The Clippers arrived for their morning shootaround Friday expecting to see an all-gray court designed especially for the NBA’s In-Season Tournament awaiting. Instead, it was the Dallas Mavericks’ regular hardwood design, the result of what the league called a “manufacturing issue.”
When the Clippers left American Airlines Center late Friday, it was clear they, too, remain very much a work in progress — exciting in theory but faulty, so far, in application.
The final margin of the Clippers’ fourth consecutive loss, a 144-126 decision made closer by the spirited play of an all-reserve lineup that played the entire fourth quarter, doesn’t explain the gap between these teams on this night, nor the gap between who the Clippers are at the moment, nearly two weeks since trading for James Harden, and the championship contender they believe they can be.
Some losses are one-sided. Others escalate to a rout. As Dallas was building a 26-point lead through three quarters, and had seen its lead grow to as much as 32, this was closer to a bludgeoning, and it remains unclear whether this will be remembered as the opportunity when fortunes changed, or as a foreboding omen.
Dallas’ Luka Doncic scored 44 points, more than Paul George (eight), Russell Westbrook (14) and Harden (14) combined. Harden did not score after the opening quarter. Kawhi Leonard scored a team-high 26. The starters were taken out with one minute remaining in the third quarter. Crisp and efficient for much of the first quarter, the Clippers (3-5) saw the bottom fall out in a second quarter in which Dallas shot 64% and scored 47 points.
Paul George went scoreless in the first half for the first time in 197 regular-season games with the Clippers, and didn’t play at all the final 7:49 before halftime. Yet the Clippers’ 26-point halftime deficit wasn’t the product of one factor alone.
Dallas grabbed twice as many rebounds in the second quarter. The output of each team’s offense was so imbalanced that the Mavericks made nearly as many field goals (16) as the Clippers attempted shots (19) in the quarter.
Seeking any semblance of a spark, coach Tyronn Lue started the second half with a small lineup that played 6-foot-5 Terance Mann in place of starting center Ivica Zubac. Dallas answered with 11 unanswered points to push its lead to a game-high 32 only three minutes into the half. Doncic was the main culprit, needing only 23 minutes to reach 42 points.
Trailing 99-68 not even midway through the third quarter, Clippers players and coaches stood during a timeout with expressions that were largely blank, looking far off into the corners of a pulsating arena.