Monday, November 28

Clippers survive Luka Doncic’s late barrage to win in Dallas


The NBA’s most-feared scorers all share a precise internal GPS. The best spend entire careers seeing defenses try everything to keep them from getting where they want to go but find detours anyway.

It was why Saturday inside American Airlines Center was so remarkable from the very first possession of a 99-97 Clippers victory.

Two days after 22-year-old Dallas superstar Luka Doncic scored a career-high 51 points by using screens to persistently isolate a one-on-one matchup against Clippers 7-foot center Ivica Zubac, the Clippers did not attempt to throw a road block in Doncic’s way.

Instead they rolled out a red carpet.

From the very start of the first possession when Doncic fired his favorite shot, a step-back three-pointer, to the final plays of the fourth quarter, Zubac served as Doncic’s primary defender for the majority of the night. He was there when Doncic tried to fool Zubac with a ball-fake, only to be stone-walled, then called for a travel when he tried the fake a second time. He was there when Doncic needed 14 shots to score 16 points at halftime.

He was there when Dallas turnovers on consecutive third-quarter possessions led to a murmur of concern throughout the arena.

“My first three quarters were awful,” Doncic said. “Not energy.”

The Mavericks' Luka Doncic passes as he's defended by the Clippers' Ivica Zubac (40), Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson (1).

The Mavericks’ Luka Doncic passes as he’s defended by the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac (40), Terance Mann, center, and Reggie Jackson (1). Doncic had 45 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists.

(LM Otero/Associated Press)

Two nights after coach Tyronn Lue described himself as “stubborn” for allowing Zubac to be switched onto Doncic so easily, he instead doubled down, inviting the kind of matchup some coaches would try to hide — a gamble that rested on goading Doncic’s pride in a move that was both counter-intuitive but also wildly transparent: Here’s the matchup you want. Now try to beat us as a scorer alone.

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Though the Clippers (28-30) changed coverages out of timeouts to stymie Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, and occasionally blitzed two guards at Doncic, it was still Zubac guarding Doncic down the stretch. The commitment nearly backfired while Doncic scored 23 fourth-quarter points, including 19 consecutive, to finish with 45 and pull Dallas from down 10 to within two points with three seconds to play.

Doncic caught his final pass nearly at midcourt before a miscue by Clippers guard Reggie Jackson (24 points) allowed the half-second opening Doncic needed to shoot the potential go-ahead three-pointer a step inside the midcourt logo as both Jackson and Marcus Morris Mr. charged.

The shot missed, a three-game losing streak had ended and the coach who has said he will try any game-plan wrinkle to win had just pulled off one of his most audacious.

“I don’t care if he had 90,” Lue said. “Hat’s off to him for playing great but I thought the team did a helluva job.”

Doncic set a Mavericks record for most points in a two-game stretch but needed 33 shots Saturday, and despite 15 rebounds and eight assists, “no one else really had a rhythm going,” said Lue, who wanted Doncic to either be a prolific scorer or passer but could not afford both. The other Mavericks (33-24) made just 20 of their 52 shots combined.

Zubac had 11 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and would have “some sore-ass ankles tomorrow” after guarding countless crossovers, said Morris, who scored 20 points. “But to be 7-1, to be able to get out there and guard and actually take the challenge, I don’t know if there’s another 7-footer in the league doing that.”

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The win was underpinned by two jobs that it was not always apparent the Clippers would pull off. The first was Zubac’s most unusual defensive assignment, which required not only foot speed but strong discipline.

“It’s hard being targeted every possession, do you know?” Zubac said. “You know it’s coming every possession. It’s tough. But you got to take pride in it. You got to make a stop, especially after you know, he had 50 in the first game, 51, whatever. So I feel like I was more ready for it this game.”

The other was Terance Mann continuing to fill the void at backup point guard, a ballhandling responsibility that might not be his forte but that he has played with the same force with which he has refused to back down against Doncic too. Their rough-edged rivalry added a new chapter with offsetting techniques. They share an agent, and enough disdain between the lines that their rivalry has now carried on for three seasons.

By continually pushing the break to start a second quarter, with confident drives into the paint, Mann helped a reserve-heavy lineup make five of their first six shots in the quarter, with three baskets in the paint. I have scored a season-high 21 points.

The Clippers' Terance Mann shoots against Dallas defenders Dwight Powell (7) and Luka Doncic.

The Clippers’ Terance Mann shoots against Dallas defenders Dwight Powell (7) and Luka Doncic. Mann had 21 points and nine rebounds.

(LM Otero/Associated Press)

On this short-handed night, with Norman Powell (turf toe) in street clothes, amid a short-handed season, with Kawhi Leonard watching from the sideline after attending his second consecutive road game and Paul George two weeks from an MRI exam on his injured elbow, the Clippers’ (28-30) postseason berth hinges on doing more with less and spreading around responsibility.

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And that mandate was encapsulated in Zubac’s willingness to “take the challenge,” as Morris said, against one of the NBA’s most creative scorers, a seven-footer taking on No. 77.

“I know Luka takes it personal that we put Zu on him,” Lue said. “He plays well. But our game plan worked.”




www.latimes.com

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