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Clippers willing to share the weight of playoff expectations

Championship expectations can be back-breaking.

The Clippers learned that last season, where the burden proved too much in the Western Conference semifinals, when they blew a 3-1 series lead against Denver and with it a shot at the franchise’s first conference finals berth.

The weight of the basketball world was again on the Clippers’ shoulders Friday, when they entered play trailing 2-0 in their first-round Western Conference playoff series against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, who’d triumphed in both games at Staples Center.

This time, the Clippers carried the day.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George scored 65 points on 68.6% shooting as L.A. snatched a gritty 118-108 comeback win from the home team before 17,705 rowdy fans at American Airlines Center – an indication, perhaps, that the Clippers now are better conditioned to perform while bearing the burden.

Another indicator, according to one of the former champions on this season’s roster, is that they’re proving a team willing and able to share the load.

It’s that attribute, two-time NBA champ Rajon Rondo said during a recent TNT postgame interview, that makes him believe these Clippers have what it takes to claim that elusive first title.

“It’s an unselfish organization,” he said. “It starts with the GM (Michael Winger), the president (Lawrence Frank). It trickles down to Coach Tyronn Lue and then the players. I love this organization, since Day 1, since I came.”

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An example of that: When Lue sat two of his usual starters for most of Friday’s game, he didn’t get pushback from either, he said. Neither Patrick Beverley nor Ivica Zubac, who averaged 22-plus minutes per game in the regular season, protested when they played just six and 11 minutes, respectively, with the season essentially on the line in Game 3.

“Not saying it was Pat’s fault, but we just needed a jolt,” Lue said, explaining he thought the Clippers could use Reggie Jackson’s pace and basket-attacking knack in the starting lineup. And then, after watching the first 24 minutes unfold, Lue believed Nicolas Batum would be the better defender to help harass and tire out Doncic.

“Playoffs is a game of matchups, it’s a game of runs, a game of wins and we have to do what’s best for the team,” Lue said Friday after the victory. “Pat was great and said, ‘Whatever you need me to do, Coach, I’m all for it.’ That’s how you’ve got to be if you want to win.”

Zubac also was accommodating, an appreciative Lue said.

“Came out at halftime and said, ‘I’m starting Nico (in the third quarter),’ and he goes, ‘Great,’” Lue said. “Zu is the best. He ranks up there for me with Matthew Dellavedova (the Australian guard on Lue’s 2015-16 championship-winning Cleveland squad). One of my favorites, man.

“He’s about the team and he’s smart and does what you ask him to do and he was cheering over there. He understood what we were trying to do and, like I said, if you want to win in the playoffs, you have to be able to adapt and you have to be able to also sacrifice, and Zu did it tonight.”

Another surefire marker of a could-be champion: perspective.

Fresh off Friday’s rousing victory, the Clippers were quick to remind reporters that they trail in the series, acknowledging without saying it that only four of 31 teams in NBA history have rallied to win a series after they lost the first two games at home. Nonetheless, the Clippers have an opportunity to even the series in Game 4 on Sunday evening in Dallas.

“I mean, we’ve yet to show anything,” said George, who is averaging 26.7 points on 53.4% shooting this series. “We’re down 2-1. We haven’t showed anything. We’re not the favorites. We’re not the defending champs. We haven’t showed anything. We have to continue to keep doing it.

“We’ve got to win this series, but it’s one game at a time. We’ve got to win Game 4 and send it back to L.A. Take home-court advantage. But off one win, we haven’t shown anything.”

IBAKA OUT, BUT ACTIVE ONLINE

Lue said Saturday that Serge Ibaka remains in L.A., where he’s dealing with back spasms that kept him out of Game 3.

Lue said he hadn’t spoken with the veteran center since before Friday’s game, so he wasn’t sure whether Ibaka’s status had improved. (On Friday, the coach said the veteran center was feeling “a little bit better,” though not well enough to be able to play yet.)

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Ibaka, 31, missed 30 consecutive games late in the season with a pinched nerve in his back. He returned for the final two regular-season contests and in the Clippers’ first two postseason games, he played just 18 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds.

He was involved from afar Friday, however, “tweeting from my voodoo room,” he joked as he engaged with fans on the social platform, predicting the Clippers would win the game – calling his shot when they trailed by double digits in the first quarter – and that they’ll win the series.

“Do you believe me now?” he asked the Twittersphere after the game was won. “And will you believe now I’m telling you we will also win the series?”

Just watch, we gonna win this Game #clippersnation

— Serge Ibaka (@sergeibaka) May 29, 2021

I really like our defense adjustment tonight, everybody is active #clippersnation

— Serge Ibaka (@sergeibaka) May 29, 2021

Do you still believe I was hacked? //t.co/QvZFwYXk9s

— Serge Ibaka (@sergeibaka) May 29, 2021

I was tweeting from my voodoo room //t.co/SRVJh2XjGd

— Serge Ibaka (@sergeibaka) May 29, 2021

Do you believe me now? And will you believe now I’m telling you we will also win the series? //t.co/T9KRqZTSUb

— Serge Ibaka (@sergeibaka) May 29, 2021

Well, you should have!! //t.co/hH8qMHgZjp

— Serge Ibaka (@sergeibaka) May 29, 2021

Source: Clippers willing to share the weight of playoff expectations

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