Six days ago, the Dallas Mavericks seemed finished. The Phoenix Suns looked bigger, faster, stronger. They have more facial hair. The Mavericks could not generate any offense beyond Luka Doncic doing Luka Doncic things, and they couldn’t defend without fouling. Phoenix is the best team in the NBA, and through 96 minutes, the Suns had put on a thorough clinic reminding the world of that fact.
But now Dallas has a shot. No matter what happens tonight, no matter what happens over the next few days, this club deserves massive respect for getting up off of that mat and leveling this series. We are learning who this team is and what they’re about in real time; it’s their first time here and our first time observing them at this stage. And, most important, they’re learning who they are. The Suns are undoubtedly a more talented, complete team. After being up 2-0 in the Finals last year and losing four straight games, there is no team in the postseason with more to prove, with more on the line. And somehow Dallas has matched the fire and nastiness of that team.
How has this happened? On the offensive end, luck was a huge factor, for sure. Discounting Doncic’s attempts from deep, Dallas went 19-34 from beyond the arc in Game 4. I will belt out Dorian Finney-Smith’s praises until I pass out, but he isn’t going to go 8-12 from three again (although getting four hits from Davis Bertans on six attempts is fairly likely to reoccur).
But this team gives itself the chance for luck and randomness to help decide games because of the way it defends. In the years following the franchise’s lone championship, the Mavericks could field an offense that could go full napalm at any moment. Yet they were so consistently porous on the other end that even a combination of scheme, skill, and luck wasn’t enough against good competition.
After Phoenix relentlessly attacked Doncic in the first two games, Jason Kidd and his staff clearly decided if this team goes out, it won’t be like that. Dallas either sent Luka help or, more often, avoided the urge to switch on screens. Doncic was listed as the primary defender on Jae Crowder more times in this game than any other in the series. He was listed as the defender of the ball handler on screens the fewest amount of times. Chris Paul’s foul trouble was certainly a factor, but this also represented an undeniable tactical shift. This gives opportunities for the Suns role players to eat, and Crowder excepted, they simply didn’t in either of the two road games.
There’s a Phil Jackson anecdote I’ve heard so many times I can’t recall where I first encountered it. Basically, his primary concern with road playoff games was the sustainability of his role players’ performances. Stars will be stars, whether the game is played at home, on the road, or on another planet. But for the rest of your roster, context and environment matter. It’s playing out for both teams in this series. With the matchup headed back to Phoenix tonight, it will be intriguing to see if this defensive strategy will continue to work for Kidd and the Mavericks.
Odds are, it won’t. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and Deandre Ayton are likely to bounce back in the friendly confines of the Footprint Center (I cannot type the name of that arena without laughing). Paul likely won’t be in such dire foul trouble, either. Dallas junked up the last two games enough to beat a more talented team. It’s unlikely that will work twice more.
So what? I’m not sandbagging; I am so thoroughly impressed with what this roster and staff have shown us to this point that if Dallas doesn’t win another game this season, fine. It’s nearly impossible to fully wrap your head around the last 11 months of this organization’s existence.
Because a year ago, we were talking about shadow general managers, and most fans were learning how to say Haralabos Voulgaris’ name. Donnie Nelson was as synonymous with the Mavericks as anyone not named Dirk Nowitzki or Mark Cuban. He was fired, then replaced by a guy who had never worked for an NBA team. Rick Carlisle quit. Jason Kidd was hired to replace him without anything even resembling a proper coaching search. Doncic came to camp out of shape. They started 16-18, and most of the team spent time in COVID protocols. Charlie Brown Jr. played. The recently re-signed Tim Hardaway Jr. fractured his foot, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. Kristaps Porzingis was traded in what at the time was seen as a short-term step back. The former general manager is suing the owner of the team, and vice versa. All of this happened in the last year.
Yet here they are. In Kidd and Nico Harrison’s first year, the Mavericks made it further in the postseason than they have in over a decade. They dispatched a Utah Jazz team with two max-salary players on their roster. Now they have taken a serious punch from the best team in the league and battled back. I love that this team can win dirty games. I love that this team doesn’t blink. I love that the NBA fined them for how into the game their bench is. I love that Kidd has made coaching adjustments in both series that prove he’s more than just a fun guy to play for.
No matter what happens over the next few days, we’re going to talk about this season for a long time. When someone writes the Luka book in 20 years, this will be a critical chapter in the arc. We’re probably going to spend the summer arguing about contracts, potential trades, and a host of other charged, ultimately boring topics concerning how and when they’ll win a championship because that’s how our Ringz Or Bust discourse operates. But I want you to know that it’s OK to be happy with what they’ve already accomplished. Right now, this group, their attitude, and their journey are bringing me great joy. I hope you feel it, too.