The NBA Playoffs are built for superstars. There is no debate that the grueling schedule, repetitive physical opponents, and iso-heavy nature of the postseason is designed for Kings and Klaws alike to reign supreme.
So what if I told you that the brightest shining moment in Dallas Mavericks postseason history, since the 2014 Vince Carter Game 3 Winner, took place Wednesday night with the Mavs’ current superstar sitting on the bench?
Because that’s exactly what happened.
The Mavericks were the aggressor in their Game 2 matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, and it started from the tip. Luka Doncic was asserting his game, no matter the defender, scoring in the lane and dishing to shooters.
But in every good postseason bout, momentum swings, tides shift, and suddenly the Mavericks faced a Clippers team inching back in the middle of the third quarter. Not only that, Doncic tallied his fourth foul.
With 6:03 left in the quarter, and the Mavericks clinging to a 75-72 lead, Rick Carlisle called a timeout and sat Doncic. Dallas stole over five minutes with their superstar sitting on four fouls. Now, the Mavericks were going to face their most crucial stretch of basketball without the engine of their offense.
And they didn’t blink.
Riding with a lineup of Trey Burke, Seth Curry, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks never even flinched. With just over two minutes left in the quarter, and the Mavericks once again up just two, Carlisle inserted Dorian Finney-Smith in place of Kleber, and the Mavericks blew the doors off the arena.
It’s always satisfying when a team can go on a run with their superstar getting a breather. But what felt so reassuring, and perhaps even sustainable and repeatable, is the ways in which the Mavericks were so effective.
Shooters gonna shoot
Because Doncic is so brilliantly ball-dominant, there have been moments this season where the pace and effectiveness of the offense stalls in his absence. But Wednesday night Seth Curry simply was not going to let that happen.
Out of the timeout his energy was apparent. Taking his defender off the dribble, operating around the break, Curry scored seven of his nine third quarter points in quick succession. Something of a secret weapon for the three-point specialist, Curry’s developed off the dribble midrange jumper continually gave the Clippers fits.
Getting to the rim
For as athletic and versatile the Clippers perimeter defense is, the Mavericks are managing to exploit mismatches into the lane. Outside of Doncic’s relentless penetration, no Maverick has been more effective getting to the rim than Trey Burke. Using a quick first step burst and hard-nosed driving, the undersized guard is getting to the basket at an average of four times per game, and connecting on 63-percent of his attempts.
Burke, having spent a short time in Dallas last season (in the Porzingis-headlining trade with the New York Knicks), has been a breath of fresh air off the bench in his second stint. One of the most important qualities in a sixth man is an undeniable confidence in your ability to get to your spots. And Burke has shown that time and again in the bubble.
The ghost of Jason Terry looking down at Trey Burke. pic.twitter.com/npN4nIejcf— Jason Gallagher (@jga41agher) August 20, 2020
Doing almost all his work inside the perimeter (he’s attempted just two threes in two games), Burke is a constant threat to exploit flat-footed defenders, and is making the Clippers pay. It’s a weapon the Mavericks haven’t always had off the bench this season, and was a huge difference in Doncic’s absence.
An aggressive Porzingis
Much attention was paid to Porzingis’ return to the lineup after a suspect ejection from Game 1. For his part, Porzingis took the aftermath in stride, and was no doubt working hard to make an impact Wednesday night.
After a relatively quiet 10 points in the first half, this six minute stretch was crucial for Porzingis. He used this opportunity to be the aggressor, creating contact and forcing defenders into tough positions.
Enough can’t be said of Porzingis’ willingness to not be the focal point of the offense this season. Yes, there are still head-scratching ineffective post touches, and times where the offense flowed through his perimeter play. But in general, he’s allowed the offense to generate elsewhere and done his best to take advantage of his looks.
Porzingis’ offense in the third was almost entirely at the free throw line, getting seven attempts (plus a technical free throw attempt, 6-of-8 overall) in the back half of the quarter. He was reading defenders well, and baiting them into bad positions. The smooth shooting big man thrives most around the perimeter and in his face-up game, but getting to the line must be a priority as an easy source of free points.
Every time it looked like the Clippers were going to stealthily snatch the lead from the Mavericks in the second half Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith and countless others made timely shots. It is perhaps a dangerous way to survive in the postseason against a loaded team like the Clippers.
Still, the Mavericks took a giant step forward in Game 2 with a blueprint that doesn’t entirely rely on Doncic. In nine minutes over the first two games, the group that closed out the third quarter has a +90.9 Net Rating. Yes, you are reading that correctly.
They will no doubt need his clutch superstardom (he was no slouch in his second playoff appearance) in the games ahead. But to have a statement win, with Doncic playing just nine second half minutes, is a monumental step for a team still learning how to play postseason basketball.