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Tuesday's NBA Playoffs: Mavericks and Pacers join the fray. Big Suns 3 Bottled

Tuesday's NBA Playoffs: Mavericks and Pacers join the fray.  Big Suns 3 Bottled

by Kelly Echo, Eric Nehm, John Krawczynski, Doug Haller, Lou Murray, and Tim Cato

Kawhi Leonard's first game since March 31 proved to be a real defensive battle, one the Los Angeles Clippers couldn't win. In their 96-93 Game 2 loss to Dallas, the Clippers held the Mavericks to fewer points than they had in Game 1, which the Clippers won 109-97. But the Clippers' offense struggled throughout the nine-man rotation, holding them to 36.8 percent field goals in the Mavericks' win that tied the series at one and overturned their home-game advantage.

It was very exciting to conclude Tuesday's slate that opened with the Minnesota Timberwolves dealing the Phoenix Suns' big-time lineup of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, leading the Timberwolves to a 2-0 lead with a 105-93 victory.

Then the Milwaukee Bucks – Without superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo for Game 2 as he continues to rehab a calf strain – he dropped the game to the Indiana Pacers, tying the series in one piece. That night witnessed a great performance by Pacers forward Pascal Siakam, who scored 37 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Damian Lillard scored 34 points for the Bucks, but he was unable to lead his team to victory without the help of his counterpart, who won the league's Most Valuable Player award twice.

Mavericks 96, Clippers 93

The two will square off in the third bout on Friday at 8pm ET in Dallas.

Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving appear at the right time

The Mavericks have Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, did you hear that? It's this star duo that drives this team's success for better or worse, that makes terrifying opponents feel playing against them, and that rescues their teammates when they make mistakes. Entering the fourth quarter with a one-point lead, Doncic had an ineffective night and Irving was quiet. Dallas' role players were struggling to make shots, and Mavericks coach Jason Kidd's rotations were reduced to a few reliable players.

And then those two arrived: loudly, dramatically, as Irving and then Doncic scored three goals, putting Dallas ahead by three and then six. Irving chipped in a baseline floater. Thanks to the weight of those two, taking over when needed, help was finally called upon from players: PJ Washington and Maxi Kleber, specifically. In a game in which the space was confined to an abyss of edges and danger, and in which the Clippers' defensive intensity increased even more with the return of Leonard, every point seemed like an oasis.

Dallas matches that intensity. After one match, Kidd said that his team did not start the first half with enough physical ability, which the team brought a lot of from the first whistle. Doncic and Irving led the charge with a frenetic, focused effort just as Kidd had asked them to. And despite how long it took them through three quarters, those 36 minutes in which Dallas felt they wasted opportunities to take the lead, these two stars showed up again in the fourth quarter when needed.

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As the series returns to Dallas for the next two episodes. — Tim Cato, Mavericks beat writer

Kawhi Leonard, supporting the cast offensively

The Clippers' worst game all season from a field goal percentage standpoint was 37.6 percent on the Minnesota Timberwolves, the best defense in the NBA for the season. But despite scoring just 89 points in that game, the Clippers were able to escape with a one-point win.

This was not the case in the second match. In fact, the Clippers held the Mavericks to fewer points (96) than in Game 1, but the Clippers' offense struggled and saw limited positive feedback from Leonard's return from injury. The two-time Finals MVP played his first game in 23 days on Tuesday night, but scored just 15 points on 7 of 17 field goals, missing all five of his 40s.

Leonard's stars were somewhat better from the field, as Paul George and James Harden each had 22 points while hitting 13 of 28 field goals (46.4 percent passable). But Harden missed 8 of 10 3s, while George missed 3 of 4 3s before scoring a meaningless 3 at the buzzer.

The other Clippers struggled hard all around. Ivica Zubac was a star in Game 1, scoring 20 points on 10-of-17 field goals. But in the second game, Zubac was sub-par, missing 7 of 12 field goals. Other than George, Harden and Zubac, the Clippers struggled to score efficiently in Game 1, especially in the paint. Game 2 was arguably worse, as the Clippers struggled at home and away. Terrence Mann, Norman Powell, Russell Westbrook and Amir Kofi combined to score just 20 points on 7-of-27 shooting (25.9 percent).

Regression to the average is a great thing to rely on, and the Clippers could certainly be better at taking their star-level and player-level shots. But the Mavericks arrived. Their top-rated defense during the final quarter of the regular season is now relevant to the Clippers. — Lou Murray, Clippers beat writer

Pacers 125, Bucks 108

After the tie, each team looks to win Game 3 on Friday at 5:30 PM ET in Indianapolis.

Pacers are tuned according to the string

It's clear after two games that Milwaukee's defensive game plan is putting pressure on Tyrese Haliburton first and foremost, forcing him to give up the ball and trust the rotation behind him. It worked in Game 1, as the Pacers gave up 30 points on 38 3s while a surprisingly timid Haliburton seemed unwilling to force the issue. For a team that spent the majority of the regular season operating as an above-average outside shooting team, Game 1 was a worrying sign, especially against an experienced Bucks team.

At the start of Game 2, the Pacers made it clear that adjustments had been made after Sunday night's failure. Haliburton showed poise in controlling the tempo, and even when Milwaukee sent doubles and traps his way, the ball moved undulatingly around the floor, ensuring that the Pacers gave up good shots for great ones. Aaron Nesmith, Myles Turner and Siakam combined to make nine threes, more than in the entire first game. As a team, Indiana shot 15 of 34 from behind the arc.

The Pacers' skill to score 3 points forced the Bucks to change their attack and approach, leaving gaps in the middle of the floor for Siakam, who made 16 of 23 shots to score 37 points. Kelly Echo, NBA staff writer

The Bucks are missing Antetokounmpo sorely

It's never been easy for the Bucks without Antetokounmpo. They overcame Game 1 with a strong performance from Lillard and a poor performance from the Pacers, who seemed to have been shaken by the Bucks' playoff intensity and focus. But with the Pacers poised and poised for a moment in Game 2, the Bucks didn't have enough on both ends of the floor.

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On defense, without their roaming physicality, the Bucks needed to bolster their defensive attack and hope the Pacers missed some 3-pointers. In Game 1, they did just that. In Game 2, they made 10 of their 20 three-point attempts in the first half. Then they ran away in the second half due to the Bucks' offensive struggles.

The Bucks survived the first half of Game 2 behind an impressive shooting display by Lillard, but didn't have enough offensively as the game went on. As the Pacers beat Lillard, the Bucks fired shots around the rim, missed them while struggling to make plays through contact and watched the Pacers come out with a 20-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Eric Nehm, Bucks beat Writer

Timberwolves 105, Suns 93

The Timberwolves achieved their first win in the playoffs on Tuesday evening, defeating the Phoenix Suns 105-93.

Jaden McDaniels scored 25 points for the Wolves, and Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley each added 18 points. Minnesota had three more players – Karl-Anthony Towns (12), Anthony Edwards (15) and Nickel-Alexander-Walker (10) – scored in double figures.

Booker led the Suns with 20 points, and Durant added 18 points.

Minnesota looks to take the lead in Game 3 at 10:30 PM ET on Friday in Phoenix.

Wolves stop the Big Three

The Timberwolves entered this series facing questions about how to handle the Suns' star trio of Durant, Booker and Beal, but through two games of this series, the Suns have no answers about the Timberwolves' depth.

The Wolves got pedestrian games from Edwards (15 points, eight assists) and Towns (12 points, eight rebounds) in Game 2, but McDaniels and Conley made up for it.

The Timberwolves appeared to wear down the Suns as the game went on, turning a one-point deficit in the first half into a seven-point lead after three quarters, then blowing the floodgates open early in the fourth quarter to seal the win. McDaniels scored 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds while playing great defense on Durant, who got most of his 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting.

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Conley rebounded from 2 of 12 Game 1 to go 7 of 13 and score 18 points. By the end of the game, the Suns looked defeated in more ways than one.

The Wolves have kept the Suns stars from hurting them in two games. Booker scored 20 harmless points before fouling out, and Beal scored 14 points on 6-of-17 shooting.

Minnesota has shown it has the counters to any success the Suns have. In Game 1, Alexander Walker and Naz Reed were backing up a huge game from Edwards. What was supposed to be one of the most competitive series in the first round was dominated by Minnesota. It was a Big 3 Suns showdown against a Big 9 Wolves team. It wasn't close. — John Krawczynski, Timberwolves beat writer

Is this series over?

it's not. But the sun has issues that need immediate attention when it returns to the desert. Despite Tuesday's final score, they were better in Game 2 in some areas. They rebounded better and kept Edwards in check for the most part. They were more physical, with Booker trading blows with McDaniels.

But the Suns have to find a way to get their big three going. They have no other choice. That's how this team was built, led by Booker, Durant and Beal. Through two games, that's not how it's played in Minneapolis. Durant scored 31 points in Game 1, but the three struggled to find rhythm in Game 2.

Minnesota is the best defensive team in the league, so this is no surprise. It's also not an easy solution. The Timberwolves have elite defenders in McDaniels, Gobert and another on the way in Alexander-Walker. But the sun can't win the battle of the rocks. Brave, pessimistic, quarrelsome – these are not words that describe them.

They have spikes when they can match the toughness of the opponent. But when adversity strikes, they need the big three to become the difference-makers they are supposed to be. This has not happened yet in this series. This will likely be their only chance. — Doug Haller is a sports writer from Arizona

Required reading

(Photo: Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)