Hernández: Missing Kawhi Leonard almost cost Clippers in Game 1

The Clippers survived.

They survived the absence of their best player. They survived a late-game onslaught by the visitors.

They won their postseason opener Sunday, taking down the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series, but they didn’t make a statement or prove a point in a 109-97 victory at Crypto.com Arena.

They survived.

As well as James Harden played in the first half, as big as Paul George came up in a two-minute stretch midway through the fourth quarter, the Clippers were missing something.

They were missing their closer.

They were missing Kawhi Leonard.

The Clippers led by as many as 29 points, but with Leonard still unavailable because of a right knee injury that sidelined him for the last two weeks of the regular season, the game was never entirely out of reach.

More than their own shot-making ability down the stretch, the victory was a function of an awful shooting day for Mavericks All-Star forward Luka Doncic, who made only four of 13 shots in the first half, including one of seven three-pointers.

Doncic and Kyrie Irving were a combined five-for-19 shooting over the first two quarters, which is why the Mavericks went into halftime behind 56-30.

The Mavericks scored only eight points in the second quarter. How many more times can the Clippers count on that happening?

Game 1 was a reflection of the Clippers’ current reality, as there is no timetable for when Leonard returns.

Asked about when Leonard could come back, coach Tyronn Lue said, “He was on the floor the last couple of days and we’re not sure. We’re just taking it day by day.”

The Clippers aren’t a championship contender without the high-performing version of Leonard they had for the majority of this season. Their objective now has to be to hold on until that player rejoins them on the court.

They will need more of Harden, and they will need more of George.

“We still have more than enough,” George said. “Obviously, Kawhi puts us well over the top. But we still got more than enough. The luxury we have is just experience with James, myself, Russ [Westbrook].”

George also pointed to the group of Norman Powell, Terance Mann and Amir Coffey.

“We’ve been together for a while and we’ve been through these journeys for a while now as well,” George said. “We still got enough to win games. Obviously, we want Kawhi back when he’s ready. But I still think we have enough to continue to push forward and win games when we need to.”

George, who scored 22 points, was one of the primary reasons the Clippers won Sunday.

With 8 minutes 24 seconds left in the game, Doncic sank a three to reduce the Clippers’ lead to 90-75.

George responded by scoring the Clippers’ next seven points. He provided the assist on a three that extended the lead to 100-78.

“It’s not like we felt we weren’t going to win because we don’t have Kawhi,” George said. “We still feel confident and comfortable regardless who is suiting up. So, yeah, we know how good we can be. We’re greatly coached. We got a great locker room. We got more than enough.”

The Mavericks mounted another charge over the next couple of minutes, a stretch in which George missed two shots and committed a turnover. These were the kinds of moments in which the Clippers could have used Leonard.

A three by Harden with 3:20 left provided the Clippers with breathing room, but where was Harden before that?

His previous field goal was a three that counted as the first basket of the second half. Between the pair of threes, Harden’s only points came on a couple of free throws.

To Harden’s credit, he was the player most responsible for the Clippers’ dominant first half.

Harden was composed. He was smart. He let the game come to him.

He went into halftime with 20 points on six-for-10 shooting, including four for six on threes. He didn’t turn over the ball once.

However, Harden made only two of seven shots in the second half and finished with 28 points. He made up for Leonard’s absence in the first half but not the second.

The Clippers know what, or who, they’re missing. They recognize their situation.

“Kawhi, obviously, is the piece we do need if we plan on winning it all and getting to where we want to get to,” George said. “But we’re going to hold it down until he’s ready to return and we feel comfortable with where we’re at.”

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