NBA playoffs: Clippers dismantle Mavericks with Kawhi Leonard in street clothes

No Kawhi Leonard, no problem.

The Los Angeles Clippers ruled out their five-time All-NBA forward before tipoff Sunday, then proceeded to dismantle the Dallas Mavericks in a 109-97 Game 1 win in the first round of the playoffs.

With Leonard sidelined, James Harden took the reins in a throwback performance invoking his MVP prime. The 34-year-old point guard hit his first four 3-pointers en route 28 points to lead a dominant effort from the Clippers.

Clippers stifle Mavericks offense in first half

But it was the Los Angeles defense that made the biggest impact. The Clippers limited the Mavericks to 30 points in the first half while holding them to 22.5% shooting from the field. The first-half point total was the lowest for the Mavericks since 2019 and their lowest ever in a playoff game.

Dallas finished the first half with 12 straight missed field goals and scored just eight points in the second quarter. Harden and Ivica Zubac combined for 32 first-half points to outscore the Mavericks on their own. Again, the Clippers did this without Leonard, a seven-time All-Defensive Team selection.

The Dallas offense finally found a rhythm after halftime. It scored nine points in the first three minutes of the third quarter to exceed its entire second-quarter tally. But the 56-30 halftime deficit proved too much to overcome. The Mavericks never mounted a challenge and enter Game 2 with significant concerns about the remainder of the series.

The Clippers rode a dominant first half to a Game 1 win over the Mavericks. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
The Clippers rode a dominant first half to a Game 1 win over the Mavericks. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Vintage James Harden paces Clippers early

Playing alongside three fellow All-NBA talents in Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, Harden posted his lowest-scoring regular season (16.6 ppg) since coming off the Oklahoma City Thunder bench in 2011-12. The three-time scoring champion showed Sunday that he remains more than capable of lighting up the scoreboard.

Harden caught fire early with an 11-point first quarter that he capped with his third 3-pointer in three attempts to extend the Clippers' lead 34-22.

An and-1 step-back in traffic capped a personal 9-0 second-quarter run that extended Los Angeles' lead to 50-28 with 4:49 before halftime. The Mavericks would score just two points on free throws for the remainder of the half.

Harden then showed off the playmaking vision that made him a two-time assist champion with a backdoor alley-oop pass to Westbrook that pushed the Clippers run to 30-9 and extended their lead to 54-29.

Harden finished the first half with 20 points and four assists while shooting 4-of-6 from 3-point distance. He tallied 28 points, eight assists and two blocks for the game. Zubac had 12 points and 10 rebounds at halftime en route to a 20-point, 15-rebound effort. He shot 10-of-17 from the field.

After a five-point first half, George took the scoring baton in the second, finishing with 22 points, six rebounds, three assists and one steal. The Clippers shot 18-of-36 from beyond the 3-point line while securing a 24-point advantage from long distance. Dallas shot 10-of-33 (30.3%) from 3-point distance and 38.8% from the field for the game.

Too little, too late from Mavericks stars

Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić did their best on offense to try to get Dallas back in the game in the third quarter. They combined to score 29 of the Mavericks' 34 points in the quarter that exceeded Dallas' entire point total for the first half.

But the Mavericks weren't close to a comeback, thanks to a 31-point quarter from the Clippers that secured an 87-64 edge heading into the fourth. Dallas cut its 29-point deficit to as close as 10 in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, but never mounted a serious challenge.

Dončić finished with 33 points, 13 rebounds and six assists while shooting 11-of-26 from the field. Irving tallied 31 points, seven rebounds and four assists on a 10-of-18 effort from the field. P.J. Washington was the only other Mavericks player to score double figures with 11 points and seven rebounds.

Leonard watched it all from the sideline while missing his ninth straight game with knee inflammation. He was questionable Sunday morning before head coach Tyronn Lue announced pregame that he would not play. Leonard's status moving forward is unclear. But Sunday's dominant effort lessens the pressure to bring him back if the oft-injured All-Star isn't ready to go for Tuesday's Game 2.