DALLAS: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers dunks during the game against the Dallas Mavericks during Round 1, Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on Friday at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. – AFP

LOS ANGELES: Kawhi Leonard tied his postseason career high with 45 points as the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 104-97 Friday to stave off elimination and force game seven in their Western Conference NBA series. The Clippers kept their season alive by winning in front of an almost full house at Dallas’ American Airlines Center, marking the first time in NBA history that the road team has won the first six games in a best-of-seven series.

Game seven is Sunday at Staples Center arena in downtown Los Angeles where the Mavericks have won three games. “I didn’t want to go home,” said Leonard of facing elimination in front of 18,300 Dallas fans in the first-round of the playoffs. Leonard becomes just the fourth player in playoff history with 45 points and 70 percent shooting while facing elimination, joining LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain and Canadian Jamal Murray. “I had to insert myself into the game,” Leonard said. “My teammates found me, I got some open looks, knocked them down and I just kept going from there.”

Reggie Jackson added 25 and Paul George scored 20 points with 13 rebounds as the Clippers rallied from a seven-point deficit in the third quarter. Luka Doncic scored 29 points with 11 assists for the Mavericks, who are seeking to avenge a first-round playoff loss to the Clippers last season when they were ousted in six games. Tim Hardaway added 23 points for Dallas.

“(Kawhi) destroyed us. He had a hell of a game. That’s what he does,” Doncic said of Leonard. Doncic, who scored 42 points in a game five win, waited until late in the game on Friday to score a large portion of his points. The Mavericks shot just 29 percent from the field in the final quarter and 41 percent overall. Leonard carried the Clippers on his back, shooting 18-of-25 from the floor and draining five of nine threes. The Clippers led 48-45 at the half but trailed 90-88 heading into the fourth.

Los Angeles’ Nicolas Batum made a dunk with just over five minutes left in the fourth to give them a 90-85 lead. That set the stage for Leonard to carry them to the finish. Leonard drained back-to-back threes down the stretch as the Clippers seized a 99-90 lead with 100 seconds to go. Doncic said the Mavericks’ winning record at Staples Center has them confident about game seven. “We all believe we can win game seven,” he said.

Pillars’ of Lakers
LeBron James remains a “championship pillar” of the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA club will pour all it can into making sure he and Anthony Davis are at full strength next season, general manager Rob Pelinka said Friday. The Phoenix Suns ended the Lakers’ NBA title defense in emphatic style on Thursday, leading wire-to-wire in a 113-100 victory to win their best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series in six games. It marked the first time in 15 playoff appearances that James — a four-time NBA champion — was eliminated in the first round.

Inevitably the series defeat, on the heels of a regular season in which James and Davis both battled injury and the Lakers had to play their way into the post-season proper as the seventh seed, sparked speculation as to how much longer the 36-year-old James will be the man to carry a franchise and whether he can still hope to match legendary Michael Jordan’s six titles. Pelinka, however, insisted that James and Davis together — if they’re healthy — can return the Lakers to the summit. “Anthony Davis and LeBron James are championship pillars of this franchise for years to come,” Pelinka said.

“I view the role of any organization, front office, coaching staff, is to be a role of support and we have to pour all we can resource-wise into helping LeBron finalize getting through the end of his high ankle sprain and then Anthony Davis, of course, the injuries he faced,” Pelinka said. “We know that those guys are both two of the top two-way players in the world.”

Davis limped through less than six scoreless minutes in game six against Phoenix before a groin injury suffered in game four forced him to the sidelines. James scored 29 points, but was helpless in the face of an early onslaught from emerging Suns star Devin Booker, who scored 22 of his 47 points in the first quarter. It was the end of an 18-month run that James called “mentally, physically spiritually, emotionally draining.”

The Lakers had only a couple of months after they clinched the club’s 17th championship in the NBA’s quarantine bubble in Florida before the new season began. Despite the quick turnaround the Lakers were 21-6 early in the season before injuries threw them into disarray.

‘I motivate myself’
Davis missed almost two months with a calf strain. James sprained his right ankle in March and missed 26 regular-season games. He said after Thursday’s game that he was looking forward to a complete off-season, one that he indicated wouldn’t include the Tokyo Olympics. “It’s going to work wonders for me,” he said. “I can get three months, to recalibrate, get my ankle back to 100 percent. Everything else feels extremely well.”

And once he’s rested, James added, he won’t need to check the continuing exploits of “young guns” in the league like Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic to motivate himself. “I don’t need motivation from anybody in this league,” he said. “I motivate myself.” That’s what Pelinka wants to hear as he mulls how to tweak the Lakers’ roster to complement James and Davis and put the Lakers back at the top. “That has to be the goal every year,” Pelinka said. “We have an insatiable desire and passion to bring banner No 18 here.” – AFP