With the LA ClippersWith season and title hopes at stake, Leonard put in arguably his best all-round performance as a clipper to help L.A. that Dallas Mavericks 104-97 for his third straight win at the American Airlines Center in Game 6 in front of an announced crowd of 18,234.
“It’s just the mentality,” said Leonard. “Definitely, you don’t want to go home.”
Excluding last season’s bubble games, this marked the first time in NBA playoff history that the Road team had won the first six games in a series, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In one of his best playoff performances, Leonard made 18 of 25 shots and scored 12 of his 45 points in the fourth quarter. He scored eight points in a row in just over a minute late in the game to force game 7.
“I mean, he destroyed us,” said Doncic. “So it is. He had a damn good game. And that’s what he does.”
With the elimination, the Clippers felt the pressures of their season at stake and the possibility of suffering a second disappointing postseason in a row. But unlike the 3-1 lead in the second round to Denver nuggets Embarrassingly, last year the Clippers played with the kind of urgency and struggle it took to force their second game in a row.
“It was Game 7 before Game 7 for us,” said Paul Georgewho scored 20 points, got 13 rebounds and had six assists.
Leonard set the tone for the opening tip. Clippers coach Ty Lue said they talked about putting Leonard on Doncic and that his star striker wanted the big job. Doncic, who came into the game averaging 35 points in the series, finished the game with 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, but he shot just 11 out of 24 and 2 out of 9 behind the bow when the Clippers trapped him times off the screen and the defenders were more concerned about themselves than switching.
Leonard held up all of the Mavericks he was defending to a total of 11 points and 4-for-13 shoot-outs. Doncic only shot 2 for 6 when he was guarded by Leonard, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information.
“He went out of his way to quit and made it hard on the other end,” said George. “You’ve seen one of the best, if not the best, two-way players at his best.”
Dallas led 82-79 by 9:06 minutes, but Leonard turned it around. When the Clippers held onto a two-point lead, Leonard drilled a 21-foot chin-up jumper. After grabbing a rebound, Leonard buried a 27-foot step-back 3-pointer. And then he finished an 8-2 personal run with another step back 3 to give the Clippers a 98-90 lead with 1:41 remainder.
Leonard made all five of his shots in the fourth quarter and is the first player to go 5v5 or better in the final quarter than he was about to be eliminated since Leonard’s former teammate Tim Duncan did so against the Mavericks in 2009.
“The fact that he had the energy to aggressively get those shots on track, most of which were very difficult, can be seen,” said Dallas manager Rick Carlisle.
Carlisle added, “We did everything in this series and we need to finish the kitchen sink in Game 7.”
This was the kind of feat the Clippers envisioned when they signed Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP and elite double-back, and traded for George in the summer of 2019 to land Leonard.
But the work is not done. Leonard and the Clippers have even more to do in another pressured Game 7. This time around, the Clippers hope to erase haunted memories from last year.
“I just had something that I was young, always wanted to win the game, to try to get my way on the ground,” said Leonard of his mentality entering that game from previous playoff experience. “And my teammates had the same mentality.
“So that’s what I tried [instill] with them now to make sure we keep fighting, not giving up and never knowing what might happen. Just have faith and then play hard, have fun. That’s all you can do. “