Midway through the third quarter, TNT broadcast two hunched-over billionaires stressing out during the game. Mark Cuban and Steve Ballmer, owners of the Mavericks and Clippers respectively, stared dumbfounded from their courtside seats, as their season’s biggest game unraveled. Despite the success their business savvy afforded them, they would not own this moment. Unfortunately for them, neither would their teams.
Often, great playoff games elevate the competitive fervor between opponents, only for one to come out on top. Not tonight. Tonight, even in the waning moments of a game desperately begging for someone to seize control, neither team could hold on. The Clippers couldn’t hold on to home court advantage. The Mavericks couldn’t hold on to a 16-point lead. Kawhi Leonard couldn’t hold on to past shooting performances. Luka Doncic couldn’t hold on to the ball. Even fans couldn’t hold on to their breaths. In a postseason typically defined by games where out of two worthy winners, one must lose, tonight was a game of attrition, where one team had to win.
In Game 5, the Mavericks won. It wasn’t pretty and at times was downright difficult to watch. Though Luka Doncic scored 42 points, 27 of which came in the first half, his shooting touch was nowhere to be found in the fourth quarter. After getting off to a blistering start, Doncic went 1/8 from the field in the final frame and had a crucial turnover with just over 18 seconds remaining in a one-point game.
Momentum was squarely on the Clippers’ side. Falling behind 16 points with 11:42 left in the fourth and trailing by 10 points with 2:13 left in the game, Los Angeles mounted a furious comeback. Once again, the Clippers fell short at home. A missed layup by LA’s Nicolas Batum and two made free throws by Dallas’ Tim Hardaway Jr. led to Kawhi Leonard’s corner three. From the same spot he sank the Sixers’ season in 2019, Leonard air-balled a three to further sink the Clippers’ postseason hopes.
Now, the series heads back to Dallas, where the Mavericks will try to turn their 3-2 first round lead into their first series win since Dirk Nowitzki’s 2011 championship run. Meanwhile, the Clippers will seek out another win on the road Friday night to salvage their tumultuous season and title window. Mark Cuban and Steve Ballmer will almost certainly be in attendance. If there’s anything they should keep in mind, it’s that this series belongs to the first team to win at home, a situation unseen since the 1995 Western Conference Finals, when the Spurs and Rockets split the first five games on the road, before Houston closed out at home in six.
Whether Dallas can follow suit behind Luka Doncic, their 22 year old superstar averaging 32.8 PPG which trails only Michael Jordan’s 33.4 PPG as the highest playoff production of all time, or Los Angeles can force a Game 7 behind the tandem of 2-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and perennial All-Star swingman Paul George, will largely determine how the teams’ seasons are viewed. Either way, that defining moment arrives Friday night. It’s up to both teams whether they own it or not.