Clippers keep calm and carry on, but trail Mavericks, 2-0

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson signed off from his postgame Zoom session with reporters on Wednesday night by using both hands to pinch the front of his T-shirt, showing off the happy face displayed on his chest. “No worries,” he said. “Remember, no worries.”

If it seemed like a message incongruous with the moment – the fourth-seeded Clippers had just lost to the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, 127-121, at Staples Center to fall behind 0-2 in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series, with the Western Conference tilt headed to Dallas for games Friday and Sunday – it actually was perfectly attuned to what his Clippers colleagues were saying.

“I’m not concerned,” insisted Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, whose unexcitable, hands-in-pants-pockets stance on the sideline is meant to infuse his team with the type of on-court calm he’s witnessed help win NBA titles as a player (twice) and head coach (once).

Two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard also sounded undaunted, never mind the specter of last postseason’s blown opportunity and his own free agency future looming in the periphery as the Clippers ran their postseason losing streak to five games.

“Just making sure that we’re staying even keel,” said Leonard, who made the Clippers free agency sweepstakes winners two summers ago when he picked them – after they went all-in by moving a historic haul of draft picks and some prized players to acquire All-Star Paul George from Oklahoma City, and because of that, Leonard.

“Just like the regular season,” Leonard said. “You might lose two in a row and then you go on a winning streak. So just having that same mentality.”

Maintaining that regular-season mindset – the Clippers have, after all, lost three consecutive regular-season games only three times since George and Leonard arrived – might be what a presumptive championship-contending team on the ropes again needs to tell itself.

But it’s one thing to say the playoffs are like any other game. It’s another thing to play like it.

So far, the Clippers’ regular-season-style defense – their relatively hands-off approach, their willingness to be screened, their bewildering eagerness to switch assignments – has led to plenty of open shots or exploitable mismatches for a Mavericks team that seems to be growing bolder by the bucket. (See: 58.5% and 52.9%, Dallas’ astronomical shooting percentages from the floor and 3-point range on Tuesday.)

Sure, Leonard and George – both of them decorated wing defenders – are carrying so much of the Clippers’ offensive burden, it’s tough to ask them to try to be full-time Luka Doncic stoppers, too. And even then, the optimum word is try; in Game 2, Doncic made four of his eight field-goal attempts against Leonard, three of five with George defending him and went 9 for 16 against Clippers not named Leonard or George.

Also, Lue said Tuesday, he doesn’t want his best players forced into foul trouble.

But without significant pushback, Dallas’ 22-year-old Slovenian superstar is making all sorts of splashy history. He’s the first player in NBA history to record at least 250 points, 70 rebounds and 70 assists through his first eight career postseason games – all of them against the Clippers. He’s also just the fifth player in league history to lead his team in all three categories in each of the first two games of a postseason.

And that success is contagious, Jackson acknowledged: “They feed off it tremendously. When he looks like he’s having fun, they’re all cool, calm and collected. We’ve got to figure out a way to rattle him, rattle the head of the snake first and then let everybody else kind of get rattled as well. We’re going to get to film and watch it and we’re going to figure out how we can be better.”

Excepting Leonard’s posterization of Maxi Kleber in Game 1 (and the team staredown that followed) and George’s tripping up of Kristaps Porzingis in the lane in Game 2, the most emotion the Clippers have shown in the series has been their displays of frustration after defensive breakdowns, many of them the result of miscommunication more befitting preseason than postseason action.

“The mistakes we’re making, they’ve just been crucial,” George said. “I don’t think they have missed many on mistakes we’ve made to bail us out. So, again, give them credit. They shot almost 60 tonight. They’re making shots and if we don’t dial in, if we don’t honor the coverages, if we don’t do a better job defensively, they’re showing that we gonna pay for it.”

Now, with this season of purported redemption nearing its precipice, shrinking room for error and 15,000 basketball-starved fans awaiting the Clippers at American Airlines Center in Dallas, know what Lue said about the job ahead?

“I am not worried about it,” he said. “You gotta win four games; that’s what it is. They won two games on our home floor and now we got to go return the favor.”

No worries. Remember, no worries.

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