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Clippers facing prospect of no Kawhi Leonard in playoff opener against Luka Doncic and Mavericks

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It's playoff time in the NBA, and the Los Angeles Clippers have four potential Hall of Famers on their roster. But only three of them are healthy going into a first-round matchup with Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

Kawhi Leonard has been dealing with what the team says is “very, very stubborn inflammation” in his surgically repaired right knee. He hasn't participated in any contact practices and hasn't played since March 31.

“I do think, at some point, he’ll be with us,” teammate Paul George said Saturday. “Kawhi wants to be in this more than anybody.”

But it seems unlikely for Game 1 on Sunday.

Coach Tyronn Lue has tabbed a replacement starter if Leonard can’t go, although he declined to say who.

“The guys are ready,” Lue said. “This is what you play for, to get to this moment to have a chance to play for a championship. It's on everybody to produce.”

Last year, George was hurt and missed the final nine games of the regular season and the playoffs. The Clippers didn't get out of the first round, losing in five games to Phoenix.

“We've just been unlucky remaining healthy,” George said.

Now, they're facing Dallas for the third time in five years. The Clippers beat Dallas in six games playing in the bubble in 2020 and won a Game 7 at home in 2021.

The fifth-seeded Mavs are 2.5-point favorites in Game 1, according to BetMGM Sportsbook.

The Mavs have their own set of likely Hall of Famers in Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

“They’re going to score the basketball,” Clippers guard James Harden said, “but make it as difficult as you can possession by possession.”

The Clippers took two of three from Dallas this season.

“We’ve always known we’ve got enough to win regardless of who’s in and out. This is a very talented group," George said. “I think we’re good when it comes to kind of just holding it together.”

The Mavs were 25-16 on the road this season and won 16 of their last 20 to end the regular season. The fourth-seeded Clippers went 4-4 without Leonard over their final eight games, including wins over playoff teams Cleveland (after trailing by 26 points), Denver and Phoenix.

“It was huge to get those wins,” Lue said. “It’s been hard for us in the past to win without Kawhi.”

DÉJÀ VU FOR KYRIE

Irving is in a situation similar to the last time he participated in deep playoff runs with LeBron James and Cleveland in 2016 and ’17. The Cavaliers played Golden State in the NBA Finals each time, winning the title in 2016 before losing the rematch.

Irving said he and James learned how to let each other have their moments to take over games, and how to challenge each other without getting into screaming matches.

“Me and Luka are doing the same thing here,” Irving said of his Slovenian teammate. “When you have somebody that can be challenged, and I can look at Luka and be like, ‘C’mon, man, turn this up a little bit.’ Or he can be like, ‘C’mon, Kai,’ and say something in his language or say something to me. Even if it’s more of an encouraging, celebratory moment, just getting somebody going on a positive note goes a long way.”

ROOKIE CENTER’S STATUS

The biggest question about health for Dallas pales compared to Leonard. But it’s still an important one for the Mavs.

Rookie center Dereck Lively II missed the last eight games of the regular season with a sprained right knee. He participated in practice all week, but coach Jason Kidd remained vague about his availability.

Lively had an immediate impact as a first-round pick out of Duke, and is now part of a two-man center rotation after a midseason trade for Daniel Gafford. They play similar styles as dunkers and rim protectors.

“Everything is trending in the right direction,” Kidd said.

PICK UP THE PACE

Kidd believes pace is one of the reasons for the improvement of the Mavs since last season. Dallas was the third-slowest team in 2022-23, and wasn’t much better than that after the trade for Irving. Pace was an emphasis from the start this season, and Dallas finished seventh. The Clippers were in the bottom third of the league in pace both seasons.

“When you talk about the playoffs, it tends to slow down,” Kidd said. “For us, we don’t want it to slow down. We’ve got to continue to keep playing with that pace. Understanding using our depth, using that to our advantage.”

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AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed to this report.

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/nba

Beth Harris, The Associated Press