With their season on the line, the fourth-seeded LA Clippers overcame a seven-point deficit in the third quarter of Game 6 to stave off elimination, defeating the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks 104-97. It marked the sixth time in six games the road team has won in this series.
Five-time All-Star Kawhi Leonard was unstoppable, tying his playoff career high with 45 points on 25 shots in 42 minutes. And the cervical strain that bothered Luka Doncic in games 3 and 4 did not appear to be lingering as he finished with a team-high 29 points.
Here are five things we gleaned from Game 6 that forced the greatest two words in sports: Game 7 (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC).
Now comes even more pressure
When Kawhi Leonard took on the assignment of guarding Luka Doncic on the opening tip, this felt like a Game 7.
"It was a Game 7 before the Game 7 for us," Paul George said.
No doubt, the pressure was on the Clippers. Faced with elimination, LA managed to steal a third straight game in Dallas. But now the Clippers play the real Game 7 -- on their home floor -- where they have yet to win this postseason. Whatever pressure the Clippers felt on Friday night, it will be even greater Sunday.
Last year, the Clippers entered Game 7 already in quicksand -- they were well on their way to blowing a 3-1 lead to lose in the second round to the Denver Nuggets. This time it feels more like the 12th round of a heavyweight fight and, for now, the Clippers have the momentum.
To avoid a second straight disastrous playoff exit, LA will need Leonard to deliver yet another Finals MVP-like performance.
"It's going to be a great game," Reggie Jackson said. "Best words in sports: 'Game 7.' Haven't played one in a while."
Can't blame Jackson for forgetting about last year's Game 7. On Sunday, the Clippers can take another step forward toward burying their past playoff ghosts.
-- Ohm Youngmisuk
A 7-foot-3 floor-spacer?
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle effusively praised Kristaps Porzingis after Friday night's failure to close out the Clippers.
"I love the way he's playing," Carlisle said.
Maybe you expect more from a skilled 7-foot-3 player on a maximum contract than seven points on seven shots in a Game 6. But Porzingis' numbers certainly can't be considered surprising at this point. It's the third time in the series he has scored in single digits. He actually got one shot more than he did in Game 5.
Carlisle has made it crystal clear that Porzingis -- who is averaging 12.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in the series -- provides more value as a floor-spacer than an offensive focal point against the Clippers.
"It's obviously not easy, but I accept it," said Porzingis. "That's what the team is asking me to do, and I'm willing to do whatever, whatever is necessary for us to go forward. As soon as I accepted that, then it's not a psychological battle with myself anymore. I'm just out there playing and doing things that the team's asking me to do and trying to do the best I can."
You can look at his height and argue that Porzingis should be getting a steady diet of post-ups against the Clippers' small-ball lineups. Just know that Carlisle disagrees and has no intention to take the ball out of Luka Doncic's hands to give it to Porzingis with his back to the basket.
"This comes down to what's best for our team," Carlisle said, adding that he has had multiple conversations with Porzingis about the subject. "He's been great, accepting what our strategy was as a team, locking into it and being professional about it. What this always comes down to is the quote-unquote 'getting him going.' Does that manifest in the best things for the team with their lineup? The fact that they're putting a difficult defender on him and those kinds of things?"
In other words, don't hold your breath for Porzingis to have a breakout performance in Game 7.
-- Tim MacMahon
Kawhi Leonard did what superstars do
Led by an offensive barrage from Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas went on a 17-5 run in the third quarter to go from trailing by five points to up seven with just over six minutes remaining. At 67-60, LA needed a lifeline.
As the lead slipped away, Leonard stepped into action, scoring 11 straight and 17 of the Clippers' 25 points in the quarter to keep them within striking distance heading into the fourth. In that final frame? Leonard poured in 12 more points, including two big 3s to put the Mavericks away in the final minutes.
Leonard finished with 45 points on 18-of-25 shooting, becoming the fourth player in NBA history, per Elias Sports Bureau research, to score at least 45 points and shoot 70% or better when facing elimination (Jamal Murray, LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain).
It didn't matter who Dallas threw at Leonard. The Clippers star went 8-of-10 while being guarded by Dorian Finney-Smith and 5-of-7 by Doncic.
And Leonard was a menace on defense too. In five possessions as the primary defender on Doncic, Leonard held the Mavs star to 0-of-4 shooting. Overall, the Mavericks shot just 4-of-13 against the two-time Finals MVP.
-- Andrew Lopez
Preserving a perfect road record
As the cliché goes, it's not a series until the home team wins a game. The Clippers' win Friday made it all six games in this series won by the road team, the first time that has happened when the games were played in local markets, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. (There has been one in-market series without a single home win, between the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers in the 1984 first round, but that was a best-of-five matchup.)
No, the Clippers probably shouldn't petition the NBA to let them play Game 7 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Remember, the fact that home teams are 21-21 overall in the playoffs means that home teams in all other series have won a more robust 58.3% of the time.
Ballmer fired up after Kawhi's 3
Kawhi Leonard nails the 3-pointer and Steve Ballmer celebrates.
Given the overall trend toward weaker home-court advantage and this year's limited crowds, particularly in Los Angeles -- the Clippers' reported 7,428 attendance for Game 5 paled in comparison to the near-capacity crowd of 18,324 on Friday in Dallas -- it was probably inevitable we were going to see a series like this at some point. After all, we did see the "road team" win all seven games in last year's Boston Celtics-Toronto Raptors series when teams played on neutral courts in the NBA's bubble.
It will be interesting to see whether the Clippers enjoy any more benefit of home court in Game 7. Historically, home-court advantage in a deciding game has been worth about 1.3 more points per game than all other playoff games. We'll see whether that holds without a capacity crowd at Staples Center or if the road teams can stay perfect.
-- Kevin Pelton
Clippers' process leading to Clippers' support
In the summer of 2019, the Clippers' assembly process was pretty straightforward: Get George so they could therefore get Leonard, then the supporting cast would pretty much take care of itself. That hierarchy was on display in Game 6, with Leonard gathering support from multiple angles.
George is Leonard's roster peer, a star two-way player capable of carrying the burden on any given night. But with Leonard assuming the full load in Game 6, George settled into a complementary role by picking his spots, defending all over the court and setting up others. A benefactor of this was his close friend Jackson, whom George helped recruit after a buyout with the Detroit Pistons last season.
Jackson has a history of coming up huge for his superstar teammates in Game 6 road games. He did it with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2014, pouring in 32 points in a must-win game against the Grizzlies, saving the season for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. One of Jackson's prime qualities is his confidence, always believing he's capable of being the best player on the court at any time. The Clippers have been desperate for that kind of shooting and playmaking from the point guard position this postseason -- and Jackson answered the call.
It can't be a one-off, though. The Clippers are going to lean toward Leonard and George in Game 7 -- and beyond, if they are so fortunate -- but Jackson and the supporting cast must play their parts. Championship teams aren't built solely on star power -- there are always Reggie Jackson-type games somewhere throughout a run. And if this series is any indication, the Clippers are going to need another one.
-- Royce Young