A game like Sunday night was coming, whether we’d like to believe it or not.
That’s what made Game 3 a must-win. It would have afforded Dallas the luxury of a game as bad as Game 4. Instead of heading back to Los Angeles with a 3-1 series lead, the Mavericks are heading back to the West Coast tied at two games apiece after a painful 106-81 loss to the Clippers.
For as cliché as the phrase reads, it’s a make-or-miss league, and Game 4 proved that.
As a team, Dallas shot 16.7 percent from the 3-point line. In total, the Mavs made five 3-pointers on 30 attempts. Those shooting numbers are a far cry from Games 1 and 2 in Los Angeles. During the first two games, the ball was moving, the role players were involved, and the team was carrying itself with an aroma of confidence that was ubiquitous to everyone on the roster.
Not even a full two weeks later, everything is different. And the Clippers’ defense deserves some credit. After a blazing first quarter in Game 3, Ty Lue, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard seem to have figured it out defensively. To beat Dallas, you have to take the “others” out of the game and force Doncic to beat you by himself.
That’s why in Game 3, the Clippers gave up 44 points to Doncic. They didn’t give up 20 points to any other player on the roster. In Game 4, they told Doncic to try and beat them himself again, but this time he was hurt. The always superhuman star point guard, was very human in a must-win game Sunday night. Strained neck/should/back and all, Doncic tried to will Dallas into this game; he couldn’t. He scored 19 points on 9-24 from the field and 1-7 from three. The Mavs were a -16 when he was on the floor, and from a visual standpoint, his game lacked the usual effusive joy and pep he typically plays with. Doncic was far from the normal Doncic in Game 4, making the score of the game no surprise.
“We lost,” Doncic said. “Injuries are a part of basketball. I played terribly.”
A lost opportunity:
What hurts about this Game 4 loss is that Dallas missed a chance to capitalize on a good Kristaps Porzingis game.
The talented big man scored 18 points, but he only took 12 shots. He opened the game by sinking the first two baskets for Dallas, but soon after that, the ball went away from him. This was the theme of the night. Porzingis found angels and avenues to score but then proceeded to float for large portions of each quarter. He did not command the ball nor the attention of the Clippers’ defense.
Dallas tried to establish Porzingis early, and it was working. And on a night when Doncic was not at 100 percent, it would have been beneficial for the offense to continue to run through Porzingis. That is why the Mavs went out and traded for him in the first place. Yet, on a night when Doncic couldn’t be Doncic, the Mavs strayed away from a Porzingis that looked more locked in tonight than at any other point in the series.
This is the enigma of the Mavericks’ roster. They have a unicorn in Porzingis but tend not to utilize him on his best nights. They gave him a max extension, believing he was the perfect running mate for Doncic, yet on nights when the star point guard doesn’t have it, the Mavs are reluctant to let him create his own offense.
The Porzingis and Doncic pairing has always carried with it a twinge of awkwardness. They aren’t a perfect fit on the hardwood, but they’ve shown glimpses of what they could be. They aren’t necessarily best friends off the court, but on a great day, they make wonderful pick-and-roll partners. Sunday was a night in which Doncic could have let Porzingis operate offensively, alleviating the pressure on his injured back, but that wasn’t the case, as the Dallas offense sputtered in the face of Los Angeles.
Headed to Los Angeles:
It’s a best of three series at this point, and Los Angeles now has homecourt back in its grasp. Dallas missed its chance to shut the door on the Clippers in Game 3. In Game 4, the Mavs failed to rise to the occasion; the watermark of a team still young and learning how to win in big playoff moments.
To win in Los Angeles, again, it starts on the defensive end. Stopping George and Leonard’s relentless drives to the basket is paramount. In the two games in Dallas, the lane has been wide open – devoid of any sort of rim protection. It’s back to the drawing board for Dallas, and it’s time to see what this team is made of with its back against the wall.
A few weeks ago, Jalen Brunson said Dallas is in the playoffs to “make some noise.”
In Games 1 and 2 they looked like a team poised to do so. In Games 3 and 4, not so much. So Game 5 it is. We’ll see what version of Dallas we get on Wednesday.
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Feature image via Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports