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The Mavericks don’t need to apologize for how they won Game 5 against the Clippers

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In the playoffs, “winning ugly” doesn’t matter.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

With less than 25 seconds left in the Mavericks Game 5 matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, things were dire. After building a 14-point lead in the third quarter, the Mavericks tossed that lead away, with the Clippers creeping to four points back in the fourth. Then Dallas valiantly pushed that lead back up to 10, only for the Clippers to erase almost all of it in just under two minutes left in the game.

So here the Mavericks were, up one in Game 5, a tied first round series hanging in the balance. A moment for the team to show they were more than last season’s first round exit. What did they do? Well, they almost crapped their pants.

Luka Doncic threw the ball away with 24 seconds left and the Clippers stormed down the court with a chance to take the lead. The Mavericks transition defense didn’t track Terance Mann and Mann got all the way to the basket. Game over, right? Nope! For some reason Mann passed out of an open layup (down one point again, reminder) to Nicholas Batum who then proceeded to take a contested layup against two defenders while Paul George and Kawhi Leonard stood open at the three point line.

Batum missed and the Mavericks made their free throws. Game over, with Dallas up 3-2 in the series.

The Mavericks absolutely should have lost that game. They completely melted down in the fourth quarter, their offense drying up (just 16 points!) as Doncic finally looked mortal. The only reason they aren’t facing elimination on Friday night is due to two absolute blunders by the Clippers in the final seconds of the game.

Just look at this still image of Mann in the air before he decided to pass it to Batum. There was literally no one between him and the basket.

Just in case, here’s an analytical breakdown of this play:

So, here’s the thing about the Mavericks stealing a game in an ugly win: I don’t care. Neither should the Mavericks.

There are not style points in the playoffs. If the Mavericks won every game for the rest of their playoff run like they did in Game 5, people would wonder how good the Mavericks really were, all the while the team is advancing in the playoffs. Sample sizes are small, the grind of the regular season is over. Even with a seven game series to weed out any improbabilities, basketball is still a sport and sometimes sports are weird as hell. Things don’t bounce the way they should for 20 seconds and a certain loss is now a win.

A professional basketball player’s brain freezing and not taking an open layup down one with 15 seconds left is probably not the way to game plan a playoff win. But there’s only so much planning you can actually do before Stuff happens. You know, the things you can’t explain because basketball is played by human beings and human beings have faults by nature. The Clippers missed a bajillion open three pointers. Luka Doncic missed 100 shots in the fourth quarter. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard developed tiny hand syndrome down the stretch and turned the ball over in Game 5 as much as they did in Games 3 and 4 combined.

Wednesday night was just another reminder of all the random variance and noise that clouds up a basketball game. It’s why we all tune in, it’s why sports are popular in the first place. Anything can happen. We think we know what will happen, but we’re all a bunch of schleps with lizard brains. Well, everyone except for ME.

Game 6 is on Friday. Both teams will talk a lot about what they need to do better and plenty of words will be written and spoken from third parties on what they think each team needs to do. But we really don’t know and that’s why this is fun. Or, well excruciating. For the Mavericks, Game 5 was fun.

Onto the notes!

  • Luka Doncic dragged this thing across the finish line in such a way that no one has seen from someone in a Mavericks uniform in over a decade. Doncic’s final stat line isn’t eye-popping for Doncic, since he sorta just does this a lot: 42 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds, four turnovers. The crazy part is how much all of that was basically all of the Mavericks offense. Doncic made 17 of the Mavericks 37 field goals. He assisted on another 14. So 31 of the Mavericks 37 field goals were Doncic’s responsibility. For about 40 minutes of this game, a majority of the Mavericks roster, sans Luka, was giant mega doo doo. The Mavericks would have lost this game by a zillion points if Doncic played a good game. So instead he played an otherworldly one.
  • The Mavericks need to send Clippers coach Ty Lue a nice fruit basket, to repay him for the wonderful gift he gave the Mavericks in the third quarter by playing center Ivica Zubac for almost half of the period. As I’ve written about earlier in the series, Doncic’s ability to turn Zubac into a shallow puddle has been huge in getting the Mavericks two wins. When Lue finally relented and committed to small ball full time in Game 3, the Mavericks got run off the floor. So after Paul George picked up his fourth foul with 6:32 left in the third quarter, Lue, for some reason, but Zubac in the game and proceeded to leave him in the game, while Doncic was on the floor, until there were 30.6 seconds left. In that six minute time frame, the score went from the Clippers up 70-67 to the Mavericks winning 89-75. A 22-5 run in six minutes, in a game the Mavericks ultimately won by only five points. That was the game! In those six minutes, Doncic tortured Zubac in every way he had earlier in the series, torching him in the pick and roll with a variety of jumpers and patient floaters. Doncic scored nine points and dished three assists in those six minutes. Zubac finished a well-earned minus-19 in 20 minutes of play. A truly baffling coaching decision that not only cost the Clippers the game, but maybe even the entire series. Kudos to Doncic and the Mavericks for smelling blood in the water as soon as Zubac checked in, but good grief Clippers.
  • The funniest thing about this game was the Mavericks defensive game plan. After getting torched at the rim in Games 3 and 4, the Mavericks decided their counter to that was to force the best three point shooting team in the NBA to shoot more three pointers. The Mavericks rim defense was so bad, exchanging the Clippers rim attacks for open threes actually worked in the Mavericks favor — Los Angeles shot 38 threes in Game 5 after shooting 31 and 33 threes in Games 3 and 4 respectively. Dallas didn’t even rotate all that well to the Clippers shooters, the Mavericks were just determined to not be beat by a layup line and conceded the threes. Thankfully the Clippers only made 14-of-38 from deep (36.8 percent) but the real culprit was Kawhi Leonard, who shot a ghastly 1-of-7 from three. It was almost like Leonard was surprised when he couldn’t take two power dribbles and be uncontested at the rim and it threw off the rest of his perimeter game. Not sure if the Mavericks can give up as many open threes as they did tonight and expect to win Game 6, but it’s certainly a better gamble than whatever they were doing in Games 3 and 4.
  • The big lineup change was Boban Marjanovic for Maxi Kleber, basically the opposite of my suggestion to match the Clippers small ball with Dorian Finney-Smith at the four. Boban wasn’t even that good — nine points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes — but it was just enough to A.) keep Zubac on the floor longer than the Clippers wanted and B.) coax the Clippers into more threes and just pray to the basketball gods they’d miss, which they mostly did. We still didn’t see much small ball from the Mavericks, as two of Boban, Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell were on the floor all night. The Mavericks still lost the rebounding battle but they at least grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, punishing the Clippers small ball more than the previous games.
  • Speaking of punishing small ball lineups, it’s time to bring up Porzingis. His final line was extremely pedestrian: eight points, six rebounds in 30 minutes on 3-of-6 shooting. In the fourth quarter he finally did some things, making two threes out of each corner, the final of the two the one thought to be the dagger, but still a massive shot nonetheless. Prior to that spurt, Porzingis looked as disengaged and disinterested as he had all series, passing out of what should be ideal scoring circumstances and missing short jumpers against smaller defenders. His defense was... better and what a difference it makes when the Mavericks perimeter defenders aren’t getting roasted with simple dribble moves. Still, it’s a far cry from what Porzingis should be doing considering his talent and contract. At this point, it’s time to waive bye-bye to bubble Porzingis and just accept that this version of Porzingis is the one the Mavericks are going to get. No more hoping for that explosion game where he goes off for 34 points and no more wondering where the elite defense is. Porzingis, right now, is just a guy. A guy that can make some threes and space the floor, but not much else, at least in this series. It’s clearly time to move on from waiting on Porzingis to have a star showing and just accept who he is right now and steer the conversation away from “What can the Mavericks do to get Porzingis going? to “How can the Mavericks win with this version of Porzingis?” Unless something drastically changes in these playoffs, there just can’t be any other sort of expectation, because at this point it feels like wasted breath.
  • You might never see a defensive game from Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. that good ever again. The duo combined for 10 steals, with Finney-Smith getting five just on his own. It was the first time in a long time I can remember Mavericks perimeter defenders forcing the issue and not allowing the opposing player to get to whatever spot the Mavericks deem acceptable to shoot from. Finney-Smith was up in Leonard’s airspace all night, while Hardaway battled against Paul George. Who knows if they can replicate that defensive performance, but it was fun to see for at least one night. Leonard and George just took turns in the fourth quarter trying to get to the rim and both Hardaway and Finney-Smith created turnovers in those situations. Huge plays that kept the Mavericks anemic fourth quarter offense on life support.
  • It’s hard to truly articulate how butt the rest of the Mavericks roster past Luka was. Only one other player scored in double figures, with Hardaway getting 20 but needing 19 shots to get it. The other three starters outside of Doncic and Hardaway combined for 25 points, an abysmal number. Non-Luka Mavericks were a horrifying 8-of-24 from three. Jalen Brunson, at times the Mavericks second best player this season, had two points on 1-of-3 shooting. I want to say the Mavericks cannot win another game with the supporting cast being that bad, but, well, Luka Doncic is pretty good.
  • Dwight Powell saved this game for the Mavericks. With Marjanovic, Porzingis and Kleber all looking ineffective in their own ways, Powell stepped in with his biggest game of the series, both in terms of numbers and impact. Powell had eight points in 22 points, a perfect 3-of-3 from the floor and also grabbed seven rebounds, with three offensive. Powell’s offensive rebound which led to a Hardaway three with 3:17 left in the third quarter gave the Mavericks a 76-75 lead. The Clippers never led for the rest of the game. Powell’s energy and athleticism were crucial in getting the Mavericks back into the game after a listless start to the third quarter and his screening for Doncic in the pick and roll tore the Clippers apart.

Here’s the postgame podcast, Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you can’t see the embed below “More from Mavs Moneyball”, click here. And if you haven’t yet, subscribe by searching “Mavs Moneyball podcast” into your favorite podcast app.