With 20.3 seconds left remaining, the Dallas Mavericks faced a one-point deficit against the Western Conference elite Denver Nuggets. At one point the Mavericks held a 12-point lead early in the fourth in the Mile High City and almost had the Nuggets tipping their cap and looking toward the next game after the mid-March showdown between the two teams.
Before we re-live the final seconds, it’s important to understand the context of the game. For Denver, this tilt against the lowly Mavericks was a small speed bump on the road to their playoff journey. Had they lost, no one would have blinked an eye. Teams like the Nuggets had far greater goals to accomplish. But for a franchise like the Mavericks, this game could have meant so much more.
So I’m asking myself, what if Dallas took down Denver on March 14, 2019?
However, you are probably asking why someone is even taking the time to revisit a game the Mavericks lost with seemingly zero implications. The season was over and the next important date was the lottery, which is a “What if” scenario all on it’s own. While all that is true, one could argue that the Mavericks were in an important transition period. The proverbial torch was being passed from Dirk Nowtzki to Luka Doncic, so not only did the team want to send the NBA legend out with every win possible, their rookie phenom was learning to win under the rigors of the NBA.
And for much of the game, Dallas was doing just that. By outscoring the Nuggets in each of the first three quarters, the Mavericks built a 10-point cushion heading into the final frame. The team largely played a six-man rotation as Dorian Finney-Smith’s 17 minutes yielded only two assists, one rebound, one steal and zero points. And while there will NEVER be any Dirk slander on this blog, he wasn’t exactly a game changer. At this point in the season, the Big German was a spot-up shooter and a gigantic negative on the defensive end, especially against Paul Millsap and all-world talent Nikola Jokic.
So the cards were stacked against an abundantly inferior team who had no business competing in that game, but behind Doncic’s all-around play and rookie Jalen Brunson’s 20 points in nearly 40 minutes, the Mavericks were one basket away from stealing a huge road win against a championship-hopeful Nuggets.
Let’s pick back up to the 20.3-second mark, where Doncic had the ball, pressed 93 feet from the basket by Gary Harris. After clearing the back court, Doncic received a high-ball screen from Maxi Kleber just under the Nuggets’ logo at center court. The action was mainly to force a defensive switch, putting the slower footed Miles Plumlee on Doncic.
Strangely, Harris sticks with Doncic for a few beats leaving Kleber running free to the wing. In the clip below, you can see Millsap throw up his arms in bewilderment because Harris’ defensive lapse trickled to Plumlee who didn’t know if he should stay with the eventual rookie of the year or retreat back to a wide-open Kleber.
Realizing he went off script, Harris backs off toward Kleber at the same moment Plumlee is convinced his teammate will stay with Doncic. That mistake was the moment Doncic sensed blood because as soon as Plumlee retraced with full momentum toward the ball, Doncic gathered himself with a little hop then blew by Plumlee while the rest of the Mavericks spaced beyond the three-point line.
Now Millsap being the heady, cerebral defensive player he is, read his teammates’ mishap play out and kept within a few steps from the lane to help out. But even he was a helpless roadblock to the Mack truck that was rumbling down the lane.
After one dribble inside the arc, Doncic rose up and thundered down a ferocious dunk over both Millsap and Plumlee at the same time. It was as if Doncic had bottled up all the pre-draft criticism that he wasn’t quick enough or wasn’t athletic enough and finally unleashed the game breaker and “talked soon” (if you will) by shattering any doubts that capped his critic-driven ceiling.
Dallas now possessed a one-point lead and had the chance to extend it as Millsap had no choice but to foul Doncic to avoid being on the wrong end of a poster. It was as euphoric as it gets in the middle of March when few games matter. Though the Mavericks scored a measly 10 total points in the frame (8 by Doncic), they still had a chance to steal a win on the road!
But here’s where the trouble culminated. Doncic missed his fourth free throw of the game giving Denver one shot to win with five seconds left meaning there would be no overtime.
What ensued was a Jokic fall away jumper that seemed impossible to make, yet inevitable to fall in the cup. The crowd roared, the Nuggets celebrated and a defeated Mavericks club grasped at what could have been.
Mavericks’ history wouldn’t have been rewritten had the team won that game, but the history of that game would have. Rather than it being remembered for Jokic’s unorthodox, uncanny, and skilled tricks, it would have been remembered by Doncic’s fearlessness, his flourishing in the clutch and his will to win while pulling his teammates to victory with him.
I mean, just look at this play. Doncic has Millsap chasing the wind twice. What an absurd move by the rookie with no margin for error.
The book isn’t written on Doncic and the Mavericks, yet this article would be remiss if it didn’t mention the Mavericks’ clutch-time demons that have struck in the 2019-20 season. For example Dallas’ shooting percentages 46 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 77 percent from the line plummet in the clutch to 36.6 percent, 22 percent and 70 percent respectively. And the team’s net rating of 5.8 (6th best in the league) plunges to -16.1 in the clutch.
A team led by a young player goes through growing pains, and it would be a stretch to say the Mavericks clutch woes would have been solved had they won in Denver last March. But how sweet it would have been had the Mavericks taken the punch the Nuggets threw and responded with the haymaker that was Doncic’s jam. It would have been a hang-your-hat type win for a team and leader that could have had a resounding and unforgettable impact for a team learning on the fly.