If the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks meet in the Western Conference playoffs this postseason, we can probably expect a close and exciting series. At least that's what the first two regular season meetings would indicate.
When the two teams played in L.A. last month, the homestanding Clippers had a seemingly safe five-point lead with less than a minute left, only to let the visiting Mavs take the lead with a couple of three pointers sandwiched around a turnover. Chauncey Billups' last second three saved the game for the Clippers. Monday night in Dallas, that same scenario almost played out in reverse.
The Mavs led by five on a pair of Dirk Nowitzki free throws with just 21 seconds left. On the next Clippers possession, Chris Paul nailed a tough three to bring the Clippers within two. A few seconds later, Paul deflected a pass that wound up in Blake Griffin's hands. Vinny Del Negro eschewed the time-out and decided to attack the Dallas defense in transition. Caron Butler, who had a game high 23 points and five three pointers on the night he received his Mavericks' championship ring, got a wide open look from behind the arc for the lead, but it wouldn't fall. The Mavericks got the rebound and Delonte West's free throws completed the scoring in Dallas 96-92 victory.
The Clippers will no doubt look at this as a game of missed opportunities, and not just because Butler's potential game-winner rimmed out. Griffin, who had made 22 of 27 free throws since introducing three rhythm dribbles into his charity stripe routine four games earlier, had a nightmare from the line. He missed his first seven free throws, including five in the fourth quarter, and finished 2 for 9. Speaking of nightmares, Randy Foye, starting in place of the injured Billups, missed all seven of his shot attempts. And if that weren't enough, the residents of Lob City missed three uncontested dunks on the evening.
The ending was exciting, but it was really a stretch earlier in the fourth that decided the game. The Clippers had used a 7-0 run to go up by four with seven minutes left, matching their biggest lead of the night. Over the course of a little more than five minutes, the Mavs went on an 11-1 run to take a six-point lead -- and those were surely the worst five minutes of Griffin's NBA career. He twice drew a shooting foul -- and missed both free throws. His confidence was so low at that point that Rick Carlisle had his team foul Griffin intentionally off the ball on the next Clippers' possession; he managed to make the second shot that time. All the misses clearly had shaken Griffin, as the next time he had the ball, he seemed to panic completely and threw the ball directly to Shawn Marion. It was a sequence the young superstar would love to forget.
Credit the Mavericks defense for forcing the Clippers into myriad mistakes. L.A. is among the league's best in turnovers committed, but Dallas hounded them into 21 miscues Monday night, including a season-worst five from Paul. Dallas was no doubt aware going into the game that the Clippers are 12-0 when Paul scores 17 or more points in a game. With the 6'7 Marion as the primary defender, and constant double teams, the Mavs wouldn't give Paul any room to operate, and they held him to 16, the magic number to get the win.
On offense the Mavericks were led, as you might expect, by Dirk Nowitzki's 22. He made just 5 of 15 shots, but did manage to get to the line 15 times. Shawn Marion contributed 16, and five other players in the deep and balanced Mavs attack scored either 9 or 10.
In addition to Butler's 23 and Paul's 16, Griffin finished the game with 20 points. But it's those free ones he didn't score that he'll be thinking about on the flight back to L.A.
With the result, Dallas improves to 18-11 and the Clippers fall to 17-9.