NBA

NBA playoffs 2021: Clippers and Mavs meet again as Doncic looks to take next step

By Sports Desk May 21, 2021

For the second season in a row, the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks meet in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

It is the same, only different.

A year ago, when the league moved en masse to Florida to finish a season badly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Mavs went up against a team expected to not only make it beyond the first round, but several more after that.

The Clippers were tested, eventually prevailing by a 4-2 scoreline. However, they fell at the next hurdle, letting slip a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semi-finals against the Denver Nuggets. That defeat, and particularly the nature of it, has loomed over them since. Their attempts to bury the memory of such a dramatic collapse begin on Saturday against familiar foes.

Dallas ended the regular season as the fifth seeds in the West, though their 42-30 record was not a huge improvement on a year ago, when a 43-32 finish was good enough to only get seventh spot.

However, since the All-Star break, they have gone 24-14. In Luka Doncic, they have a superstar who has shown little interest in sticking to the schedule, developing at such a rate that, despite averaging 27.7 points per game in his third season, it is perhaps a little surprising he did not force himself more into the MVP conversation.

Doncic had to carry much of the burden against the Clippers a year ago. Kristaps Porzingis' impact diminished due to a knee injury that eventually forced him to miss the final three games. He had also managed to get thrown out in the opener too, having taken umbrage at the attention his young team-mate was receiving to get a second technical foul.

Still, even with a healthy Porzingis available this time around, Dallas will ride or die on the performances of Doncic, whose first playoff experience saw him finish up averaging 31.0 points and 8.7 assists.

Looking back, it seems astonishing that two teams passed up the opportunity to select the dynamic, do-it-all guard in 2018, while a third – the Atlanta Hawks – opted to trade him away to get Trae Young.

At 22, the Slovenian has scored 5,115 points through 199 regular-season games. To put that number into context, LeBron James had 5,097 to his name when he reached the milestone of 200 outings.

Indeed, since 1985-86, the only player to manage 4,000 points, 100 or more assists and hit at least 500 three-pointers though their first 200 games is Damian Lillard – and Doncic is well ahead in all three categories.

His buzzer-beating shot at the end of overtime in the fourth game against the Clippers tied the series at 2-2 in 2020, but that was as good as it got for Dallas. This time around, they hope to make sure the outcome is different.

For that to happen, though, they will have to find a way of keeping quiet a superstar coming off a career year – and whose name is not Kawhi Leonard.

Paul George admitted to finding life difficult in the bubble. "I was just in a dark place," he said after helping the Clippers edge ahead 3-2 in the Dallas series. "I'd checked out. These past couple of games it was just difficult but shout out to the people who stood behind me and were in my corner."

While averaging 18.5 points in the end, he was successful with only 20 of his 69 attempts through the opening four games against the Mavs, including going 2-of-15 from deep in the third and fourth meeting.

This season, however, he has looked far more at home, in more ways than one.

The seven-time All-Star finished the regular season averaging 23.3 points, including shooting an impressive 41.1 per cent from beyond the arc (up on his overall mark of 38.4 per cent). Under Ty Lue, the team as a whole averaged 41.1 per cent from beyond the arc, ranking them first in the entire league.

Leonard remains the number one for the Clippers – he was the only player to average at least 24.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game in the regular season – but George will be pivotal to his team's hopes of making a deep run, in the process exorcising their playoff ghosts.

Forget familiarity breeding contempt: these teams getting acquainted again in a seven-game series offers up an absorbing clash where both have a point to prove.

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