Damian Lillard had just checked back in.
There was 9:23 left in the game, and the Portland Trail Blazers had managed just two points — separate free throws — to start the fourth. In the span of 21 seconds there had been three technical fouls handed out; a double-T on Carmelo Anthony and Maxi Kleber, then an awfully flimsy call on Luka Doncic soon after.
The Mavericks started the quarter on a 11-2 run to take a 106-100 lead when Lillard decided to truly take matters into his own hands. He did what any star would do when their team’s offense is stagnant: he forced his way to the free throw line. He shot 11 free throws in the quarter (18 for the game), and made all of them.
But what the quarter became in those final nine-plus minutes is what the regular season bubble embodied for the Mavericks.
For all this team has in young superstar talent, the budding tandem of Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks are still made up of scrappy spare parts. Rick Carlisle, as he is wont to do, has squeezed the potential out of crucial role players like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith, who both continue to have career seasons. He’s tapped back into the shooting prowess of Seth Curry, elevated Maxi Kleber, and even boosted the late addition of now-sixth-man Trey Burke.
Nevertheless this is still a team inexperienced at games like the one against the Trail Blazers Tuesday night, de facto elimination games. Dame and the Blazers sensed their season slipping away from them early in that fourth. The Mavericks had them on the ropes, and Lillard and his team had to employ any means necessary to keep postseason hope alive. Ultimately, they did what it took to keep that flame burning.
And that’s why the last eight games were so valuable. Throw the 3-5 record away, the free throw troubles and late game scoring, we know what this team is. The Mavericks — built with young superstars, journeymen role players, and the remains of breakthrough talent from a quick rebuild — just got a crash course on meaningful basketball.
The trajectory of contending teams in the NBA are never the same. More and more they’re built in the blink of an offseason, as superstar buddies decide to coalesce into basketball superiority. But for teams like the Mavericks, building from the ground up, moments like these ever so slightly alters their path. And that includes all of it: the heartbreaking losses to Portland and the Houston Rockets, the scrappy wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz, and everything in between.
The Mavericks just wrapped up a 43-win regular season. It’s an improvement of 10 wins from the 2018-19 year, which is the biggest jump since the 2000-01 season (a 13-win improvement from the previous season). This is to say, the course the Mavericks have set themselves on is not only just the beginning but the exact right direction. And going through the trials of the NBA Bubble only strengthens the groundwork for better days ahead.