NBA Playoffs: Clippers dismantle Mavericks with Kawhi Leonard in street clothes

No Kawhi Leonard, no problem.

The Los Angeles Clippers ruled out their five-time All-NBA forward before tipoff Sunday and then proceeded to dismantle the Dallas Mavericks in a 109-97 Game 1 victory in the first round of the playoffs.

With Leonard sidelined, James Harden took control in a throwback performance that called on his MVP prime. The 34-year-old point guard hit his first four 3-pointers en route to 28 points to lead a dominant effort by the Clippers.

But it was Los Angeles’ defense that made the biggest impact. The Clippers limited the Mavericks to 30 points in the first half while holding them to 22.5% shooting from the field. The first half point total was the lowest for the Mavericks since 2019 and the lowest ever in a playoff game.

Dallas ended the first half with twelve straight missed field goals and scored just eight points in the second quarter. Harden and Ivica Zubac combined to score 32 points in the first half to beat the Mavericks. Once again, the Clippers did this without Leonard, a seven-time All-Defensive Team selection.

The Dallas offense finally found rhythm after halftime. It scored 9 points in the first three minutes of the third quarter, surpassing its entire tally in the second quarter. But the halftime deficit of 56-30 proved too big to overcome. The Mavericks have never mounted a challenge and enter Game 2 with major concerns about the rest of the series.

The Clippers rode a dominant first half to a Game 1 victory over the Mavericks.  (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)The Clippers rode a dominant first half to a Game 1 win over the Mavericks.  (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Clippers rode a dominant first half to a Game 1 win over the Mavericks. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Robert Gauthier via Getty Images)

Vintage James Harden quits Clippers early

Playing alongside three other All-NBA talents, Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, Harden posted his lowest scoring regular season (16.6 ppg) since coming off the Oklahoma City Thunder bench in 2011-12. The three-time scoring champion showed on Sunday that he is still more than capable of lighting up the scoreboard.

Harden caught fire early with an 11-point first quarter, which he capped with his third 3-pointer in three tries to extend the Clippers’ lead 34-22.

An and-1 floater in traffic capped a personal 9-0 run in the second quarter, extending the Los Angeles lead to 50-28 with 4:49 before halftime. The Mavericks would score just two points on free throws for the remainder of the half.

Harden then showed the playmaking vision that made him a two-time assist champion with a backdoor alley-oop pass to Westbrook that pushed the Clippers to 30-9 and extended their lead to 54-29.

Harden finished the first half with 20 points and four assists while shooting 4 of 6 from 3-point range. Zubac had 12 points and 10 rebounds at halftime en route to a 20-point, 14-rebound effort. He shot 10 of 17 from the field.

Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić did their best on offense to get Dallas back into the game in the third quarter. They combined to score 29 of the Mavericks’ 34 points in the quarter that surpassed Dallas’ entire first-half point total.

But the Mavericks weren’t close to a comeback thanks to a 31-point quarter from the Clippers that secured an 87-64 lead heading into the fourth. Dallas closed its 29-point deficit to nearly 10 in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, but never mounted a challenge.

Leonard watched it all from the sidelines as he missed his ninth straight game due to knee inflammation. He was questionable Sunday morning before head coach Tyronn Lue announced before the game that he would not play. Leonard’s future status is unclear. But Sunday’s dominant effort reduces the pressure to bring him back if the oft-injured All-Star isn’t ready for Tuesday’s Game 2.