For the Clippers, this wasn’t the night for a first.
Winless in nine games this season when trailing after three quarters, they had cut their deficit in Dallas to six in the final seconds of the third Wednesday, after a pair of three-pointers by Paul George.
There seemed to be life.
Instead, there was only Luka.
Pounding the ball at midcourt with 90 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, with all-defense member Paul George on his left hip, Dallas’ phenom guard Luka Doncic lowered his head and drove to his right before whipping the ball behind his back to his left hand just inside the three-point arc. By the time George, who steadied himself by placing his right hand on the hardwood, was upright, Doncic was lofting a floater over Nicolas Batum’s head.
They were the last of Doncic’s 11 points in the fourth quarter and his 42 for the night. He also finished with nine assists and six rebounds to send the Clippers to a 105-89 loss, their second loss in four games since the All-Star break.
Raising both hands above his head, wiggling his fingers to coax noise out of the few thousand fans inside American Airlines Center, Doncic gazed into the stands, his work all but done for Dallas (21-18).
The guard entered the season atop some MVP odds, only to endure a rocky start, but proved every bit of his worth by completing the ninth 40-point game of his three-year career.
“Luka torched us,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said.
Outside of the Doncic defense, Lue was complimentary of the effort, saying he “thought our defensive competitiveness was there” — no small compliment considering the way the coach had, deservedly, ripped his team’s effort only three days earlier during a loss at New Orleans.
“He made some tough ones,” Lue said. “He just puts a lot of pressure on you. Has a great handle, is strong. Once he gets into the paint and gets his shoulder in front of you it’s tough to get in front of.”
George scored a team-high 28 points, with seven rebounds and five assists, and Kawhi Leonard scored 20 points with seven assists and seven rebounds, but the Clippers (26-16) made only nine of their 32 three-pointers and, in an uncharacteristic show from the NBA’s most accurate free-throw shooting team, six of 11 from the stripe.
A 22-point second quarter crippled Los Angeles. After a three-pointer by Leonard ended one two-minute-plus stretch without a field goal, it began another that wasn’t ended until two more minutes had passed.
“I thought offensively we didn’t trust, we didn’t continue to share the basketball, and we forced a lot of stuff all night,” Lue said. “The ball didn’t really change the sides of the floor and we took some bad shots at times, as well.”
Though Serge Ibaka’s second consecutive absence because of lower back tightness cost the Clippers a floor-spacing option at center, it also made it easier to tether the minutes of Doncic with center Ivica Zubac, a matchup the Clippers have liked since the first round of last year’s postseason, when “he took a huge step forward,” Lue said.
“I think he does a good job of just being a bigger body and when Luka gets downhill he’s so strong guys just fall off of him,” Lue said before tipoff. “Zu’s strength and his presence is really good for us.”
Extending his arms over his head deep in the paint, Zubac forced a miss by Doncic at the rim late in the first half, then blocked his layup attempt in its final seconds. Only two minutes earlier, Doncic had picked up two fouls in quick succession — both drawn by Terance Mann, whom Doncic has had spirited matchups against each of the last two seasons.
But stretches where the Clippers held down Doncic were few and far between.
He scored 22 first-half points, making four of his first five three-pointers. He had 31 after three quarters, though only two were scored after the Clippers played a lineup with everyone 6-foot-8 or taller after adding Nicolas Batum to the four starters of Zubac, George, Leonard and Morris.
Just as Leonard stopped his team’s three-minute drought to begin the fourth quarter, his back-to-back baskets cutting their deficit to nine with 8:22 remaining, Doncic drained a 26-point three-pointer over Batum. Lue quickly took a timeout, but on this night, none of the adjustments proved effective at stopping Doncic.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.