Everyone loves an underdog, even when the underdog is actually the favorite. One study found that in a matchup between two fictional teams, 88 percent of people rooted for the team described as the underdog. When those same people were told that the favorite lost the first three games of the seven-game series, half of them flipped their loyalty.
The Los Angeles Clippers, who fell as the favorite in three straight embarrassing losses to the Denver Nuggets in the bubble last postseason, played the role of the underdog in Sunday’s 126-111 Game 7 victory over the Dallas Mavericks — maybe not according to betting lines, but according to perception and history.
After losing the first two games of the series — at home — the narrative of the Clipper Curse was as inevitable. When they fell behind by 19 points just eight minutes into Game 3 in Dallas, their fate was all but sealed.
Here we go again. The Clippers have no heart. They wasted another year of Kawhi Leonard’s prime.
At that moment, the Clippers transformed into an underdog. And from that moment forward, they played like one.
“We were one or two plays away to almost get swept,” Clippers forward Nicolas Batum said of the disastrous start to Game 3. “And we find something in us like resiliency and some toughness — ‘OK, we can’t go down like that, we’re still a good team. We are a good team so we’ve got to show it now.’ And we came back. We won Game 3 and then after that we said, ‘OK, they can’t beat us twice. They can’t beat us twice after that.'”
Please check the opt-in box to acknowledge that you would like to subscribe.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
But they did lose once. After tying the series with two convincing wins in Dallas, the Clippers fell behind the eight-ball once again with a narrow Game 5 loss. This time, as the pundits predicted and the longtime Clipper fans feared, they would surely fold. But they won yet another road game, then finished things off with a clutch second-half performance on Sunday to exorcise their playoff demons … for now, at least.
“Last year was last year,” said Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue, who was an assistant coach on last year’s team. “We talked about it when the season started — that’s over and we’ve got to look going forward. We can’t keep looking behind and what happened. That shit’s over.”
As always, the Clippers were led by their silent assassin, Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 32.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game in the series on utterly ridiculous 61/43/90 shooting splits, winning the individual battle with the otherworldly 22-year-old Luka Doncic. In the fourth quarters of the final two must-win games, Leonard didn’t miss a single shot and only had one turnover. The Board Man put his team on his back, and the best part was that he didn’t have to do it by himself.
In last year’s Game 7 loss to Denver, in which they were outscored by 17 points in the second half, Leonard and Paul George were atrocious. They shot a combined 10-for-38 from the field, including 0-for-11 in the fourth quarter. On Sunday, as Dallas slowly chiseled the lead from 17 to seven with two minutes remaining, all of the pressure could have been on Leonard and George to deliver in a way they couldn’t last year.
Instead, their veteran teammates stepped up. Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris hit back-to-back 3-pointers, and the Clippers ended the game on a 12-4 run without Leonard or George making a single field goal. The fact that Jackson and Morris made the shots — and that the team’s two alpha leaders had faith in them during the closing minutes of Game 7, shows this team’s growth.
“It’s up to me and P.G. and the playmakers on the offensive end not to be selfish, because at times you feel like you’ve got to do it all,” Leonard said after the Game 7 win. “These games aren’t won with just one or two great players. We need a whole 17, or 16 players that you have … I think we had trust in the begging, but just had to dial in on what we were doing.”
In an elimination game where coaches have a notoriously short leash for players who aren’t performing and the pressure is at an absolute maximum, seven Clippers scored in double figures on Sunday. They made 20 3-pointers, an NBA record for a Game 7, with only three coming from George and Leonard. Terance Mann and Luke Kennard, who had been in and out of the rotation throughout the regular season and playoffs, combined for 24 gigantic points on 5-for-8 3-point shooting.
“T-Mann and Luke, for their minutes to fluctuate the way they have through the season, not necessarily always in the series — coming in and playing big minutes and not being afraid of the moment in Game 7, hats off to them,” Jackson said. “It’s special, and they are just as much a part of this win as everybody.”
Last season’s Clipper team was praised for its depth, but Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell’s subpar postseason performances left nearly all of the playmaking and scoring duties on the shoulders of George and Leonard, particularly in big games. What this year’s version of the Clippers lacks in high-scoring reserves, it makes up for with players content to thrive in their roles.
After falling off the face of the Earth in Charlotte, Batum played 41 excellent minutes in Game 7, filling up the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block while playing tremendous defense. Rajon Rondo had a huge impact after the Clippers fell down 0-2, and graciously ceded his second-half playing time on Sunday to Kennard. Rondo’s leadership extends off the court as well, as Jackson said that after he got frustrated in the third quarter, his veteran point guard pulled him aside and kept him focused.
“Glad to have Rondo here. Since he’s gotten here, he’s on me and he’s making sure I stay as locked in as possible,” Jackson said. “I like to pride myself on being able to move to the next play, but times I’m not able to, he holds me accountable. Like I said, he helps me like a big brother. He’s been great from that stance for me, and just learning from him, seeing his dedication and what he brings to the team.”
The differences may be subtle, but it’s hard to imagine last year’s Clippers having the mental toughness and fortitude to win such a difficult series. Not only did they survive, but they learned and jelled to the point that they’re much more resilient than when the playoffs began. They’ll begin their Western Conference semifinal series against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday and — at least according to the seeding — they’ll be the underdog.
“First round was a tough series for us. We are battle-tested now, going to Game 7,” Lue said. “We know we’re going to Utah, where they have a great fan base and it’s tough to play there, but I think our guys are locked in. I think Dallas really did a great job of preparing us for the next series.”