The Clippers, still, have not accomplished anything.
In a first-round series where they were heavily favored, LA was pushed to the brink of elimination multiple times. They needed a 7th game to overcome a significantly less talented Dallas Mavericks group after intentionally losing their final two games of the season to set up a preferential playoff bracket for themselves. Considered a championship contender and still carrying the baggage from their embarrassing elimination in the second round last year, all that the Clippers did today is get back to the same spot. This time, instead of being a 2-seed favored against a 3, they’ll be a 4-seed going on the road to play the Utah Jazz, who were the NBA’s best regular-season team. They’ll be doing so at a major rest disadvantage, and they need a positive result from that series if they want today’s win to mean anything. A second round loss wouldn’t be quite as bad as a first round loss would have been, but nonetheless, it would mark a second straight year of undeniable failure.
So why does this feel so different?
For all of the on-court elements that were decisive in this series, and for all the others that will be relevant in analyzing the next, the single biggest difference between the 2020 Clippers and 2021 Clippers is their resiliency. There’s no doubt that last year’s team was very good, but they crumpled under pressure and disappeared in big moments, thrice failing to hold on to double-digit leads and eliminate the Denver Nuggets. Initial success didn’t come as easy for this iteration of the Clippers, who struggled with cold shooting early in the series and were figuring out their defensive cohesion on the fly after important players missed huge swaths of time in the second half of the regular season. But their resiliency–that extra fight with their backs against the wall, their ability to be dangerous when cornered–is what won them this series. Down 0-2 heading into Dallas. Down 30-11 in the first quarter of game 3. Losing game 5 at home, only to win twice in a row. Giving up a big third quarter run in game 7 to go down 5, only to rally and build a 19-point lead in the fourth that would allow them to weather Dallas’ last frantic attempts at saving their season.
It doesn’t particularly matter that last year’s Clipper beat the Mavericks in just 6 games–the Dallas LAC saw for the last two weeks was a much more dangerous, aggressive, confident bunch, led by the NBA’s most dominant young star in Luka Doncic. Last year’s Mavs didn’t come in and throw haymakers the way that this year’s team did, and last year’s Clippers would have stayed on the mat after taking those punches. This year’s Clippers would not stay down.
A big part of the credit for that belongs to head coach Ty Lue, in his first year with the team after Doc Rivers (whose Sixers dropped a disappointing game 1 to the Atlanta Hawks today) was relieved of his duties. Rick Carlisle is one of the NBA’s best coaches, and Luka Doncic is one of the NBA’s best players. After (in my view) overreacting to some tough made threes by Luka early in the series, Lue inadvertently created the conditions for the Mavericks’ success from deep to snowball, instituting new and complex coverages that his players weren’t prepared to execute. The resulting breakdowns contributed (in part, variance is always a factor) to several of Dallas’ best three-point shooting games of the year.
But Lue didn’t double down on that early mistake. He flipped the script from the team’s over-aggressive scheme against Doncic in game 2, pledging that the objective moving forward was to simplify their coverages and force Luka to beat them as a scorer. He made risky, yet calculated, changes to the lineup that were heavily criticized… and they yielded great results. Patrick Beverley, the presumptive top guard on the Clippers’ roster, was removed from the starting lineup and rotation favor of Reggie Jackson, a minimum-salary veteran who had a standout season playing in place of Beverley and developing cohesion with the first unit. The decision to bench Ivica Zubac heading into game 4 was particularly agonizing, as it left the Clippers thin on second-unit forwards and small on the defensive glass–but Nicolas Batum was arguably the team’s third-best player in this series, and having him on the court for longer stabilized the defense. Rajon Rondo, acquired to be “Playoff Rondo” with his championship pedigree and wealth of NBA Playoff experience, was not only passed over by Jackson for the starting job but also saw his minutes siphoned to Terance Mann (and Luke Kennard!) over the course of the series, ultimately not playing in the second half of game 7. And the surprise inclusion of Kennard himself was the cherry on top of Lue’s tactical sundae–the most unlikely counter imaginable to Dallas’ increased usage of Boban Marjanovic. With Boban deployed to deter the Clippers from continuing to destroy the Mavs’ defense by attacking the rim, LA consistently found open corner threes against Dallas’ oversized zone, and Kennard was the perfect marksman to make an impact in limited minutes.
There’s room for everyone to get a little appreciation following a game 7 win, of course, so we can extend past crediting Lue for putting guys in a position to succeed and also credit guys for succeeding. Reggie fuckin Jackson played 210 minutes in a playoff series and was a positive, executing hedge-and-recovers against Doncic to avoid switches and bringing a much-needed additional scoring punch to the lineup (20 points per game over the final 3 games of the series). Nicolas Batum didn’t often jump off the box score, but he was consistently strong in his role and composed under pressure, including a big game 7 performance. Marcus Morris was inconsistent throughout the series but delivered two of the best performances of his life in game 6 and 7–one an absolute masterclass in defensive versatility, and the other a red-hot shooting display with 23 points on 7-9 shooting. Terance Mann burst onto the scene in game 3 and proved that all of the good stuff he brings in the regular season still impacts games in a playoff setting. And Luke Kennard–Luke Kennard–stepped into the rotation in games 6 and 7 and delivered a crucial 11 points and +14 in his 15 game 7 minutes.
But nothing that the role players provided in this series, or this game, can overshadow the leadership the Clippers got from their two stars. Paul George won’t get the headlines coming out of this series, but he did a lot of the dirty work in key moments over the course of games, from timely scoring while Kawhi Leonard was on the bench to determined drives to the rim to stop Dallas runs to massive rebounding, defensive, and distribution contributions to keep the trains running on time for Kawhi. Yet there’s no question that Kawhi Leonard deserves the major recognition, not just for leading the Clippers through this series but for doing so in truly historic fashion. For the series, Kawhi averaged 32.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.3 steals while shooting a lethal 61.2% from the field and 42.5% from deep. He stepped up in the biggest moments and in spaces where the team’s overall improved mentality wouldn’t have sufficed to save their season, he bailed them out and carried them–never more than with his 45-point game 6 performance where he simply destroyed Dallas down the stretch to extend the series to today’s contest.
And yet the rightful feeling of triumph around today’s series victory still also feels appropriately muted, at least from where I sit. If the Clippers are going to reach their preferred destination, this series was the first (and likely easiest) step in their journey. The next leg begins Tuesday night in Salt Lake City.
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