DALLAS — Reggie Jackson wasn’t kidding when he talked earlier this series about how much the Clippers enjoyed the “villain’s mentality, showing up to try to be a spoiler” in their first two victories in Dallas, wins that served to even the first-round Western Conference playoff series 2-2.
There might be no one whom that black hat might fits so snugly as Kawhi Leonard.
The Clipper star’s swashbuckling 45-point detonation Friday in Game 6 at American Airlines Center evened the series again – now at 3-3 – and robbed the Mavericks of their first playoff series close-out victory since 2011. Leonard left the nearly 19,000 fans who attended Friday almost as blue as the T-shirts they all wore for the game in a collegial, color-coordinated show of support.
Almost. There’s still some hope, at least one of them reasoned, considering the upside-down nature of a series in which the home team remains winless: There is some ignominious history possible in Game 7, at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Staples Center, and if any team could lose all four home games in a playoff series, wouldn’t it be the Clippers?
Not if Leonard has something to say about it — with his game if not his actual words, Tyronn Lue might point out. The coach chuckled in response to a question about whether Leonard had offered any sort of verbal hint of the performance he had brewing Friday night: “Kawhi saying something?”
He didn’t need to; Leonard’s on-court dominance reverberated plenty in Friday’s 104-97 victory. His spectacular offensive assault in what Paul George called the Clippers’ “Game 7 before the Game 7,” was, George noted, “one of one.”
Kawhi came up CLUTCH to force Game 7 pic.twitter.com/gl8NDo2wUC
— NBA TV (@NBATV) June 5, 2021
The Moreno Valley native was a dialed-in 18 of 25 from the floor and 5 for 9 from 3-point range, the sort of singular effort that might not have just saved face and, at least for the moment, his team’s season.
It might also have set a new course for a team that remains capable of embarking on a much longer title pursuit – that is, if it can do some trend-bucking and win Sunday’s matinee at home. The Clippers were 3-4 in the regular season in games with early afternoon start times, and they also lost the series opener, which tipped off at 12:30 p.m.
And if the Clippers can get into the second round, if they can burrow deeper still into the postseason by making it past the top-seeded Utah Jazz, they won’t just make team history and exercise their own five-decade-old demons. They’d play forward with the spotlight in L.A. all to themselves following the Lakers’ first-round exit Thursday.
Could the Clippers be ready for their closeup?
There’s so much to lose. There’s so much to gain.
And, yes, Lue still is acting as though he hasn’t noticed.
“We’ve all been around T-Lue, you know he’s more than smooth,” said Jackson, who contributed 25 points to the cause Friday. “Cool as a satin pillow; smooth as peanut butter.
“That guy is amazing just to be around him, his presence, he doesn’t allow us to get riled up. He allows us to go out and have confidence in everything we do. That’s one thing he preaches to us is have confidence in the work, have confidence in each other, play the right way and then we can trust that we play with a better team and go out there and just leave it all out there on the court. Pretty sure the team came in with the mentality that it’s not too much pressure – all you can do is win or lose.
“All we want to do is play free. I know the consequences aren’t stellar if we lost, but the guys took that approach: We want to have as much fun as possible and go out and play to the utmost and give the most respect to the game as you can and go out there and have fun and play for one another.”
That mindset has worked for Lue in his previous Game 7s – as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was 3-0 in those high-stakes winner-take-all contests.
Like Lue, Leonard and George have experience in Game 7s; Leonard is 2-3 in those proverbial do-or-die tests of will, George is 1-3.
Conversely, the key guys on the Mavericks – Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. – will be getting their first taste of a Game 7. Their coach, Rick Carlisle, is 2-1 and Dallas is 4-2 all time.
The Clippers? They’re 3-5 in the franchise’s eight previous Game 7s, which includes their 14 seasons as the Buffalo Braves and San Diego Clippers.
Two of those Game 7 losses put the Clippers on the wrong side of 3-1 series comebacks, including last season against Denver, an event that Jackson seemed Friday to have judiciously blocked from his memory: “The best words in sports is Game 7, so looking forward to it – haven’t played one in a while and just enjoying it.”