Clippers' chase for elusive NBA title continues as Leonard channels 2019 form

Kawhi Leonard scored 28 points as the Los Angeles Clippers eliminated the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 with a Game 7 win.

The NBA won’t get its dream Los Angeles Clippers-Los Angeles Lakers Western Conference Finals again this year, but at least they will get one LA team advancing.

After the Lakers were eliminated on Friday, Clippers were facing elimination in Game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, but Kawhi Leonard wouldn’t let that happen. Playing at a level not seen since his run to the NBA title with the Toronto Raptors in 2019, Leonard led the Clippers into the second round against the top-seeded Utah Jazz with another epic performance in a 126-111 win.

The win doesn’t answer all the questions around the Clippers – only a title will – but it puts them off for at least another couple of weeks.

Here are some key takeaways from a hard-fought first-round series victory.

Kawhi provides trademark performance, but can it last?

Leonard was coming off arguably the best playoff performance of his career – which is saying something given Game 7 was the 131st time he’s seen the floor in the post-season.

Facing elimination on the road in Game 6 Leonard put up 45 points on 18-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-9 from three. It was up there with the 45 points on 23 shots he scored in Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Raptors championship run or the 39 points on 20 shots he put up in a must-win Game 4 against Philadelphia in that same series.

But how much would Leonard have in the tank after a heavy 42 minutes in Friday night. Turns out plenty, judging by his flying one-handed dunk to end the first quarter or a two-hander he made driving through the Mavericks 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanovic and over 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis as part of a 10-0 run in the third quarter that was the pivotal stretch of the game.

Leonard was robo-Kawhi again, finishing with 28 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists on 10-of-15 shooting. For the series Leonard averaged 32.1 points a game on 61.2 per cent shooting. The only question is if his legs will hold up after averaging 41.7 minutes a game with another tough series approaching.

Despite elite production, Doncic still looking for playoff success

As great as Leonard was, there were moments when the Mavericks' Luka Doncic looked like the best player in the series. T

Through the first quarter, Doncic seemed poised to win the game and the series on his own if needed. Expertly navigating to find possessions where he wasn’t being guarded by Leonard, the massive Slovenian point guard did what he does best: inspire comparisons to great players of the past.

Was he part Magic Johnson and part Larry Bird? Was he a bigger, stronger, James Harden? A young LeBron with a three-point shot? It seems heretical to put a third-year player in the same breath as the game’s all-time greats, but Doncic leaves little choice.

Playing in the first Game 7 of his career the 22-year-old had the ball in his hand every moment of the game, it seemed — and to which is 41 per cent usage rate would indicate — and did only good things. Using his stop-and-go dribble to get defenders on his hip — and the Clippers used almost everyone on him at various times — Doncic would either spin into one-legged fadeaway; whip a hard pass from a difficult angle to an open three-point shooter or plow his way all the way to the rim. If not, it was a pull-up, step back three.

He finished with 29 points on 10-of-14 shooting and seven assists – in the first half. The only question was what would happen down the stretch. The only flaw in his playoff performance has been some iffy play in the fourth quarter. Coming into Game 7 Doncic was shooting 31 per cent in the fourth quarter of the previous six games. The pattern continued.

Either Doncic’s legs got rubbery under the load or perhaps it was the additional attention he got from Leonard; the young star couldn’t quite lift his team over the hump. He shot just 7-of-16 in the second half and 1-of-5 from three and three turnovers. It wasn’t like he disappeared, but the series showed that the Mav’s best chance was when Doncic was dominant. Any fall off and the Mavericks suffered. Doncic did little wrong though. He finished with 46 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds.

For the series he averaged 35 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists. Absurd stuff, but now must spend the off-season like many other legends before him in the early stages of their careers, trying to figure out how to crack the riddle that is post-season success.

Porzingis fails to provide support for Doncic

The fastest way for that to happen might be for Dallas to find him a reliable co-star. The plan was for Kristaps Porzingis to form a 1-2 punch with Doncic. The Mavericks gave up two first-round picks and signed the 7-foot-3 Latvian to five-year maximum contract extension worth $158 million guaranteed through 2023-24.

It’s a lot of money to have tied up in a player who was expected to be five-tool superstar and instead is an oft-injured, sub-standard shooting guard who happens to be 7-3. He contributes little defensively, isn’t a reliable enough shooter to properly spread the floor for Doncic and isn’t an aggressive enough roller or effective post threat to otherwise compliment the Mavs No.1 option.

When the Clippers were turning up the heat on Doncic in the second half Porzingis took just three shots, making one. He had 16 points in a do-or-die game and averaged 13.1 point on 47 per cent shooting for the series with 5.4 rebounds. Decent number for the seventh or eighth player in your rotation, but a no-show for the second highest-paid player on your team. Doncic covers up a lot of mistakes, like all great players do, but it’s hard to see Dallas winning big without more from Porzingis or the Mavericks finding a replacement.

Would a Clippers loss have led to sweeping changes?

The Clippers win forestalled what could have been a juicy – though entirely speculative storyline. What would Clippers owner Steve Ballmer have done had his hand-crafted championship contender came up short again – this time in the first round after blowing a 3-1 lead in the second round against Denver in the bubble last season?

It’s not a problem for the moment now that the Clippers have advanced but would anyone have been surprised if the Microsoft multi-billionaire cleaned out his front office after a second unsuccessful season. He fired head coach Doc Rivers last season, maybe it would be president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank who pay the price this time?

And would that have come to pass, it’s not hard to imagine his first call have not been to Toronto Raptors president – but free-agent-to-be – Masai Ujiri. While confidence remains high that Ujiri will be coming back to Toronto -- in part because there aren’t many other NBA opportunities that would be tempting. But working in Los Angeles for the richest owner in North American sports? How could Ujiri not at least listen?

Again, this is speculation based on speculation. The Clippers haven’t lost yet and so there’s been no need for Ballmer to make any changes to his front office. But unless the Clippers win an NBA title their season will have been deemed to have come up short, and until Ujiri signs in Toronto, there will be dots to connect.

Canada's Dwight Powell provides major boost with team-first approach

In a series headlined by superstars it’s very easy to overlook the contributions of a role player like Dwight Powell, but it’s a mistake. Only 18 months removed from an Achilles tendon tear that ruined the end of the 2020-21 season and left him rehabbing during a pandemic, Powell has returned to the status that has made him one of the most respected players in the Mavericks universe.

“He’s a constant,” Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle told reporters the night Powell was hurt in January of 2020. “He’s a constant team-first guy; he’s a constant worker; he’s a constant everything. Guys like him define the culture we want here.”

With the Mavericks trying to go big in the series to off-set the Clippers advantage when they played small, Powell’s role was shrunk somewhat, with more minutes going to Marjanovic. But Powell still found a way to contribute.

He was 2-of-2 from the floor with two rebounds in five first-half minutes on Sunday. Over the final three games of the series Powell was perfect from the field and +11. He’s under contract, healthy and has always been committed to playing for Canada. His smarts, hustle and athleticism will be a welcome addition to the national team for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament later this month.

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