The Dallas Mavericks had the Los Angeles Clippers right where they wanted them. Then, the basketball gods got involved and Game 1 of this best-of-seven first-round playoff series took a swift turn for the worst.
Kristaps Porzingis was ejected with 9:10 remaining in the third quarter and the determined Mavs up by five points. The Clippers quickly exploited Porzingis’ absence and the emotional toll it took on the Mavs to squeeze out a 118-110 victory on Monday night at AdventHealth Arena inside the bubble in Orlando.
Game 2 will be Wednesday at 8 p.m.
After collecting one technical for swinging his fist in the air in the first half when he thought he had a clean block on a play, Porzingis rushed onto the scene to protect Luka Doncic after Marcus Morris tried to aggressively swipe the ball away from Doncic following a foul by Morris. After the referees reviewed the play, they suddenly issued a technical foul on Porzingis – and automatic ejection — and a technical foul on Morris.
It severely altered the course of this game and possibly the series.
“We got into it a little bit and I saw him getting into Luka’s face and I didn’t like that and that’s why I reacted,” Porzingis said. “That’s the smart thing to do from their part and I just got to be smarter and control my emotions the next time, especially on the first (technical foul).
“The first one, even though I felt like it was a clean block, they’re probably going to call that tech for throwing the hand every time. So I just got to be smart and not let my emotions get the better of me.”
Doncic, who kept riddling the renowned Clippers’ defense all night, appreciated the bodyguard-like protection from Porzingis. However, he wishes the fifth-year veteran could have stuck around for the remainder of the game, knowing fully well that the final results may indeed have been much different.
“I knew KP had my back,” Doncic said. “He did it for me, he did it for his teammate. Not just me, the whole team appreciate that.
“I don’t think it was fair to throw him out of the game, especially in the playoffs. But they decided to, so we had to play without him, which was tough.”
After Porzingis’ departure, the Mavs looked disjointed both offensively and defensively as they got outscored, 52-39. The Mavs scored 69 points in the first half when they shot 57 percent from both the field and the 3-point line, but had just 41 points in the second half when they converted only 36 percent of their shots and just 14 percent of their 3-pointers.
However, the game still was tied at 91 with under nine minutes left before the Clippers finally nudged their way past the Mavs in the waning seconds.
“The thing that happened with KP was unfortunate,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ll just learn from it. We got to understand this is part of the emotions of the playoffs.
“He was protecting his teammate on the second technical, which is the right thing to do in the playoffs. But the first (tech) where it was an air punch, that’s automatic. They called one on (Porzingis) and they called one on (Clippers forward Paul) George, so we’ll avoid that in Game 2 and we’ll go from there.”
A pool reporter asked referee crew chief Kane Fitzgerald why Porzingis was assessed the second technical foul. Fitzgerald said: “The second technical foul was for being an escalator to the altercation which was confirmed via replay.”
Fitzgerald was asked if an automatic ejection in a competitive playoff game was given any consideration before whistling the second technical on Porzingis. Fitzgerald responded by saying: “Like we said for the second (technical foul) we confirmed it through the use of instant replay that he was an escalator which is an automatic technical per the NBA standards. This being his second technical he was ejected from the game.”
This was an oddball game in so many ways. The Mavs fell behind 10-0 less than two minutes in after committing four turnovers. And they were down, 18-2, after less than four minutes had expired.
But in showing the resilience that earned them their first playoff berth since 2016, the Mavs hustled back and tied the game at 22-22 after a 20-4 run. Suddenly feeling a bit comfortable against the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed, the Mavs used a pair of 3-pointers from Seth Curry and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to eventually lead, 38-34, after the first quarter .
And after Trey Burke barreled down the lane for a fast break layup midway through the second quarter, the Mavs had nearly flipped this game upside down and turned a 16-point deficit into a 14-point lead at 50-36.
“Our slow start was difficult — being down 10-0 — but the fight back was great,” Carlisle said. “We did great things to get a pretty good lead in the first half.”
The Clippers whittled the Mavs’ lead down to 69-66 at intermission. Then the tragic ejection of Porzingis was unquestionably a seismic shift that dramatically tilted the game in favor of the Clippers.
“I can guarantee you that we’re a better defensive team when he’s on the floor,” Carlisle said of Porzingis. “Look, we need him out there.
“We know it, he knows it.”
The Clippers tried their best to manhandle Doncic. But the second-year point guard’s legend grew even more after he torched the Clippers for 42 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. That’s the most points anyone has ever scored in their first NBA playoff game.
Doncic was 13-of-21 from the field and 14-of-15 from the free throw line, and tallied 23 of his points in the second half. Most of them came with the Clippers zeroing in on him after Porzingis was ejected.
The Mavs had their chances. But they turned the ball over 21 times – 11 by Doncic – and they were outrebounded, 45-41.
“We’re here to win the series and we’re really disappointed with this game and the outcome,” Carlisle said. “But it’s also a game of an accumulation of events that are in our control.
“We’ve got to do a better job with taking care of the ball, and we’ve got to rebound better. Those are possession stats, and they make a big difference.”
Losing Porzingis with 21 minutes remaining in the game also made a big difference in this game.
“It’s weird, because I went through all kinds of scenarios that would happen in the game, how they were going to play us and the things I shouldn’t do or how I should react,” said Porzingis, who finished with 14 points and six rebounds. “But this was one scenario I didn’t really think through – that I might get a tech and don’t get the second tech.
“It’s a weird situation, but I guarantee you this won’t happen to me again.”