After two seasons and seven playoff games together, there is still no answer to whether Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic play well together.
And maybe in not knowing, that is the answer to the seemingly always prevalent question.
In Game 4, Doncic and Porzingis combined for 37 points while shooting 44 percent from the field and 11 percent from the 3-point line. They weren’t exactly Kobe and Shaq in terms of offensive output.
Early on during Sunday night’s contest, Porzingis was aggressive within the offense. He hunted his shots, found his spots, and looked engaged for the first time in two games. Doncic, on the other hand, started slow. His cervical strain impeded his typically oh-so-steady offensive production. And as a result, he shot a woeful 9-24 for the game.
“He’s in pain. It appeared to me that he couldn’t turn left or look to his left,” Rick Carlisle said on how injured Doncic looked. “We got to hope in the next couple days he can get substantially better.”
On a night when Doncic was injured, he still took 12 more shots than Porzingis, who looked primed for a big game. That is a problem. Not because Doncic couldn’t make half of the shots he was taking, but because Porzingis is on the roster for nights when Doncic can’t be superhuman. Game 4’s offensive shortcomings force the question of why is Dallas so reluctant to utilize Porzingis as an offensive creator, especially when Doncic is struggling?
The pairing in context:
Dallas decided to go out and trade for Porzingis in 2019. No one forced the organization’s hand. Doncic didn’t run to the press begging for more help. And Carlisle didn’t make public comments about the barren talent on the roster heading into the 2018-19 season. Porzingis was a player Dallas coveted, so they went out and got him.
Then once he was in a Mavericks uniform, the organization double-down on their belief in him, signing Porzingis to a five-year $158 million contract. In last season’s bubble, he looked like the ideal version of himself until the injury. On the defensive end, he was effecting shots a the rim, thwarting attempted drives, and anchoring a Mavs defense that wasn’t great, but he was the lone bright spot. On offense, he looked like the best version of himself. He and Doncic, though not perfect, made sense at that moment.
Fast forward through this season, and we see Porzingis’ defense suffering and his offensive touches stalled. Part of the blame belongs to the knee injury that kept him off the hardwood at the start of the season. Part of the blame also belongs to Porzingis not asserting himself offensively. But a third part of the blame belongs to the often-overlooked, and missed possessions, where Porzingis has a mismatch, or he’s wide open, and the ball doesn’t find him.
He’s on Dallas’ pocketbook for the next three seasons, but where does he fit in in Dallas’ offensive game plan?
How the pair fare in the playoffs:
That effect and question carried over to the postseason. In the last four playoff games, Porzingis’ shot count goes as such: 13 shots in Game 1, 12 shots in Game 2, 10 shots in Game 3, and 12 shots in Game 4. That shot count doesn’t scream the $158 million man. But, again, it’s not completely his own doing.
Dallas is too one-dimensional offensively. They are reliant on the 3-point shot falling at near-historic rates, meanwhile, Doncic has to be the best player on the floor every single night. That will work in the regular season. However, in the postseason the need for a second star is accentuated. Yet, Dallas doesn’t treat Porzingis like that second star.
For example, look at what the Clippers are doing with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. George is averaging 18.5 shot attempts a game, while Leonard averages 18.8. There is virtually no gap in the number of shots the Clippers’ offense creates for both their stars. But when looking at Dallas, the gap between the number of shots Doncic takes (26.6 per game) compared to Porzingis (11.8) is a red flag. The Mavs are relying too heavily on their third-year superstar guard when help – Porzingis – is begging for shot attempts.
Is it right for Mavs fans to condemn Porzingis when, in this series, he hasn’t had the opportunity to prove himself offensively? In basketball, you can’t score without the ball.
The good news is, it’s not all bad. The NBA Champion 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers featured a similar issue with their talented big Kevin Love. In the season before their championship year, LeBron James was tweeting things like “Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart of something special!” in regards to Love and his play.
The Cavs’ star pairing felt awkward, forced, and initially not very productive. Yet, that same core of star players in James, Kyrie Irving, and Love found a way to take down the 73-9 Golden State Warriors when all the chips were on the table.
Porzingis fits that same mold of Love in this situation. He is a talented big, who before he arrived in Dallas, was comfortable being the man. Once in Dallas, he was paired with a ball-dominant guard who lacked some familiarity in looking for bigs who may have a mismatch around the basket.
What’s encouraging about the similarities between Love’s prior situation and Porzingis’ current plight is the Cavs figured it out with Love; Dallas is capable of doing the same.
What Cleveland did was guarantee post touches to Love during the first quarter. It felt counterproductive, but touching the ball early and often kept Love engaged when it came to defense and rebounding. Dallas should take note.
It goes against the grain of “modern” basketball, but giving Porzingis the freedom to dominate first quarters could benefit Dallas tremendously. If you’ve played basketball at any level, you understand this truth: when you touch the ball and score, you’re more likely to play defense, dive for loose balls, and fight for 50/50 possessions. Dallas can’t keep asking Porzingis to sacrifice at the expense of Doncic when they don’t return the favor to the often soft-spoken 7-footer.
Heading into Game 5:
Porzingis hasn’t been perfect in this pairing, and that is not what I am suggesting. In fact, there is a lot he can do to improve on both ends of the court. He’s displayed a keen sense of awareness regarding his flaws, and after games, he often talks about them ad nauseam. That’s what makes seeing his struggles on the floor so frustrating. He knows what needs to be changed, yet from game to game, very few things actually do.
In Game 5, Porzingis needs to play more defense. Leonard and George have had an open lane to the basket the last two games. He also needs to assert himself offensively and punish the Clippers for going small. He needs to demand the ball and not think twice about it. That is the only way Dallas can survive a critical game in hostile territory at this point in the series.
We may never get all the answers from this Doncic and Porzingis pairing, but the only one needed, right now, is a great Game 5 from both stars.
“We gotta look at the film,” Porzingis said regarding Dallas’ struggles in the series. “They are able to score in the paint. We gotta look at how we can take some of those [looks] away.
“Overall we know we can do a better job at both ends… On to the next one.”
Feature image via Jerome Miron-USA TODAY.