The Clippers could have easily folded. With less than five minutes to go in the first quarter of Friday night’s Game 3 against the Mavericks, Los Angeles was staring at a 19-point deficit. Luka Doncic was cooking. The American Airlines Center crowd was rocking. The Clippers were, well, “Clipping” as only they could, to the delight of critics everywhere.
But Clippers coach Tyronn Lue sent a simple message to his team when the scoreboard read 30-11: “Stay the course.” It’s easier to do that when you’ve got two of the best players in the NBA steering the ship.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George led the way in the Clippers’ 118-108 comeback win, which prevented the Mavericks from grabbing an insurmountable 3-0 series lead. The dynamic duo was spectacular in Game 3, combining for 65 points on 68.6 percent shooting, the highest combined field goal percentage for Leonard and George in any game as teammates.
“PG and Kawhi were fantastic,” Lue said during his postgame media availability. “I thought PG really carried us in that first half, and then Kawhi in the second half really took over the game. That’s what we need from those two guys. . . . It was a total team effort, but like I said, Kawhi and PG really put us on their shoulders.”
Leonard and George didn’t perform poorly in Games 1 and 2, but they were largely overshadowed by the brilliance of Doncic. The Dallas star totaled 44 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in Game 3, but this time it was Leonard and George who dictated the action.
The Clippers forwards scored at every level — finding their way to the basket, pulling up from the midrange and sinking their attempts from beyond the arc. Yet it never felt like either player monopolized the offense. Everything came within the natural flow of the game.
They didn’t do it alone, of course. Los Angeles got timely contributions from Marcus Morris (15 points), Reggie Jackson (16 points) and Rajon Rondo (six points, eight assists, team-high plus-22). While Lue admitted there were some game-plan mistakes that led to easy looks for the Mavs, the defense was much improved and tightened up down the stretch.
But as much as role players can make an impact on the postseason stage, Game 3 was about the biggest names rising to the occasion.
“We got down 0-2, and [Leonard and George] weren’t discouraged,” Lue said. “Their conversation to the players, the things we have to do to get better and be better, they led that. And you came out and see them play tonight. It was just great to see.”
Now the challenge for Leonard, George and the Clippers is to continue down that course. They are still down 2-1, and with Doncic standing in their way, there is plenty of work left to do.
“We haven’t showed anything,” George said. “We’re not the favorites. We’re not the defending champs. We haven’t showed anything. We’ve got to continue to keep doing it. We’ve got to win this series. But it’s one game at a time. We’ve got to win Game 4 and send it back to LA, take home-court advantage. But off one win we haven’t showed anything.”
Sure, it’s just one win, but the Clippers did show something: When Leonard and George play at the peak of their powers, they won’t be an easy out for the Mavericks — or anyone else.