Clippers open playoffs versus Mavericks after losing regular-season finale to Thunder

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Oklahoma City Thunder forward Josh Hall, rear, tries to knock the ball away from Los Angeles Clippers center Daniel Oturu.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Josh Hall tries to knock the ball away from Clippers center Daniel Oturu during Sunday's game. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

The eyes of the NBA turned toward Oklahoma City late in a deadlocked fourth quarter Sunday, the final day of the regular season, for one reason: Who would end up pulling out a gutty loss?

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, saying that entering the playoffs with a fully healthy rotation was his top priority after an injury-plagued season, rested All-Stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, starting forward Marcus Morris and reserves Nicolas Batum, Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins against the Thunder. Then starting center Ivica Zubac played six seconds to keep alive his streak of 158 consecutive games before fouling and exiting for rest, and starting guard Reggie Jackson played only seven minutes.

There also was the matter of playoff seeding to consider: The Clippers controlled their seed — third with a win, fourth with a loss. Fourth put them in position to potentially avoid the Lakers until the Western Conference finals, should the Lakers win their play-in matchup against Golden State and the co-tenants of Staples Center advance that far.

The Thunder, meanwhile, needed to lose to maximize their lottery odds ahead of the draft.

The ingredients combined to create a season finale with little intensity — but, for the Clippers, also set in motion a first-round playoff series against Dallas brimming with it.

The Clippers’ 117-112 loss locked them into fourth in the West, and the Lakers’ victory over New Orleans, sealed only minutes later, clinched a repeat of last season’s first-round Clippers series against the Mavericks in which the teams traded words and technical fouls during a testy, six-game series.

Mavericks All-Star Luka Doncic told reporters Sunday that Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. had apologized to him earlier this season for stepping on Doncic’s foot during the playoffs.

“He’s a hell of a player, hell of a defender,” Doncic told reporters. “Trash talk is always there, and if it’s not, you’re not really competing. It’s going to be great.”

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic controls the ball in front of Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard.
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic controls the ball in front of Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during Game 2 of the 2020 Western Conference quarterfinals in August. (Associated Press)

Dallas won this year’s season series, 2-1, beginning with a 51-point victory in the season’s third game. The teams last played each other in mid-March, with the Clippers winning by 10 before losing by 16. The Clippers did not have center Serge Ibaka for the final two games because of an injury suffered only days before. After missing 30 games with a pinched nerve in his back, Ibaka played the last two games of the season.

Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 11 assists and 8.3 rebounds this season against the Clippers while shooting 47.8% overall and 37% on three-pointers — slightly higher than his season average.

“We want to keep him off balanced as much as possible,” Lue said. “We know [Kristaps] Porzingis is back, he’s healthy so he poses a problem, especially being 7-[feet]-1, 7-2, for him to shoot the ball the way he does and also be able to post-up, roll, pop. He does a lot of different things.

“Of course, Rick Carlisle is a Hall of Fame coach who also is big for that team, as well. We know we have our hands full, we know they are a good team, they have been playing great this year, it is going to be a good challenge for us.”

Clippers guard Terance Mann puts up a shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.
Clippers guard Terance Mann puts up a shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

The Clippers finish 47-25 and owning the NBA’s second-best net rating — the difference in points scored and allowed over 100 possessions — despite numerous injuries leading to 25 different starting lineups. Lue said the Clippers considered playing the top eight players of their likely playoff rotation Sunday, given only their second opportunity to do so, but the conversation was perhaps brief.

“I’ll take health over rust any day, that was our main thought,” Lue said. “And with the season being so different now, like, when I played, playoffs started in two or three days. With everybody getting about a week off anyway ... you’re not gonna get better chemistry in one game.”

Rookie guard Jay Scrubb played 36 minutes Sunday and scored 14 points. Yogi Ferrell added 14 points. Rookie center Daniel Oturu played a career-high 37 minutes and produced 13 points and 12 rebounds but also was blocked numerous times.

A first-round schedule had not been announced by the NBA late Sunday, but the Clippers will host the first two games of the seven-game series against the Mavericks, and Games 5 and 7, if necessary.

In an email to fans Sunday, the team announced that home games at Staples Center will include sections reserved for fully vaccinated fans, along with others where fans must sit socially distanced. The vaccinated sections, which the team said were approved by the NBA and Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, “enable us to significantly increase our capacity” in the arena.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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