Two teams that took the opportunity to rest key players in different ways on the final weekend of the regular season should be fully refreshed Saturday afternoon when the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks visit the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in their Western Conference playoff opener.
The Clippers (47-25) had a five-game edge in this season’s final standings, but the Mavericks (42-30) won the season series 2-1, setting up a rematch of a tightly contested 2020 first-round series in the bubble that was won by Los Angeles 4-2.
The Mavericks may have taken out some of their frustration in this year’s first meeting in December, recording a 124-73 shellacking of the Clippers on their home floor.
The teams split two March games in Dallas, with the Clippers scoring a 109-99 victory on March 15 and the Mavs following two nights later with a 105-89 decision.
Not only will Dallas get a chance to avenge last year’s playoff defeat, but it might feel slighted by the notion many speculated the Clippers intentionally slipped into a matchup with the Mavericks rather than land on the rival Lakers’ side of the Western bracket.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue called such tanking claims ridiculous.
“We decided to go health over anything else,” he said of regular-season-ending losses to Houston and Oklahoma City when one victory would have meant a first-round pairing with Portland and potentially a second-round matchup with the defending league champion Lakers.
“We finally got our team healthy, and that’s what we focused on,” he continued. “Whatever people say on the outside, I don’t care. I’m my own man, and I do what I want to do.”
Lue sat both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the final two games, giving each eight days off since they last took the court last Thursday at Charlotte.
Both All-Stars finished the season strong, with Leonard averaging 22.2 points on 51.3-percent shooting and George 23.7 points on 44.7-percent shooting since March 20, a stretch in which the Clippers went 21-7 before losing the last two games without them.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle insisted his team is motivated at this point by just one thing.
“We’re a championship organization and we’re not just looking to advance one round of the playoffs,” he demanded this week. “Ultimately, our goal is always to win a championship. We preach championship habits in our prep.”
Having clinched the fifth seed, the Mavericks also pulled back on the reins in their regular-season finale at Minnesota, extending no starter more than 28 minutes.
The club’s two big guns — Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis — were limited to 21 and 26 minutes, respectively, in the 136-121 loss, with each scoring 18 points.
Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists in the three earlier meetings with the Clippers, highlighted by a triple-double in the home loss in March and a 42-point explosion in the win two nights later.
Leonard, who sat out the December home debacle, averaged 21.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists in the two-game sequence at Dallas.
–Field Level Media