Kawhi Leonard is no stranger to 2-0 deficits. He played for the last team to overcome one in a playoff series. His 2019 Toronto Raptors blew a fourth-quarter lead against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals and then got demolished in Game 2. The Bucks pushed them to the absolute brink in Game 3, a double-overtime thriller, but the Raptors staved off the de-facto series clincher. They didn’t lose again in that series, wiping the Bucks out in six, and went on to win the championship.
That’s a precedent that the Clippers are going to have to lean on because otherwise, 2-0 comebacks are extremely rare in the NBA. There have been 426 playoff series in which one team led another 2-0. The team facing that deficit has won only 27 of those series, or roughly 6.3 percent. By comparison, an NBA team is roughly six-and-a-half times likelier to get swept in that position, as there have been 176 sweeps in NBA history.
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But the Clippers are in an even more difficult position now. Remember, they are the higher seed in this series. They just lost two games at home. They are now traveling to Dallas for two more and must beat the Mavericks on the road, in front of what will be a drastically different atmosphere than what we just saw in Los Angeles, at least twice to win this series. While 2-0 comebacks, in general, are fairly rare, the bulk of them come from a team defending its home court in the second two games of the series before stealing Game 5 or 7 on the road.
Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, only four teams have won a series after losing the first two games at home: the 1993 Suns (over the Lakers), the 1994 Rockets (over the Suns), the 2005 Mavericks (against the Rockets) and the 2017 Celtics (over the Bulls). The other teams to mount 2-0 comebacks all had the advantage of extra games on their home floor. The Clippers will not.
The Clippers played in Dallas twice this season. They won the first game and lost the second. If that outcome repeats itself, they will be down 3-1 entering Game 5 and their odds will shrink even further. Of the 247 teams that have fallen down 3-1 in a series, only 13 of them have come back to win. That’s a rate of only five percent. The Clippers are intimately familiar with those odds, though, as the most recent team to blow a 3-1 lead. They did so last season against the Denver Nuggets.
They lost that series because a rising European star in Nikola Jokic tore them to shreds. That has been their downfall in this series as well. Luka Doncic is averaging 35 points, 9.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game in this series, and his dominance is opening everything else up for his teammates. Through two games, the Mavericks are shooting 50 percent on 3-pointers.
That probably isn’t going to sustain. Nor is the Clippers’ poor shooting. They are coming off of what is, almost without debate, the best jump-shooting season in NBA history. Yet, so far in this series, they’ve hit below 33 percent of their 3-point attempts. They should be better, but the problem with regression to the mean is that it’s meant to play out over long sample sizes. The Clippers can only lose one more game in this series. If the Mavericks get lucky one too many times, or they get unlucky, it won’t matter what happens over a meaningful sample. They’ll get knocked out.
Kawhi has seen this before. He’s one of the few stars in basketball that has overcome such a deficit. But there’s only so much he can do. He scored 41 points in Game 2, but that wasn’t enough as the three starters aside from him and Paul George scored only 14 combined points for the Clippers. As tempting as it is to say that Leonard needs to carry the Clippers through this rough patch, the truth is that no player can beat a team as good as Dallas alone.
The same was true of the 2019 Bucks. As great as Leonard was, Fred VanVleet shot 82.4 percent from behind the arc in the last three games of that series. Kyle Lowry averaged almost 20 points in that span, and if it were not for Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell combining for 44 points in Game 3, the Bucks would have taken an insurmountable lead then and there. If Eric Bledsoe doesn’t shoot 30 percent in the last four games of that series, the Bucks win.
If Dallas continues to make all of its 3-pointers, the Mavericks are going to win regardless of what the Clippers do. But if they come back down to Earth, the Clippers have a chance, and that chance relies on a similar group effort. It can’t just be Leonard and George. The Clippers need everyone if they’re going to win this thing.