The Los Angeles Clippers have reached 50 wins in a single season for the first time in the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George era, but to put into perspective how unforgiving the Western Conference is, all that earned them was a first-round matchup against a familiar opponent in the Dallas Mavericks.

Clippers fans, of all people, would know how frightening of a matchup Luka Doncic is under the bright lights of the playoffs. Doncic rendered Ivica Zubac and Patrick Beverley unplayable in 2021, and Doncic, despite having a much worse supporting cast, pushed the Clippers to the brink, warranting an all-time performance from Leonard in Game 6 just so LA could stave off elimination.

Three years have passed since that all-timer of a first-round matchup, and all these two teams have done since is load up on even more talent. The Mavericks are deeper than ever, with Kyrie Irving providing All-NBA-caliber production as the Robin to Doncic's Batman. The addition of Daniel Gafford has given the Mavericks two legitimate rim-protecting lob threats, while PJ Washington has bolstered the team's defense that has them ranked sixth since the trade deadline.

Tim Hardaway Jr. has a history of being a Clippers killer, so his threat shouldn't be taken any lightly. Maxi Kleber is still around as a floor-spacing big-man option. Dante Exum, Josh Green, and Derrick Jones Jr. give the Mavs greater perimeter resistance than they had in 2021.

But the Clippers have added James Harden and Russell Westbrook, two future Hall of Famers, to helm the offense, alleviating Kawhi Leonard and Paul George's offensive burdens. Norman Powell is here to scorch the nets off the bench. Ivica Zubac looks like a much more improved player, while Terance Mann and Amir Coffey are turning out to be exceptional glue guys.

One thing's for sure, this first-round matchup will be a treat to watch for neutrals. But for the Clippers, all they're hoping for is to avoid these two things as they try to mount a playoff run without running into a scenario straight out of their darkest nightmares.

Is Kawhi Leonard healthy enough to lead the Clippers?

Kawhi Leonard is a certified Mavericks killer. He is the player the Mavs fanbase dreads the most, striking fear into their hearts at an even greater scale than Luka Doncic does to Clippers fans, as astounding as that may sound. The memory of Leonard taking over in the clutch during Game 6 of their first-round matchup in 2021 will forever be ingrained in their minds.

But the past two seasons have been difficult for Leonard. He missed the entire 2021-22 season due to a torn ACL, and his 2023 playoff run got cut short after two games after he suffered a torn meniscus. And now, Leonard has missed the Clippers' past six games with right knee soreness, which is a bit of a concern given his history.

The hope is that he is merely resting his knee in preparation for the playoff run ahead. But given Leonard's injury-prone reputation, feeling anxiety over his playing status and whether he'll be 100 percent against the Mavericks on April 20 is justifiable.

If healthy, there is no question that Kawhi Leonard will deliver in the playoffs against the Mavericks. Sure, he may not be guarded by Maxi Kleber anymore, or the Mavs won't have to deploy a 2-3 zone like they did in 2021. But Leonard, who scored 69 points in the two games he played in last year's playoffs, is averaging 32.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists against the Mavericks in the playoffs as a Clipper. He will get his, as long as he's healthy.

Nonetheless, it'll be huge if Leonard doesn't have to take on the entire Mavericks team by his lonesome, as it'll be ideal for the Clippers if they ease Leonard into the proceedings and not have to bring out his Terminator mode early on.

Can Paul George and James Harden shed their “playoff choker” reputations?

Paul George has had a few playoff stinkers; he went 2-16 in an elimination game back in 2018, he shot 10-47 in a three-game stretch against the Mavericks back in 2020, and then he stunk up the joint with a 4-16 night in their Game 7 loss against the Denver Nuggets in the most recent 3-1 choke job the Clippers have had.

James Harden has had a few disappearing acts of his own; he went AWOL when the Houston Rockets lost in the 2017 NBA playoffs, and then most recently, he put up a few horrendous shooting nights in the second round of the 2023 NBA playoffs, unable to come up huge when the Philadelphia 76ers needed him the most.

George, during his most recent playoff run, was incredible; he logged heavy minutes, acted as the team's stabilizing force when Kawhi Leonard went down with an injury, and he even had a few explosive scoring nights to lead the Clippers to their first Conference Finals appearance in franchise history. They will need this version of George to show up against the Mavericks in a week or so.

Meanwhile, Harden, who has settled in nicely into a primary facilitator role, must learn how to balance being aggressive in hunting his shot and deferring to George and Leonard.

The nightmare scenario for the Clippers is that both George and Harden struggle mightily, putting the onus yet again on Kawhi Leonard to bail the whole team out.