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Basketball

Take It From Someone Who Was There: Luka’s Calf Isn’t Like Dirk’s Knee

Nineteen years ago, the Mavericks had a decision to make about a different superstar with playoff injury. That's where the parallels mostly end.
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I was on the broadcast for the regular-season finale when Luka Doncic hobbled off the floor with a calf strain with 2:42 left in the third quarter of the game against San Antonio. It sent me back in time to another pivotal injury to a Mavs superstar that happened against the Spurs, one that also had huge playoff implications and would force the team to make a decision that could shape the trajectory of the organization. I wasn’t the only one, either. 

“We’ve been in this seat as an organization before, and that time is coming that we’re going have to make that decision, either way,” Jason Kidd told the media before Dallas’ Game 2 win over Utah on Monday.  

I was in the room in 2003, mere feet away, when doctors, trainers, and—most important—Mark Cuban and Don Nelson debated whether Dirk Nowitzki would suit up against San Antonio in a win-or-go-home Game 6 in the Western Conference Finals. Six days earlier, Dirk had crumpled to the court after going up for a loose ball midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3. He’d be diagnosed with a sprained knee—hardly career-threatening but the sort of knock that needed time to heal. Time the Mavericks didn’t have as the team fought to make what would have been the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history. 

Dirk sat on a training table, watching the back and forth. Team doctors had cleared him to play and determined that no further damage could be done to his knee. He had completed some work on the downstairs practice court minutes earlier, and his adrenaline was pumping, convincing him that he could contribute. Cuban, taking the doctors’ and trainers’ advice, advocated playing him. Nelson would have none of it. He threatened to quit on the spot if Dirk were made to play, claiming he feared for Dirk’s long-term health. 

At that point in his career, Dirk was going to go with the final decision rather than push for his own desires. He was a few weeks away from his 25th birthday, and while he was no longer the reserved teenager adapting to a foreign country, he had yet to grow into the assertive, vocal leader he would become. 

The tension was thick, the implications massive. Ultimately, Nelson won out. Dirk did not play. Years later, Dirk would acknowledge to our own Zac Crain that “even just standing up during the game, I could feel that my knee wasn’t right.” He has told me after the fact on numerous occasions that while he would have been able to go, he believes he would not have been very effective. 

Steve Kerr would go on to hit four fourth-quarter threes to seal a late Spurs comeback that would clinch a series win. The Cuban-Nelson relationship never recovered. The organization was not of one mind in 2003, and the ripples would be felt for years.

Now, nearly two decades later, the Mavericks find themselves in similar circumstances. What does this mean for Luka as they head to Utah for Games 3 and 4 in a year when it is imperative Dallas gets past the first round? 

Here’s where the (many) differences come in. Cuban is still here, but the other participants have changed. The training staff is now led by director of player performance Casey Smith, who has Luka’s full trust as well as plenty of cachet throughout the sport, having served as head trainer for two Olympic gold medal squads. The doctors are different, too. Same goes for the head coach, and Kidd has been adamant about open communication since his hiring. And, at 23, Luka is already far more willing to speak his mind than Dirk was even entering his mid-20s. 

So this won’t be 2003 redux. My sources tell me everyone is on the same page: Luka won’t be hurried back because of the result of one game or even the entire series. A player whose $211 million extension doesn’t even kick in until next season won’t be risked in a first-round series, no matter how competitive he is or how badly the organization wants to progress. His calf and his ability to lift off of it will dictate the timetable. Push too soon and calf strains can lead to recurrent injuries or, worse, catastrophic ones. Just ask Kevin Durant, who missed a season and a half after tearing his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals while trying to play through a calf strain of his own.

Kidd knows to look to the past for guidance about what to do now. “We’ve got to pay attention to the history, when you have almost exactly the same thing,” he continued on Monday. “Do you play him or not? We’ve gone through this once before. We’re going to be right back in that seat again.” In 2003, I saw the weight of that choice and the subsequent disagreement about how to make it. The good news is that in 2022, the Mavs are of one mind when it comes to how to handle a playoff injury to their superstar. Internally, Games 3 and 4 were always the goal, and there’s cautious optimism that Dallas may just pull it off. The only certainty is, if and when Doncic returns, everyone will be on the same page. And if this season of Mavericks basketball has taught us anything, it’s that a little consensus can go a long way.

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Brian Dameris

Brian Dameris

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Brian Dameris writes about the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is the former Director of Basketball Development for the Dallas Mavericks…
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