The crowd had gone lifeless, and not only because hundreds of cardboard-cutout Clippers fans filled Staples Center on Saturday.
When Dallas’ Luka Doncic grabbed the rebound after Paul George’s 10th miss of the afternoon, and with 20 seconds remaining in Game 1 of this first-round series, many of the capacity crowd of 7,000 began walking toward the exits. One of the real fans, wearing a green throwback Mavericks jersey, lifted his facemask to celebrate.
“Game 1!” the man yelled. “Stolen!”
The Clippers‘ path on what they believe could be the franchise’s first championship started with a stumble, a 113-103 loss that, for all the progress made since last season’s early postseason exit, will serve only to invite comparisons to ominous postseasons past.
Kawhi Leonard scored 26 points to lead the Clippers and George added 23 but the dangerous shooting that sustained them all season was never found as the Clippers made only 11 of 40 three-pointers.
The Clippers threw a variety of defenders and strategies at Doncic, first guarding him straight up, before switches and blitzes to force the ball from his hands. He finished with 31 points anyway, even after failing to make a field goal in the fourth quarter and scoring just one point.
In the playoffs as a head coach for the first time since 2018, Tyronn Lue called the postseason his “happy place” before tipoff, and it was largely his comfort here, having won three combined championships as a player and coach, that made the Clippers turn to him as their coach.
Yet happy was not the word to describe him early in the first quarter as the Clippers fell behind by 11 points within six minutes, and the displeasure was easy to see given Lue — and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle — opted against wearing a mask for the first time in a game this season after the NBA gave vaccinated coaches such an option.
The NBA’s best three-point-shooting team had missed its first five threes and nine of its first 11 shots. While making six of their first nine shots, the Mavericks were putting the Clippers in foul trouble, with Doncic taking advantage of his size difference to back down Clippers guard Patrick Beverley in the post and draw two quick fouls.
Their lead grew to 12 after another three-pointer by Tim Hardaway Jr. For the first time, the Clippers allowed Doncic to switch onto center Ivica Zubac, and the 7-footer held his ground. So too did his team, which trailed by just three after one quarter and five at halftime despite allowing Doncic 21 points and making six fewer three-pointers than the Mavericks.
With George working for free throws while making one of his first seven shots, Leonard was the stabilizing force.
Looking every bit like he had rested for nine days, the All-Star forward attacked the smallest creases of the Mavericks’ defense with a velocity rarely seen during the season. Dallas forward Maxi Kleber learned the hard way. The last line of Dallas’ defense with Leonard sprinting upcourt after a steal, Kleber was dunked on violently by Leonard in a play that made a building two-thirds empty sound like it was sold out.
The play couldn’t have been more necessary: Only minutes earlier, the building had fallen quiet after Doncic made a pair of step-back jumpers over Zubac, leading to an eight-point Mavericks lead. Zubac was replaced and never played again.
George found his shooting touch in the fourth quarter. His first three-pointer in five tries pushed the Clippers ahead 89-87. His second created a 94-92 lead. It was a lead that never held.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.