The NBA Playoffs are the forum for triumph and heartbreak.

Each team stands just four wins away from advancing and four losses away from the offseason. For the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers, it wasn’t triumph that each player in that locker room felt after the game. Instead, it was heartbreak for another season lost to a first-round exit. This time, the score read 126-111 in Los Angeles’ favor.

Yet, this series loss carries with it more heartbreak than last season. Last season, the Mavericks were the surprise team of the NBA. Many pegged them to get swept, but Luka Doncic willed them to six games against the often memed Clippers. This season, though, the Mavericks gave us hope – winning the first two games of the series on the road. From that point on, Dallas missed each and every opportunity to close the series out, leading to what transpired Sunday afternoon – a painful and arduous Game 7 loss.

“It’s a game of runs. We made our runs, and they made theirs,” Kristaps Porzingis said.

What lost Dallas the Game:

Dallas had 48 minutes to prove they belonged in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. They couldn’t. And though Luka Doncic was incredible for stretches, scoring 46 points while dishing out 14 assists, he was stifled in the second half due to Los Angeles’ petulant and persistent defense.

What hurt Dallas during Game 7 was that while Doncic struggle, the others, for Los Angeles, stepped up.

Luke Kennard, who collected DNPs at the start of the series, scored a monumental 11 points.

Marcus Morris Sr., fresh off of a 1-10 game in Game 6, scored 23 points while making seven three-pointers.

Reggie Jackson, who tormented Dallas in Game 6, did it again in Game 7, scoring 15 points. And in the fourth quarter, he made a pair of game-sealing 3-pointers that sucked the hope out of a last-ditch Dallas comeback.

Terance Mann, a second-year player, scored 13 points and carried Los Angeles for long stretches during the first half.

All of these role players contributed while Kawhi Leonard and Paul George scored 28 points and 22 points respectively. It was a total team effort, yet, for Dallas, you can’t say the same.

The Doncic conundrum:

It’s not that Dallas lacked the talent on the roster. It comes down to the system that the Mavs run.

All year, the Mavs asked Doncic to do everything and be everything. In the playoffs, it got worse. His usage rate ballooned to 39.1, and though it provided outstanding stat lines, it came at the expense of team production.

I call it the James Harden effect. And its late-stage symptoms are what happened to Houston in the second half of the 2010s – playoff disappointment and frustration.

Basketball is inherently a rhythm game. Everyone has to touch the ball and feel involved if the team wants to succeed. Look at all the great dynastic teams in NBA history; they were all built around ball movement and player movement. The mid-2010s Golden State Warriors practically invented the modern iteration of basketball with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s off-ball movement. In the early 2000s, the San Antonio Spurs built a model, as well, with their effective ball and player movement. And dating back to the 80s and early 90s, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, saved basketball with their enthralling passing, ball movement, and player movement. Very rarely does the team with a one-player system find sustained success in the NBA. And in that, lies Dallas’ post-season problems.

Doncic is at the center of Dallas’ one-player system. And for the second postseason in a row, its effectiveness has failed him.

So now, Doncic stands at a crossroads in his career. He can continue to go down the James Harden road, with insane usage rates and personal success, or he can learn to strike the balance between playing on the ball and playing off the ball. Though the latter may result in a dip in his personal statistical production, it will lead to a rise in team success. The decision he makes at this crossroads will define Mavericks basketball for the rest of the decade. He ought to choose wisely.

“You can always learn,” Doncic said. “Every series you lose, you’re going to look at what you can do better in order to win.”

Heading into the offseason:

The Game 7 loss means the Mavs have more questions than answers heading into the postseason.

Where does Porzingis fit on the roster long term?

What players do the Mavs add to the roster to encourage more ball movement and less Luka watching?

At what price tag does Hardaway Jr. return on – if he does – next season?

A win on Sunday afternoon would have held these questions at bay for at least two more weeks. But the loss, and how the Mavericks lost, forces us to ask them now.

Doncic and Dallas stumbled at the end of Game 7. And the painful loss reminded everyone that this organization, and Doncic, still have a long way to go before they are contenders.

The NBA Playoffs can bring about joyful exuberance for some, but for Dallas, it’s brought heartache, again.

“We made the playoffs twice since I’ve been here,” Doncic said. “We lost both times, so at the end, you get paid to win. So we didn’t do it.”

Previous Mavericks reading:

“A cold fourth quarter for Dallas sets up a Game 7 in Staples Center.”

Feature image via Kirby Lee-USA TODAY.

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