Clippers fall short against Kyrie Irving and new-look Mavericks

The spotlight entering Wednesday night revolved around seeing, for the first time, the fruits of Dallas’ big trade-deadline move.

The question leaving it centered on how far their opponent will go with their own.

With the league’s moratorium on trades looming at noon PT Thursday, the Clippers lost 110-104 while facing Kyrie Irving in his Mavericks debut, only days after the Clippers had tried to pry him away from Brooklyn. All the while the Clippers kept mulling their own options for how to optimize their tandem of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

In recent days, the team had inquired about Charlotte guard Terry Rozier and big man Mason Plumlee, league sources said. Guard Fred VanVleet, the source of so much speculation, remains with the Toronto Raptors, for now. Size in the frontcourt and ballhandling skill in the backcourt are said to remain priorities for the Clippers.

Against the backdrop of trade talks and the buyout market that will follow played out a game that, depending on the viewpoint of perhaps a basketball executive, could represent either little more than the woes of a tired team fresh off a 12-day trip, facing a rejuvenated opponent, or the latest example of the inconsistencies leading to their 31-27 record — reasons why the team might feel compelled to reshape its roster.

Norman Powell led the Clippers with 24 points off the bench, and Paul George scored 20 points but on 20 shots.Kawhi Leonard had 18 points.

In his Dallas debut, Irving finished with 24 points while his fellow All-Star teammate Luka Doncic watched in street clothes, sidelined by a hurt heel. Asked to compare that backcourt’s combination of shot creation and playmaking, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd suggested Irving’s time in Cleveland alongside LeBron James.

Irving received a loud, and chilly, reception inside Arena upon touching the ball on the first possession, then missed two shots as his new teammate, Reggie Bullock, outscored the Clippers by himself with nine points. But cheers were quick to follow Irving after he lost his defender, Leonard, and created room for his first basket as a Maverick, then made a three-pointer 31 seconds later, and yet another three only 37 seconds after that — all told, a 13-1 Dallas run to push its lead to 15 not even halfway through the opening quarter.

The lead would grow to 19. When Mavericks guard Jaden Hardy drove with nine minutes to play in the second quarter, there wasn’t a single Clippers defender that stepped in his way to stop his path to the rim, which he finished with a dunk for a 46-27 lead.

Irving later shook Clippers reserve Robert Covington at the top of the key, found an open lane on his left with no one waiting to protect the rim.

In the fourth quarter, coach Tyronn Lue took out Reggie Jackson — the player who has remained in the rotation because he fits what Lue has called the “traditional point guard” archetype — after Jackson couldn’t complete an entry pass to Leonard as he stood at the elbow, leading to one of the Clippers’ 11 turnovers. George, still pressed into more duty as a ballhandler, was responsible for four.

“We’re starting to try to get to a point where it’s kind of positionless and everybody can handle, and everybody can play every position on the floor,” assistant Brian Shaw said before the game about the rotating ballhandler duties. “And that’s still a work in progress.”

There were also stretches that displayed why the Clippers, while not expected to stand pat, could also opt to search for upgrades around the margins, more content than concerned about the makeup of their core rotation.

Using a nine-man rotation in the second half, featuring Jackson, Covington, Powell and Nicolas Batum off the bench, the Clippers pulled to within one point with three minutes to play in the third quarter on a Leonard jump shot after he isolated against the defense of Irving and drilled the shot over the smaller defender. Dallas scored 40 points in the first quarter, then only 41 combined during the next two.

Leonard scored only two points before halftime before adding 13 in the third quarter.

Terance Mann, the nominal point guard whom opposing teams have called about with great interest for weeks, showed why the Clippers have protected him thus far in scoring 21 points, with four assists and three rebounds.

But midway through the fourth quarter, their deficit was again 10 points and the Clippers never got to within five. When the team plays Friday, it could look quite different.

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