LOS ANGELES -- As Luka Doncic grabbed a defensive rebound in the closing seconds of the Dallas Mavericks' Game 1 upset win over the LA Clippers, Mavs team owner Mark Cuban punched the air with his fist in celebration as disappointed Clippers fans filed out of Staples Center.
This was not how the Clippers envisioned their return to the playoffs. After suffering an epic meltdown last postseason, the Clippers again struggled in crunch time of a playoff game. This time, the Clippers were outscored 13-3 by Dallas in the final three minutes to drop Game 1 113-103 and lose home-court advantage in this best-of-seven first-round series.
After Paul George tied the score at 100 with 3 minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the contest, the Clippers missed eight of their last nine shots and three of four free throws. The Clippers have now lost four straight playoff games dating back to last postseason in the NBA bubble, where they blew a 3-1 lead and lost to the Denver Nuggets in the second round.
"It's based on us, what we want to do," Clippers All-Star Kawhi Leonard said. "Everybody was pretty up. Nobody was really down on the game. Obviously, nobody wants to lose."
"But our spirits are still high, and we believe in ourselves," he added. "Nothing good comes easy."
This franchise knows that all too well. The Clippers are still searching for their first trip to the Western Conference finals, after coming within one victory of that milestone last postseason. Falling well short of championship expectations last year, the Clippers entered this season motivated to prove doubters wrong, wash the foul taste of last year's failure out of their mouths and win this postseason.
But the Clippers, the best 3-point shooting team this regular season, missed 14 of 18 3-pointers in the first half. On the other end, they couldn't slow down Doncic, who scored 21 points in the first half before finishing with 31 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
Doncic wasn't the only issue for the Clippers' defense. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 21, Dorian Finney-Smith registered 18 and Jalen Brunson had 15 points, including seven from the free throw line.
Even though the Clippers were finally at full strength after having their continuity and chemistry disrupted by injuries over the past couple of months, they looked like a team still trying to find its rhythm.
"We had a lot of breakdowns, a lot of mistakes defensively that we didn't execute right," said Clippers coach Ty Lue, who took over as head coach after the team parted ways with Doc Rivers following last postseason. "We've just got to clean those things up and we will be fine. We've got to all be on the same page defensively with what we are doing and when we are changing coverages, as well."
"We'll be fine," Lue added. "One game. They won. Hats off to those guys. They came in and played well."
George, who was determined to bounce back this season after struggling in the playoffs last year, started slow but came on late in Game 1. He missed six of his first seven shots and had seven points at halftime before finishing with 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.
George scored 10 points and made 4 of 7 shots in the fourth quarter. The All-Star guard tied the score at 100 on a 19-foot step-back jumper. After Finney-Smith made a 3 to give Dallas the lead, Marcus Morris Sr. missed two free throws, George missed a quick 3 and Leonard missed a 20-foot pull-up attempt. The Mavericks raced out to a seven-point lead with 1:24 left, and the Clippers couldn't catch up.
Leonard, who started the game off strong and had a massive dunk over Maxi Kleber, missed three of his last four shots in the fourth. He finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals.
Leonard said after last year's postseason collapse that the Clippers needed to improve their basketball IQ and ability to adapt and adjust. Entering this postseason, he said the key to success for the Clippers would be everything between the ears.
But in their first game of this postseason, the Clippers had defensive breakdowns, missed shots and even blown opportunities at the free throw line, where they were better than any other team this campaign.
George credited the Mavericks and reiterated that the Clippers aren't feeling any more pressure than other teams in the playoffs despite facing championship expectations again while trying to prove that last year's flameout wasn't who they are.
"I mean, you know we expect to play better, be more dialed in Game 2," George said. "We're not looking at it as just because of who we have we're expecting to win. We got the same pressure as every team that's in this."
"We want to be the last team standing regardless of however many games it takes or how tough the road is," George added. "So, we got to be better for Game 2, and I plan on this team bouncing back."