A first-round rematch between Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard has come to this: The first team to win at home takes the series.
Unless the visitors sweep seven games for the first time in NBA history.
Doncic, the young Dallas sensation, has the Mavericks one victory from their first postseason series win since the 2011 NBA Finals.
To get it, Dallas needs a victory in Game 6 on Friday night over Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers, who evened the series with two double-digit victories on the road before the Mavericks’ 105-100 win at LA for a 3-2 lead.
Utah, the top seed in the Western Conference, awaits the series winner.
“It’s very obvious,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “We have got to play better basketball at home.”
The road team has never won the first six games of an NBA playoff series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Clippers, who beat Dallas in six games in the first round in the Florida playoff bubble last August, hope to make history. If they do, Game 7 will be in LA.
“We have to win on the road more than win at home if we want to become champions,” George said. “Yeah, we have to take care of home court, but we’ve got other jobs to do. At the end of the day, we still have an opportunity to close this at home if we get this win in Dallas.”
Doncic had two days to rest a neck strain that clearly was an issue in Game 4 and responded with 42 points, a playoff career-high 14 assists and eight rebounds. LeBron James is the only other player with similar numbers in a playoff game.
This time, the 22-year-old only has one day of rest, but he wasn’t grimacing and grabbing the neck in Game 5 the way he did while posting series lows in points (19), rebounds (six) and assists (six) in a 25-point loss in Dallas.
“He’s getting a lot of massage, ice,” Carlisle said. “He’s just one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen, ever been around. He’s just a warrior-type guy that happens to be one of the very best players in the world.”
Leonard and George combined to shoot less than 50% in Game 5, including Leonard’s air ball on a potential tying 3-pointer in the final seconds, after making 41 of 66 shots to carry the Clippers through the first two games in Dallas.
The LA stars didn’t get into the lane as much because the Mavericks used more zone. Now it’s time to see how the Clippers adjust to that defensive move. Most eyes will be on Leonard, who is averaging 30 points in the series while Doncic is at 35.
“Still can’t take away from our aggressiveness attacking the paint, attacking the basket, even though they tried to run a lot of zone,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We still got open shots and you still could drive it as well. So we have to be better when it comes to playing against the zone.”
Friday’s Game 6, 8 p.m. EDT, ESPN
—NEED TO KNOW: Doncic scored or assisted on 31 of 37 Dallas baskets in Game 5. James and Allen Iverson are the only other players to have a hand in at least 80% of their team’s buckets in a playoff game.
—KEEP AN EYE ON: The Mavericks have another chance to make 17,000 fans at American Airlines Center work to their advantage. They fed off a huge surge early in Game 3, the first with a crowd more than three times bigger than what Dallas had at the end of the regular season. But Leonard and George methodically took the crowd out of the rest of that game and just about all of Game 4.
—INJURY WATCH: How Doncic’s neck responds with half as much rest between games is the biggest issue. The Mavericks don’t expect shooting guard JJ Redick to play the rest of this series because of right heel soreness. The outlook isn’t much better if they advance. Serge Ibaka has missed the past three games for LA because of a back issue.
—PRESSURE IS ON: Leonard and George are on the verge of a second huge letdown after joining forces in the hopes of getting the Clippers at least to the West finals for the first time in franchise history. LA blew a 3-1 lead in the second round against Denver last year. With another disappointing finish, Leonard will have decide if he wants to try again. The two-time Finals MVP has a player option for next season.