The Clippers have ripped the monkey off their back. After two years of unearned bravado, one epic playoff collapse and a never-ending slew of 3–1 jokes, the Clippers advanced to the second round on Sunday, avoiding an organizational crisis point in the process. We shouldn’t exactly throw Los Angeles a parade for advancing past a rag-tag Mavericks team aside from Luka Dončić, but considering the consequences of a first-round exit, Sunday’s win was among the most important in franchise history.
The stakes for Los Angeles entering 2020-21 were clear as soon as Kawhi Leonard and Co. left the NBA bubble last season. An embarrassing Game 7 loss to the Nuggets sent the Clippers packing after the second round, blowing up a presumed Battle of LA in the process. Leonard can opt out of his contract after this summer and enter free agency. The Clippers don’t control their own first-round pick through 2026. If this year’s playoffs features another dispiriting exit, Los Angeles’s future could become bleak in a hurry.
We’ll hold off on the existential dread for now following Sunday’s 126-111 win in Game 7. Leonard took over the game in the fourth quarter as he finished the night with 28 points, nine assists, four steals and zero turnovers, and his increased focus on Luka Dončić in the second half helped slow the Slovenian sensation. The Jazz loom in round two, where a rabid crowd and jarringly-deep roster await. Perhaps the Clippers won’t advance to their first conference finals in franchise history ahead of Leonard’s free agency, though Sunday’s comeback win proved this team’s mettle and resolve. An offseason of retooling and reflecting paid dividends through Round 1 of the postseason.
Los Angeles didn’t necessarily consider an alteration to their superstar duo after last year’s bubble exit, though it still underwent a major transformation over the offseason. Doc Rivers was replaced by Tyronn Lue. Nic Batum and Luke Kennard were added as free agents. Montrezl Harrell was exiled across the Staples Center hallway, and Lou Williams was traded for Rajon Rondo. The slate of moves wasn’t perfect–especially regarding Kennard’s contract–but Los Angeles’s maneuvering through the trade deadline may be what keeps Leonard in town for much of the 2020s.
Game 7 served as the clearest endorsement of Lawrence Frank’s roster building around Leonard and Paul George. Kennard and second-year forward Terance Mann combined for 24 points on Sunday. Marcus Morris tallied 23 points, providing a major spark after signing a $64 million deal over the offseason. Batum finished with 11 points and five steals, and even though it was a quiet day for Rondo, he still provided a major spark when Los Angeles evened the series in Dallas after falling into a 2–0 hole. This is still a team that lives and dies by the three. Your nightly mileage from Morris, Kennard and Reggie Jackson can vary. But unlike last year, this is a team with a true identity and a real sense of cohesion. Less than a year removed from abject disaster, the Clippers arguably enter the second round as the Western Conference favorite.
Los Angeles wasn’t exactly in cruise control in Sunday’s win despite the final score. Dallas led as late as midway through the third quarter, and for much of the first half, it appeared as though we were heading toward a historic performance from Dončić. But the difference in the two rosters became increasingly evident as the second half wore on. Kristaps Porzingis is now effectively a supersized floor spacer. Josh Richardson was nonexistent on Sunday after arriving this offseason in a Seth Curry swap. Boban Marjanovic was arguably Dallas’s second-best player in Game 7, which is less a praise of the friendly giant than an indictment of his team’s roster construction. Dončić is the brightest young star in the NBA. He needs to have a better team around him to compete for the Finals.
We’re now three years through Dončić’s career, one that frankly has few historic parallels as he closes the book on his age-22 season. Dončić was the runaway Rookie of the Year in 2018-19. He nearly averaged a triple-double last season. He limped out of the gate this year, though he still posted his most efficient shooting season to date alongside 27.7 points per game. LeBron James and perhaps Kevin Durant are the only fair comparison points this century, and like James, Dončić has already logged a handful of dominant playoff performances through year three. There’s no player I’d rather build a team around entering 2021-22. Let’s hope Dončić can find the requisite help in Dallas rather than need a new organization to deliver a title.
Dončić will have to wait at least another year to experience his first taste of playoff basketball past the first round. As for his superstar foil in this series, history could await. Leonard shut down LeBron James and the Heat en route to the Finals MVP in 2014, and he led a woebegone Raptors franchise to the championship a half-decade later. Can Leonard now clinch a third Finals MVP with the NBA’s most cursed organization? Such a possibility is firmly in play after escaping Dončić and the Mavericks. Leonard is a historically-great player at the peak of his powers. Now with a reformed supporting cast, perhaps he’ll seal the deal with a third team in 2021.
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