The Dallas Mavericks lost more than a game on Friday. They potentially lost their best player, Luka Doncic, to a left ankle sprain suffered in the third quarter. They now trail the series 2-1 following their 130-122 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, and after Doncic had to grimace through a few fourth quarter minutes, the odds of him playing at 100 percent in Game 4 seem slim. The Clippers are now firmly in control of this series.
And they can thank Kawhi Leonard for that. He poured in 36 points on 13-of-24 shooting while providing his trademark stellar defense to help give his Clippers the series lead. Another off night for Paul George wasn't enough to keep Leonard from the victory, and with Doncic now compromised, the Clippers should feel fairly secure in their chances. They need only win two more games to advance to the second round.
Here are three key takeaways following Game 3:
1. Dallas has some explaining to do
No, I'm not a doctor. I'm a practitioner of common sense, and common sense dictates that when your 21-year-old MVP candidate can barely walk and you're trailing by 17 entering the fourth quarter of a first-round Game 3, that MVP candidate should probably not return to that Game 3. Yet the Mavericks put Doncic back on the floor, watched him struggle to make it up and down the court, and then removed him for good.
The question here is... why put Luka in the game at all? In the grand scheme of things, this series means little compared to his future. A first-round upset over the Clippers would be nice, but it's not as if it would make the Mavericks contenders through the transitive property. This is still a flawed team, but one with an incredibly bright future. Risking that future over a lost cause makes no sense. No, I'm not a doctor, but go ask Kevin Durant what kind of mistakes doctors can make. Sometimes, common sense needs to dictate decisions. It didn't on Friday, and the Mavericks should be relieved that they avoided an entirely avoidable catastrophe.
2. Get Maxi Kleber off of Kawhi Leonard
Dallas doesn't have a roster equipped to defend the Clippers. Dorian Finney-Smith is their one truly positive force on the perimeter, and Rick Carlisle has chosen to use him on Paul George. So far, that has worked. He is 7-of-33 from the field over the past two games. But Kawhi Leonard is undoubtedly the bigger threat, and the Mavericks have thrown a center in Maxi Kleber on him. Unsurprisingly, that approach has failed.
They have a couple of different alternatives to consider if they are truly committed to the Finney-Smith matchup on George. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is sitting on their bench, ready to lock down opposing stars at a moment's notice. The issue is the impact he has on his own offense. All of his great defensive traits are overshadowed by his own horrific shooting. Dallas scores well overall that they might be able to afford a downtick if it means containing Kawhi. Justin Jackson is a similarly flawed choice. Delon Wright probably isn't big enough for the job.
But what's become clear is that the Kleber approach isn't working. Dallas needs to try something else, because just letting Kawhi get whatever he wants isn't sustainable over a seven-game series.
3. Is Paul George okay?
There are three possible explanations for George's 7-of-33 slump over the past two games:
- He really does get worse in the playoffs, as Twitter would have you believe. The overall numbers refute that claim, but his clutch numbers in playoff settings are definitely concerning
- It is nothing but bad shooting variance that will regress to the mean in the near future
- His shoulder is are still hurt
There is nothing the Clippers can do about the first two options. If the first is true, then they simply overpaid for a lemon, and if the second is true, they'll be fine in the near future. But a recurrence of George's shoulder issues would be extremely concerning considering it was only a month ago that he said that the injuries were no longer an issue. He just had four months of rest, and shoulders aren't knees. It seems unlikely that rust would risk further injury there unless there is some sort of structural issue that was causing the injuries in the first place.
Only George and the Clippers' medical staff knows for sure what is going on, but if he is still injured, the Clippers have to start considering what they can do to get him right in time for the two series that will ultimately matter: the Western Conference finals and the Finals. With a 2-1 lead in this series and an underwhelming second-round opponent looming, the Clippers could afford to be cautious with George and perhaps lower his minutes a bit ahead of the series that will ultimately determine whether or not they become champions.