Clippers’ stars shine brighter in Game 3 win over Mavericks

Clippers stars shine brighter in Game 3 win over Mavericks
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The arena was roaring, the Clippers’ margin for error crumbling, an offseason of uncertainty rapidly approaching.

Trailing 2-0 in this first-round playoff series to the Mavericks, a position from which few higher seeds have ever recovered, the Clippers arrived in north Texas well aware of the danger that awaited in Game 3 — and the stakes riding on avoiding it.

Assessing the existential crisis the championship-chasing franchise could plunge into should this postseason end even earlier than last, one league source described the matchup before tipoff as simply “the must-win of all must-wins.”

And they responded with a start Friday more stunning than even their worst-case scenarios.

Mavericks star Luka Doncic used screens to seek out Clippers center Ivica Zubac and toy with him before making three straight baskets. His teammates continued the nearly unfathomable three-point shooting. Within eight minutes, Dallas led by 19 and 17,705 fans inside American Airlines Center — their largest crowd in 14 months, watching the first home playoff game in five years — reached decibel levels only surpassed when the arena’s jumbotron showed franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue had predicted, one day earlier, that this game would reveal his mercurial roster’s mettle, and as their moments of truth arrived inside a raucous, crucible atmosphere, the Clippers answered throughout a 118-108 victory that sent the crowd home quiet and ensures the series will return to Los Angeles for a Game 5.

Clippers-Mavericks first-round playoff schedule.

(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

Lue wanted to see fight. Once the Clippers hit their low point in the first quarter, they ran off a 20-4 run. In the third quarter, reserve Terance Mann charged Mavericks center Willie Cauley-Stein after being shoved in the neck on a rebound, a play that earned Cauley-Stein a technical.

He wanted to see leadership. Kawhi Leonard scored 36 points and Paul George added 29 behind metronomic consistency on offense, drilling shot after shot to counter the step-back jumpers by Doncic that gave him 44 points and made the crowd, at times, delirious. Rajon Rondo ran late-game huddles on the court, pulling teammates closer together to fill in the communication gaps that plagued them before.

In late-game moments where the Clippers had folded in the first two games, the Clippers used a small-ball lineup — and its pick-and-rolls, in particular, involving Rondo — to pick apart Dallas and outscore them 21-14 over the final 7:18.

Whether the Clippers can take back control of this series hinges on replicating performances like this. But they arrived in Dallas pledging to focus on solely Friday, and they emerged with a victory that removes some of the weight off the franchise’s shoulders — at least, for 48 hours.

Where Dallas’ fellow starters crushed the Clippers in Los Angeles, Tim Hardaway Jr. was held to 12 points, Jalen Brunson 14 and Kristaps Porzingis just nine on three-of-10 shooting.

Dallas made 20 three-pointers and grabbed 20 offensive rebounds yet had no second option when Doncic wasn’t making shots.

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