Knotting up their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers at one game apiece is no grounds for the Dallas Mavericks to take more than a momentary victory lap. Their work isn't done. There's much more series left to play and maybe, just maybe, another series after that.
Which is the entire point.
Dallas' regular-season ascendance has trickled over to the playoffs. It remains ahead of schedule, far more so than any team led by a sophomore, even this particular sophomore, should be. Perhaps more unbelievably, while Luka Doncic is the heart and soul of the Mavericks' meteoric trajectory, he is not sustaining it on his own.
Wednesday night's 127-114 victory over the Clippers did not belong only to him, though not for a lack of substance. After committing 11 turnovers in Game 1, he went on an under-control tear, notching 28 points on 8-of-17 shooting, including a 4-of-7 clip from distance, and seven assists while coughing up only one giveaway.
Doncic also added a spot in the record books for good measure:
His command of the game isn't surprising, not even for someone appearing in only his second NBA playoff tilt. The composure with which he plays might belie his age—he's only 21, by the way—but not his experience. He is no stranger to higher-stakes moments after his time with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team.
Not that his performance isn't disarming. His half-court lilt is a sight to be hold, a string of off-the-dribble bursts that methodically ebb the deeper he drives. That change of pace scutters and confounds, and improved finishing through contact combined with freeze-frame hang times makes it difficult, verging on impossible, to keep him off the foul line (where he needs to shoot better than 8-of-12).
Oh, yeah, and there's the infinite range on his step-back three. And the passes he flings, to anywhere and everywhere, on collapsing defenses.
That Doncic's first taste of the NBA's postseason is less baptism by fire and more business as usual aligns with most incoming expectations. Even as he and the Mavericks stumbled through crunch time during the regular season, the issue was never his fit for playoff basketball.
It was whether he'd have enough help to prolong Dallas' stay.
And as it turns out, he might.
On Wendesday, Doncic received help from everywhere—from Kristaps Porzingis (23 points on 7-of-13 shooting) and Seth Curry (15 points on 6-of-9 shooting), from Tim Hardaway Jr. (17 points and three assists) and Trey Burke (16 points on 7-of-11 shooting). Even Boban Marjanovic pitched in, dropping 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting while logging just under 10 minutes.
When Doncic left the floor early in the fourth quarter after picking up his fifth foul, the Mavericks actually extended their lead behind timely shot-making from their trio of former Knicks. In the 20 minutes he didn't play, Dallas drilled five threes, generated 21 free throws and outscored the Clippers by two—a small edge that makes all the difference in the world when having to navigate superstar-less stretches against Paul George or Kawhi Leonard and sometimes both.
Justin Russo @FlyByKnite
Yes, the Clippers have missed quite a few open shots (33% from three) but Dallas is getting a plethora of their own open shots and they're knocking them down while being on a string defensively to take away first and second options. Clippers are having to go late in the clock.
Surviving without Doncic is nothing new for the Mavericks. They outpaced opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season when he wasn't in the game. But the playoffs are different. Buying your best player time on the bench is harder and sometimes not possible.
Plus, the primary concerns were never about Doncic-less stretches alone. It was more about the supporting cast in general. Does Dallas have enough shot creation to optimize his minutes on the floor? To tread water when he sits? And to endure crunch-time pushes?
Two games and a 1-1 record isn't enough to render a concrete verdict on the state of Doncic's running mates, which is forever better than expected thanks to head coach Rick Carlisle's own decision-making and, for the most part, common-sense lineups. At the same time, the Mavericks are very much working with two games worth of evidence.
Dallas lost Game 1 under a thick what-if cloud. It led Los Angeles by five points when Porzingis picked up his second technical early in the third quarter and was subsequently ejected. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn't gotten bounced? Maybe the Mavericks fend off the Clippers. Maybe they're working on a 2-0 series lead as Twitter melts down.
Hypotheticals never mean much. Just ask Carlisle:
Inarguably, the Clippers will be better. George won't go 4-of-17 from the floor, including 2-of-10 from three, every night. Nor will he find himself in such dire foul trouble early on. This all presumes his shoulder doesn't become a problem.
This is a tough matchup for Montrezl Harrell, but he will play his way into shape. Marcus Morris (probably) won't spend so much time trying to capitalize on could-be mismatches. It shouldn't be so hard to work through the minutes Doncic spends on the sidelines.
Patrick Beverley's left calf strain looms over this series and is beyond Los Angeles' control. He didn't look right in Game 1 and has dealt with this same injury before. The Clippers aren't as switch-ready on defense without him in the lineup.
They also aren't this seemingly hapless. Head coach Doc Rivers can help the team help itself.
Fewer minutes for the Reggie Jackson-Lou Williams tandem is a good place to start. They have to play without Beverley in the fold—and you can never bench Williams' shot creation entirely—but not at the same time.
More aggressively attacking Doncic should go a long way, too. If the Clippers aren't going to trap him like hell—they should consider it—then assigning him to George or Leonard before crunch time makes at least some sense. They should likewise try not dropping as much on Dallas' other top perimeter option, Curry. And this feels like a series in which more JaMychal Green should be an option, even if he's undersized relative the Mavericks' frontcourt combinations.
And yet, expecting the Clippers to just flip a switch and take over this series overstates their position. Their roster has seldom suited up at full strength. They're a work in progress—dominant on paper but still untested and unfamiliar.
More than that, insofar as a switch exists, flipping it doesn't promise a much different result. The Mavericks aren't just happy to be here. Doncic isn't going it alone. The outcome of this series is not predetermined.
And the Clippers have officially been warned.