Kawhi Leonard treated Friday night like a Game 7 and it showed, from wanting to guard Luka Doncic to matching his playoff career-high with 45 points.
With the LA Clippers’ season and title hopes on the line, Leonard delivered arguably his finest all-around performance as a Clipper to help L.A. beat the Dallas Mavericks 104-97 for its third straight series victory at American Airlines Center in Game 6 before an announced crowd of 18,234.
“It’s just based on the mentality,” Leonard said. “Definitely, you don’t want to go home.”
Not including last season’s bubble games, this was the first time in NBA playoff history that the road team has won the first six games of a series, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information.
In one of his best playoff performances, Leonard made 18-of-25 shots and scored 12 of his 45 points in the fourth quarter. He scored eight straight points in a little more than a minute late in the game to force a Game 7.
“I mean, he destroyed us,” Doncic said. “That’s what it is. He had a hell of a game. And that’s what he does.”
Facing elimination, the Clippers felt the pressure of their season hanging in the balance and with the possibility of suffering a second straight disappointing postseason. But unlike when they blew a 3-1 lead in the second round to the Denver Nuggets in embarrassing fashion last year, the Clippers played with the type of urgency and fight that they needed to force their second consecutive Game 7.
“It was a Game 7 before the Game 7 for us,” said Paul George, who scored 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and had six assists.
Leonard set the tone from the opening tip. Clippers coach Ty Lue said they discussed putting Leonard on Doncic and that his star forward wanted the tall task. Doncic, who came into the game averaging 35 points in the series, finished with 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, but he shot just 11-of-24 and 2-of-9 from behind the arc as the Clippers trapped him at times off screens and kept defenders on him more than switching.
Leonard held all Mavericks he defended to a total of 11 points and 4-for-13 shooting. Doncic shot just 2-for-6 when guarded by Leonard, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information.
“He was doing everything to stop, making it tough on the other end,” George said. “You saw one of the best, if not the best two-way players at his best.”
Dallas led 82-79 with 9:06 left, but Leonard turned it around. When the Clippers were clinging to a two-point lead, Leonard drilled a 21-foot pull-up jumper. After grabbing a rebound, Leonard buried a 27-foot, step-back 3-pointer. And then he finished a personal 8-2 run with another step-back 3 to give the Clippers a 98-90 lead with 1:41 remaining.
Leonard made all five of his shots in the fourth quarter and is the first player to go 5-for-5 or better in the final quarter when facing elimination since Leonard’s former teammate Tim Duncan did so against the Mavericks in 2009.
“The fact that he had the energy offensively to hit those shots down the stretch, the majority of which were very difficult, it’s something to behold,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said.
Carlisle added: “We have done everything in this series, and we’ll have to be ready with the kitchen sink in Game 7.”
This was the kind of performance the Clippers envisioned when they signed Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP and elite two-way defender, and traded for George to help land Leonard in the summer of 2019.
But the job isn’t done. Leonard and the Clippers have more work to do in what will be another pressure-packed Game 7. This time, the Clippers hope to erase haunting memories from last year.
“Just something that I had young, always wanting to win the game, to try to exert my will on the floor,” Leonard said of his mentality entering this game from past playoff experiences. “And my teammates had the same mentality.
“So that’s what I tried to [instill] with them now to make sure that we keep fighting, don’t give up, and you never know what could happen. Just have faith and then play hard, have fun. That’s all you can do.”