35 in the first half and continued to take advantage of their proximity to their prodigy by watching and not playing. Hardaway is no longer in the shooting trance, going 1 for 6 in the first half, and Dorian Finney-Smith went 1 for 7.
The only inspiration for the American Airlines Arena crowd was the surprise appearance of 7-foot-4 Bojan Marjanovic, who got two buckets in the first quarter and temporarily blunted the Clippers’ surge. One of those was a rim-run that was rewarded with a bucket.
“He was effective, gave us a little jolt,” Lue said. “We definitely didn’t see that coming.”
The sight of Marjanovic is perhaps the only thing in the entire league that brings a unanimous smile. But he’s only a short-term solution for a team that is 2-2 in this series and playing catch-up.
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