Invariably in an NBA playoff series, one team ends up grabbing at straws, seeking answers for what their opponent keeps throwing at them.

Biggest difference on this occasion is that the Mavericks are not the straw-grabbers.

They are the ones who seem to be one step ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers, not to mention two games ahead.

A good indication that they have the Clippers befuddled came not on any play, but by the way Luka Dončić has carried himself. Always smiling. Always calm. And always playing like he’s having the time of his life.

After the 127-121 victory Tuesday that put the Mavericks up 2-0, he said as much: “The mentality was to go out there and play aggressive and have fun,” Doncic said. “That’s it.”

The Clippers took note.

“They feed off it tremendously,” LA guard Reggie Jackson said of Luka’s bubbly style on the court. “When he looks like he’s having fun, they’re all cool, calm and collected.

“So we 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.”

That’s the next straw to grab.

So far, the Clippers have tried every individual defender they can throw at Dončić. When that hasn’t worked, they have trapped and blitzed and done everything they can think of to get the ball out of his hands.

Then, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jalen Brunson, Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber have dialed in their shooting eyes.

To be blunt, the Clippers have not been any more physical than the Mavericks. That was a concern coming into the series.

The Mavericks have passed that test so far, although the Clippers no doubt will try to be more physical defensively when the series resumes with Game 3 Friday at American Airlines Center.

“We’ve got to play defense,” said Kawhi Leonard. “(Them) shooting 58 percent, 52 from the three, just isn’t going to cut it.”

Those were the Mavericks’ numbers in Game 2.

One thing the Mavericks definitely are not expecting is any letdown or deflation on behalf of the Clippers. Being down 2-0 is a daunting challenge.

Daunting, but not hopeless.

“We know what kind of ballclub they are,” Hardaway said. “They’re a hell of a team. They got home-court advantage for a reason. We can’t rest. We know what they’re capable of.”

Maybe that’s another reason why the Mavericks have stayed one step ahead.

Dreams come true: Hardaway, by the way, had a 3-pointer with just over a minute to play that freed the Mavericks from a game that still was hanging in the balance.

He said it was the kind of shot players dream about.

“It’s something that you live for, man,” said Hardaway, who was 6-of-8 from 3-point land in Game 2 and had 28 points. “It’s easier said than done when you’re up a couple points. But when you’re in that zone and mindset and you’re playing against a team like that, those shots are very big.”

No need or bulletin-board material: Much has been made about whether the Clippers lost their last two games of the regular season because they were resting key players or because they wanted to play the Mavericks in the first round rather than the Portland Trail Blazers.

Or, maybe, they wanted to avoid the Lakers until the conference finals.

Whether any of that is the case, it matters not to the Mavericks if the Clippers were trying to angle for the Mavericks in a rematch of last year’s first-round series.

“This time of year, you shouldn’t need extra motivation,” said coach Rick Carlisle. “NBA playoff basketball is a self-explanatory adjective. It’s raw passion. It’s all about team.

“It’s all about one thing – a group of guys getting together and making a stand on every possession. If you can’t get excited for that, you should be in some other line of work.”

Briefly: The Mavericks used Wednesday as a travel day and will get back to practice on Thursday . . . Hardaway said that the Mavericks have benefited late in the season from more camaraderie because they’ve been able to socialize more with each other. “Once everyboy got vaccinated, we were able to hang out, be around one another off the court on the road,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about. And it helps us not only off the court, but on the court as well.” . . . Leonard on the Clippers’ outlook being down 2-0: “We just got to figure it out. Like the regular season, you might lose two in a row, and then you go on a winning streak. So just having that same mentality. We’re playing the same team, so we know what they’re doing.”

Twitter: @ESefko

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