Friday's NBA playoffs: Clippers force Game 7 vs. Mavs; Blazers part ways with Terry Stotts

Associated Press
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Dallas — Kawhi Leonard tied his playoff career high with 45 points and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 104-97 on Friday night, forcing a Game 7 in the first postseason series in NBA history with the road team winning the first six games.

The Clippers won for the third time in front of a raucous Dallas crowd more than three times bigger than any during the regular season, this time in a tense finish after the first two LA road victories were by double digits.

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) scores a basket as he is defended by Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, front right, in the first half during Game 6 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in Dallas, Friday, June 4, 2021.

The victory gives Leonard and Paul George their first chance to eliminate the team they beat in six games in the Florida playoff bubble last August. Game 7 is Sunday in Los Angeles.

Luka Doncic scored 29 points but was just 2 of 9 from 3-point range as the LA defense turned up the pressure in key moments and held Dallas to 29% shooting in the fourth quarter. Tim Hardaway Jr. had 23 points but missed a 3-pointer and a layup in the closing minutes.

After coming home with a 2-0 series lead and losing twice, the Mavericks lost a close-out game for just the second time in seven games under coach Rick Carlisle.

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The Mavericks were down 90-88 when Maxi Kleber missed an open corner 3. Leonard scored the next eight LA points, including back-to-back 3-pointers for a 98-90 lead with 1:41 remaining.

A night after the other Los Angeles team was eliminated when LeBron James and the Lakers lost to Phoenix, the Clippers trailed for long stretches before going in front for good with six minutes left on a jumper by George, who had 20 points and 13 rebounds.

Reggie Jackson scored 14 of his 25 points in the first quarter to help keep LA close early, while Doncic's European sidekick, Kristaps Porzingis, was a nonfactor with seven points on just seven shots in 31 minutes.

The biggest lead for either team from the middle of the second quarter to the end of the third was a seven-point Dallas edge in the third.

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The Clippers erased that deficit quickly with their best defensive intensity of the game to that point, sparking an 11-0 run capped by a 3-pointer from Leonard.

LA left Dorian Finney-Smith open for a 3-pointer that helped Dallas go back in front, and the Mavericks later scored the final five points of the third for a 77-73 lead.

Blazers, Stotts parting ways after 9 seasons

No team in the NBA has a longer active streak of postseason appearances than the Portland Trail Blazers, who have gotten there in each of the last eight seasons.

That wasn’t enough to save Terry Stotts, and Portland will have a new coach next season.

The Trail Blazers and Stotts parted ways Friday, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, ending a nine-year run that saw the team good enough to get to the playoffs — but not good enough to get past the first round in four of the last five seasons.

It was being termed as a mutual decision, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither Stotts nor the team had announced the change publicly. The move was made one day after Portland’s season ended with a six-game, first-round ouster at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, a defeat that had Blazers guard Damian Lillard taking to social media after the game to indicate his frustration.

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ESPN first reported that Stotts would not be returning.

“Just like at the end of every year, we are all evaluated,” Stotts said after the season-finale against Denver and as speculation about his status immediately started to grow. “We will see what happens.”

It didn't take long to get an answer.

Stotts was the NBA's fourth longest-tenured coach in his current job behind only San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Dallas' Rick Carlisle. He went 402-318 in his nine regular seasons in Portland, with the eight playoff berths, and led the team to the Western Conference finals in 2019 — where the Blazers were swept by Golden State.

Among the possible candidates that Portland may consider: Los Angeles Lakers assistant (and former Brooklyn and Milwaukee head coach) Jason Kidd, and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy — whose last NBA coaching gig was with Houston in 2007.

“He should (be at) the top of everybody’s list who has an opening in the NBA," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of Kidd earlier Friday, hours before Stotts' fate became known.

The new coach, whoever it is, will certainly be lured by the chance to work with one of the game's dynamic scorers in Damian Lillard.

But Lillard fueled speculation about his own future in Portland following the elimination loss to the Nuggets. He posted a photo of himself in street clothes at the Moda Center. The caption that he added quoted the late rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle.

“How long should I stay dedicated?” he wrote. “How long til opportunity meet preparation?”

Portland finished the regular season 42-30 and earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

Portland was riding momentum, having won 10 of its final 12 regular-season games. The Blazers were also healthy, with both big man Jusuf Nurkic and guard CJ McCollum back from extended absences because of injuries.

But once again, the playoff trip was brief.

Lillard averaged a league-best 34.3 points and 10.2 assists in the playoffs, after averaging 28.8 points and 7.5 assists during the regular season.

He had 55 points, including a playoff record 12 3-pointers and 10 assists in Game 5 against the Nuggets, but Portland still lost, 147-140 in double overtime.

“We've got to keep fighting, keep working and keep coming back to battle,” he said. "Regardless of how it ended, we are always going to have our heads held high, have class. They won, congratulations to them, but it’s back to the drawing board to us."

A four-time All-Star, Lillard just wrapped up his ninth NBA season. The closest he's come to a title was that quick trip to the West finals in 2019.

“We didn’t win a championship, so obviously where we are now isn’t good enough,” he said.

Nurkic, who averaged 11.5 points and nine rebounds but missed time with a fractured right wrist, has one year left on his contract — but only $4 million is guaranteed. He didn't sound committed to returning next season following the loss, explaining he would come back if it was the “right situation.”

But when asked what the right situation would be, Nurkic replied: “I don’t know. But it’s not this.”

McCollum, Lillard's backcourt teammate, averaged 21.3 points this season, his best since joining the league in 2013. But he missed games with a fractured foot.

Ten-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony, who filled a key role off the bench for Portland this season, will be an unrestricted free agent, along with Enes Kanter. Norman Powell has a player option for next season.

Stotts said he was proud of what Portland was able to accomplish, given the injuries and disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

“What we did with CJ and Nurk missing games, I was proud of that,” Stotts said. “At the end of the season, to do what we did was pretty impressive."

In the end, it just wasn't impressive enough.

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