Surely, this was the night when normalcy would return.
A home team was finally going to break through, emerge victorious and the Dallas Mavericks would win their first playoff series since 2011.
The chaos continued Friday night. Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers fought through an ear-splitting crowd and a strong effort by the Mavericks to pull out a 104-97 victory at American Airlines Center.
The Clippers won for the third time at AAC, just as the Mavericks have won three times at Staples Center in LA.
They’ll have to do it again on Sunday (2:30 p.m.) in an all-or-nothing Game 7. No best-of-seven series has ever ended with the road team winning every game.
In a game that had 19 lead changes, the Mavericks felt like they let one get away on Friday night, sort of. But Luka Dončić said the that while they might be dented, their will is far from broken.
“That’s all right,” Dončić said. “We’re still motivated. There’s one more game left. I don’t (know) why we shouldn’t believe it.
“You got to believe.”
As Kristaps Porzingis said: “Sunday’s going to be a war.”
Friday’s skirmish at AAC was nothing less.
Leonard was amazing with 45 points in a game that tilted back and forth for nearly the full 48 minutes.
A sea of blue-clad fans lit up AAC like they hadn’t partied in a year. Or more. Many of them probably hadn’t. Not like this, anyway.
Sports – especially a remarkable show of determination like both teams displayed in the second half – can bring people together like never before. With chants of “Beat LA, Beat LA” ringing through the arena, the drama was thick.
The Mavericks were down 90-85 until Dončić hit a 3-pointer with 4:40 left. A slew of empty possessions ensued for both teams. But then Leonard played like a two-time NBA Finals MVP.
He hit a jumper from straight out. Then he had a one-on-one moment against Dončić, who had 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, had a hand outstretched but couldn’t stop a 3-pointer by Leonard, which took the score to 95-88 with 2:18 to go. After a Luka bucket, Leonard drilled another 3-pointer, this one over Dorian Finney-Smith and the Mavericks were headed back to LA instead of going to Utah, where the second round series would have begun Sunday afternoon had they won.
“Kawhi did a phenomenal job,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., who had 23 points. “He stayed in attack mode and made two big threes. If he misses both of those, the game could have gone either way. But he’s a superstar for a reason. He’s been in these moments for so long, so it’s nothing new to him. I wouldn’t say we let one get away.”
It was at least equal parts of Leonard grabbing it and taking it away.
As Dončić said: “He destroyed us. He had a hell of a game. That’s what he does.”
It clearly left the Mavericks stung. But they’ve been stung before in this series after Games 3 and 4. Then they went to LA and won Game 5.
“This is what you live for, to get to these moments, to play in Game 7 in the playoffs on the road,” Hardaway said. “I’ve never done it before. It’s something big, something exciting, something you dream of. So, we’ll get our rest, and be ready to go into a hostile environment.
“It’s not going to be easy. This whole series hasn’t been easy.”
The Mavericks were outscored 31-20 in the fourth quarter Friday. They shot 7-of-24 from the field while the Clippers were 10-of-16. The Mavericks were outrebounded 15-8.
They were called for eight fouls to just four for the Clippers.
“Disappointing result,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “The fourth quarter was tough. We had some missed opportunities and Leonard hit some really spectacular shots.
“So we’re headed for Game 7. And it’s going to be a great opportunity for our team. We’ll be excited, and we’ll be ready.
The Mavericks last won a playoff series in 2011, when they won the NBA championship by beating Miami in six games. They also beat Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland in that title run.
Since then, it’s been slim pickings. They’ll have to win one more time in LA to change that.
One certainty is that Staples Center won’t be any more of a home-court advantage than AAC was Friday.
The place was rocking and while the finish wasn’t what they wanted, the Mavericks put on a wild show. But a quick start offensively by both teams evolved into a defensive slugfest as points became tougher to get as the game went along.
Carlisle stuck with the same starting lineup that worked so well at LA in Game 5 with Boban Marjanović at center. It again produced a fast start, but things bogged down badly as the Clippers weathered the early storm.
In the second half, things got down and dirty. The Clippers had no choice but to play like they had no tomorrow, because they didn’t if they lost.
They turned to Leonard, who didn’t disappoint them, much to the dismay of the crowd at AAC.
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