This game felt like a must-win.
With 17,000 fans in American Airlines Center and a 19-point lead halfway through the first quarter, the Dallas Mavericks had to win this one. Yet, by the end of the game, the scoreboard read 118-108 in the Los Angeles Clippers’ favor.
It was the long-awaited Luka Doncic home playoff game debut. It was a chance for Dallas to take a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Clippers. And it was a chance for Dallas to seemingly guarantee a playoff series win – the first since 2011. The Mavs won two games in Los Angeles. They surely wouldn’t waste this opportunity now, right?
Well, it seemed like they wouldn’t. It honestly felt like they wouldn’t. And halfway through the first quarter, with the Mavericks nursing a 30-11 lead, it sure as hell looked like they wouldn’t.
Then something changed. Rick Carlisle took Luka Doncic out of the game.
With half of the first quarter left, Doncic went to the bench to grab a quick breather after dismantling the Clippers’ defense through the first seven minutes. It wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. Carlisle has often taken Doncic out of the game at the midway point of the first quarter all season. However, Friday night it was different. With Doncic on the bench, the Clippers found their groove offensively, ripping off a 14-2 run, and placing themselves right back into the heart of the game.
It was a coaching decision Carlisle has made time and time again. It wasn’t out of the ordinary, but it felt that way. See, Dallas had Los Angeles right where they wanted them; down big early, and Doncic wasn’t missing a shot anytime soon.
With him on the bench, the Clippers worried less on defense and found more confidence on offense. By halftime, Dallas’ 19-point lead turned into a two-point deficit, 63-61.
By the half, Doncic scored 26 of his eventual 44 points. The other contribution offensively for Dallas were all in the single-digits.
And that theme continued the rest of the night. In the second half, Doncic scored 18 points, but again the other offensive contributions remained in the single digits. To put it harshly, if it wasn’t Doncic, it wasn’t there. In the second half, the Mavs were outscored as a team 55-47.
The second leading scorers for Dallas in the game: Maxi Kleber and Jalen Brunson, both of whom scored 14 points.
For Kristaps Porzingis, he had another horrid night on the hardwood, scoring nine points and grabbing three rebounds.
“They were the better team tonight and that’s it,” Porzingis said. “I had great looks. I just missed shots… We can do things better.”
Dallas’ defense didn’t hold the Clippers’ two stars in check either. Kawhi Leonard finished with 36 points on 13-17 shooting, and Paul George scored 29 of his own on 11-18 from the field.
There was no wrong those two could do in a game that felt like a must-win for Dallas.
Heading into Game 3, much was made about this game being the biggest moment of the season for the Clippers, and it was. Go down 3-0, and the probability of your team winning the series is basically zero. The Clippers had to win this game, but so did Dallas. And much needs to be made over this missed opportunity. Very rarely does a team have a chance to go up 3-0 over the higher-seeded opponent.
With a win in Game 3, the Mavs would have earned a chance to close this series out on their own home court in Game 4. Now Friday’s loss guarantees at least one more game in Los Angeles. And though the Mavericks proved they can win in LA, if they drop Game 4, things head back to the West Coast even at two games each. At that point, it’s a best of three series.
A 2-1 series lead is drastically different from a 3-0 series lead.
That is why Game 3 felt like a must-win. Dallas had an opportunity to crush Los Angeles’ spirits with a monumental home victory Friday night. Doncic came prepared and contributed a career night. No other Maverick seemed interested in doing the same.
This was supposed to be Dallas’ moment. And though Doncic put them in a position to win early in the game, the Clippers’ star-power proved too much by the end of it. So after this blown opportunity, Dallas shifts its focus to Game 4, with the pressure of the moment only mounting.
Pressure bursts pipes, but it also makes diamonds. It’s time to find out which one it’ll be for Dallas this postseason.
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Feature image via Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports.