It Is Happening Again To The Clippers

On the Dallas Mavericks’ second offensive possession of Wednesday night’s Game 5, P.J. Washington brought the ball up and tossed an innocent pass to Kyrie Irving on the left wing. Luka Doncic was nearby, in position to set a screen and get Irving loose into the middle of the floor, and James Harden was on Washington. Nobody set any screens and as Washington ambled innocently into the lane, Harden stood as if rooted to the ground, allowing Washington to get a free dunk for no reason. Watching that play, and really everything else the Clippers did all night on both ends of the floor, I wondered, Do these guys know it’s the playoffs?

It will not be the playoffs for them for very long if they play like they played in Game 5 again. The Mavs kicked the everliving shit out of the Clippers, 123-93, delivering L.A. their worst-ever playoff loss in what could be their final game in their current arena before moving to the Toilet Temple. Doncic came into the game admitting that his hellish combination of a sprained right knee and illness would have kept him out of a regular season game, yet he dropped a casual 35-10-7. The Mavs played with more force on both ends of the court, all night. Irving was getting after it on defense, Derrick Jones Jr. played maybe his best game as a Maverick, and Maxi Kleber nailed his threes. Doncic and Irving have played really well off of each other from the moment they teamed up, though last night was one of the cleanest performances I’ve seen out of the duo.

The Mavs have built a cool team of specialists around their two star ballhandlers, one short on generalists but stocked with rim protecting lob-catchers (Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively), hyperactive wings (Jones Jr. and Josh Green), and big floor-spacing fours (Washington and Kleber). There are weaknesses galore to pick on here, though Irving and Doncic’s aren’t really guardable one-on-one, and both are such great passers that any open space is punishable by death. When they’re locked in on defense, harassing opposing ballhandlers and dictating the tempo, you can see a quite lofty ceiling for the Mavs.

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Meanwhile, the Clippers more or less did not show up to play. Game 4 was a shocker, as Dallas duffed a great chance to go up 3-1 at home as Harden masterfully dismantled them. He was so good, touching the paint with a regularity I haven’t seen in years, and getting the engine moving. The problem with the Clippers offense is: he has to do that or they can’t generate good shots. On Wednesday, he was totally invisible, and as a result, they did not generate good shots. Harden went 2-for-12 en route to a seven-point, four-turnover nightmare, one game after he had a 33-point masterclass. This back-and-forth inconsistency is, 15 years into his career, to be expected of Harden, and while his highest level is still super high, it’d be foolish to expect him to sustain it for an entire series, especially against a team dedicated to running and trying to chop his legs off.

This might not be a problem if the Clippers were whole, but Kawhi Leonard has played two games in this series and looked injured and old in the second of those two, and they are running up against the grim, recursive reality that they do not have the horses to get this one done. They are arid, bereft of any sauce or juice, reliant on two aging former superstars who need to shoot like 70 percent on pull-up threes to win. Where the Mavericks’ two stars make their role players better, Harden and George appear actively waylaid by them. It’s cool that Russell Westbrook’s decline somehow hasn’t changed his violent athleticism, but every single shot he takes is a win for the Mavs. One does not get a good feeling watching the Clips use 20 or more seconds on what feels like every single possession, dragging their guys around their half like heavy pieces of rusted artillery, while Dallas sprints out and gets cool lobs the second they turn L.A. over.

This has been an odd series in general, with one really good game and a bunch of paranoid blowouts. But Game 5 feels like the clearest indication that the Mavs are just the better team. It must be an existentially frustrating experience for Clippers fans to have to watch for the fourth straight year as their legitimate championship hopes get undone by a horrifically timed Leonard injury. In a vacuum, this is a team that can and should be competing for championships, but the NBA is not a vacuum, it’s a league where you have to use your knees to run and jump, and it feels cruel and exhausting to see the Clippers fart out of the playoffs in the exact same way, again. Leonard is signed up for a few more years, and though George has yet to extend his deal, I don’t see him leaving. I guess they will try to push this rock up the hill again next year, when they are a year older and as Victor Wembanyama’s forthcoming reign looms even larger.


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