Leonard and George lead Clippers against Doncic and Mavs

NBA

LOS ANGELES (AP)The time Paul George has been waiting for is now.

The Los Angeles Clippers star, so good during the regular season, has another chance to rewrite his disappointing playoff history starting Saturday in Game 1 of a first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks.

George made no secret of his struggles living in isolation in the NBA bubble last season. Away from his family and only seeing the same faces over and over affected his mental health. He all but disappeared in a Game 7 loss to Denver in the West semifinals,with 10 points on 4 of 16 shooting.

”This year has been easier,” George said. ”It’s a big difference between bubble life to where I am now from a headspace point.”

That’s good news to the Clippers, who pit their star duo of George and Kawhi Leonard against the Mavs’ single superstar Luka Doncic.

”It’s just about between the ears now,” said Leonard, the two-time NBA Finals MVP. ”How much are we willing to sacrifice to get a ring, how much of our mind and body are we going to put into this playoffs?”

The fourth-seeded Clippers are a 5 1/2-point favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

The opener is an early afternoon game at Staples Center, a time of day that didn’t work out too well for the Clippers in the teams’ first meeting. The Mavs thrashed them by 51 pointson Dec. 27, raising questions about whether the Clippers would be title contenders.

”It’s an adjustment when you’re playing that early,” George said.

His teammate, Ivica Zubac, lamented, ”I can’t take a nap.”

The Clippers don’t want to be caught sleeping, especially as they seek to put last season’s playoff demise far, far behind them. They beat the Mavs in six games in the first round of the bubble, only to blow a 3-1 lead in losing to Denver.

Unlike in the bubble, they’ll have the advantage of playing in front of a limited home crowd at Staples during the best-of-seven series.

Led by Doncic, fifth-seeded Dallas is seeking to win its first playoff series since earning the NBA title in 2011. He averaged 31 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists against LA in last year’s playoffs.

”The level of the challenge is huge,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. ”We’ve got to be fearless. We’ve got to be very together. We’ve got to be very focused.”

ALL HEALTHY

Both teams enter the playoffs healthy, something that wasn’t always the case during the season. Leonard missed several games with a sore right foot, something he said he’s been playing with for a while. ”I’ll be capable enough to play,” he said.

Serge Ibaka just returned for the Clippers, and with only two games under his belt, he’ll be working off the rust.

Mavs forward Maxi Kleber missed six of his last eight games with a sore right Achilles, and his status is up in the air. He was the primary defender against Leonard last year.

THE POINT IS

The Clippers figure to run the point by committee. Reggie Jackson has been reliable throughout the season and Patrick Beverley is back from an injury. They’ve also got Rajon Rondo, acquired in a midseason trade to provide an experienced veteran who acts as an assistant coach when he’s on the sideline. Whoever shows the ability to slow down Doncic (”the head of the snake,” according to Clippers coach Tyronn Lue) will get the most minutes.

DONCIC’S RESET

Doncic avoided a regular-season suspension by holding at 15 technicals, tying with Philadelphia’s Dwight Howard for most in the league. The Dallas star actually was called for 16, which would have triggered a one-game suspension, but it got rescinded by the league office.

The good thing for him is that the tech count resets for the playoffs. He would need to rack up seven to be suspended, and the Mavs can’t afford to be without his emotion and energy.

NO HARD FEELINGS

Marcus Morris and Doncic settled any hard feelings from last year’s playoffs when the Clippers forward accidentally stepped on the back of Doncic’s heel.

Doncic already had a sprained ankle during the series, when Morris was guarding him most of the time.

Morris said he apologized before a game earlier this season and Doncic accepted.

”There’s definitely a mutual respect between us as players,” Morris said. ”I told him before the game, I’m not into making no dirty plays and trying to hurt nobody. I’m a competitor first; I love taking on the matchup.”

In turn, Doncic praised Morris as ”a hell of a player, hell of a defender.”

GROWING CROWD

The Mavericks said Friday they plan to be near capacity for Games 3 and 4 in Dallas. That likely means at least 15,000 fans. The club also said it would host vaccination drives during both games. Game 6, if necessary, also will be in Dallas.

Before the pandemic, a sellout for the Mavericks was about 20,000. But almost all the seats near the court are gone, at least for now. Dallas hosted fans for the first time in its 11th game, starting with about 1,000 essential workers and season-ticket holders who attended for free. The announced crowd for the final home game of the regular season was 4,493.

AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed to this report.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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