We weren’t even two minutes into Saturday night’s matchup with the Miami Heat when suddenly the Dallas Mavericks entered The Upside Down. Driving to the basket, Luka Doncic brutally turned his right ankle after stepping on the foot of Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn and no one in the world has taken a breath since.
The Mavericks dug themselves a hole, and this could have easily turned into a game where fans and players alike leave dejected and furious that this kind of adversity exposed the Mavericks are nothing without their MVP.
Instead the Mavericks fought back, took a late lead, and let the game slip in overtime. Now fans walk away furious that the Mavericks let a win get away, a win the Mavericks should have probably never had in the first place.
The longterm is unclear as Doncic’s injury floats in the air above us all. But tonight several questions, both good and bad, were answered about this gutsy Mavericks team.
Can the Mavericks do anything without Doncic?
This is a dramatic place to start, but the question isn’t that crazy. The absence of an MVP is paralyzing for any team, and the workload Doncic has every game can’t be understated. Ranking third in the entire NBA in usage, the Mavericks’ world revolves around Luka. And with no preparation the Mavericks were forced into a different orbit.
Can the Mavericks survive without Doncic? On a given night, yes. Weeks on end this won’t be sustainable, what the Mavericks were able to accomplish tonight against a very good Miami team.
J.J. Barea’s veteran presence was felt heavily in the third quarter with 12 points and five assists in just 13 minutes. Tim Hardaway Jr. proved his shooting can be taken seriously, posting 28 points (6-of-14 from three). He was enough of a danger that Jimmy Butler was having to work hard to try and shut him down late.
The Mavericks may not have one player to lean on like they do Doncic, but Rick Carlisle still has the tools he needs to scheme his way to a competitive game.
What about Kristaps Porzingis?
Just after Doncic went down it was apparent Carlisle wanted to get looks for Porzingis in the hopes he could carry a greater load. That didn’t prove successful. When shots are called for him it’s typically a mid-post, back to the basket look, and Porzingis has had trouble connecting.
With or without Doncic, Porzingis has shown to be much more comfortable on the move. The Mavericks have had him cutting or trailing drivers more, and that is where he’s been most deadly. Once he finds rhythm there, his outside shot looks much cleaner.
Ultimately his game isn’t at a place where the offense can run directly through him, while the Mavericks wait for Doncic’s return. But that’s also okay. Luka’s absence shouldn’t speed up Porzingis’ timetable.
Where does the playmaking come from?
The beauty of this roster is Carlisle has a corral of guards at his disposal. He’ll still be tasked with pulling the right levers on any given night, but he also won’t be handcuffed with one or two options.
Jalen Brunson, J.J. Barea, Delon Wright and Seth Curry all took turns running the offense tonight. Wright is still working his way back from injury, but the other three all showed flashes tonight in big moments. Barea is the clear distributor of the trio, and it will be interesting to see what kind of workload they can get from him.
Brunson (18 points, seven rebounds, eight assists) showed some guts in a few big moments while also having a few lapses in judgement late (four turnovers). It’s wise to remember he’s still a second year pro, and will experience growing pains. But lucky for the Mavericks they have a few guards here that fit perfectly in Carlisle’s system, even if that can’t fill the giant Doncic-sized hole on the floor.
What happens at the three point line?
While Doncic himself doesn’t shoot the ball particularly well from deep, the rest of the team has found success from three because of the looks he creates. Against a solid defensive team in the Miami Heat, it would be understandable if that space went away.
But the Mavericks still got open looks, and still connected effectively. Hitting 17-of-44 threes, six different Mavericks connected from long range. Much of the offensive structure that Doncic can improv off of was still there tonight. The high screen and off-ball movement still gave space to shooters, and wide open looks were found in the corners.
That could change if defenses are able to prepare for life without Luka, but a blueprint remains for the Mavericks to build off of.
Is this still a playoff team?
This is a big and lofty question. Obviously this team would have a tough task to be a legitimate playoff team without Doncic, who has been otherworldly in the first two months of the season.
But outside wins and losses, this team showed Saturday night that they have the heart of a playoff team. It took a quarter and a half to get their legs under them, but they showed up after half time with energy and heart. The Mavericks left a W on the table, but ultimately proved they can be a hard out on any night. And that’s the core of being a team with postseason aspirations.