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Clippers face no Kawhi Leonard in the 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 heading 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 persistent inflammation” in his surgically repaired right knee. He has not participated in contact training and has not played since March 31.

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

But it seems unlikely for Game 1 on Sunday.

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

“The boys are ready,” Lue said. “This is what you play for, to reach this moment and have a chance to win a championship. It is up to everyone to produce.”

Last year, George was injured and missed the last nine games of the regular season and the playoffs. The Clippers did not advance out of the first round and lost to Phoenix in five games.

“We’ve just been unlucky enough to stay healthy,” George said.

Now they face Dallas for the third time in five years. The Clippers defeated Dallas in six games 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 likely Hall of Famers in Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

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

The Clippers took two of three from Dallas this season.

“We’ve always known that we have enough to win, no matter who comes in and out. This is a very talented group,” said George. “I think we’re doing a good job of keeping things together.”

The Mavs were 25-16 on the road this season, winning 16 of their last 20 to end the regular season. The fourth-seeded Clippers went 4-4 without Leonard in their last 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 to win in the past without Kawhi.”

DÉJÀ VU FOR KYRIE

Irving finds himself in a similar situation to the last time he was part of deep playoff runs with LeBron James and Cleveland in 2016 and ’17. The Cavaliers have 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 give each other their moments to take over games, and how to challenge each other without getting into shouting matches.

“Me and Luka are doing the same thing here,” Irving said of his Slovenian teammate. “When you have someone who can be challenged, and I can look at Luka and say, ‘Come on, man, turn this up a little bit.’ Or he can say, “Come on, Kai,” and say something in his language, or say something to me. Even though it is more of an encouraging and celebratory moment, if you can get someone talking on a positive note, you can go a long way.”

ROOKIE CENTER STATUS

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

Rookie center Dereck Lively II missed the final 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 made 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 to dunkers and rim protectors.

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

PICKING UP THE PACE

Kidd believes pace is one of the reasons for the Mavs’ improvement since last season. Dallas was the third-slowest team in 2022-23 and wasn’t much better than that after trading for Irving. This season the emphasis was on pace from the start and Dallas finished seventh. The Clippers ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of 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 have to keep playing at that pace. By utilizing our depth, we use that to our advantage.”

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

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