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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Clippers Game 3

Little brother no more.
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Daniel Gafford and the Mavs' supporting cast matched their star's intensity. Jerome Miron, USA Today Sports.

The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us.  That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What We Saw

In my series preview, I noted that in their first two playoff encounters against the Clippers, Dallas was the younger brother struggling against a bigger, tougher older sibling. Since then, little brother has grown up, bulked up—and stood up to the bully.

Russell Westbrook tried everything he could to intimidate the Mavericks, but P.J. Washington and the rest of the crew didn’t back down an inch. They stood firm—Washington’s pose could go down as one of the iconic Mavs’ playoff moments—kept smiling, and hit back.

If there was one thing that stood out in another low-scoring bloodbath, it’s that the Mavericks are the younger, faster, and more athletic team. And once they get stops—which they did plenty of with 12 steals and seven blocks—the veteran Clippers group just can’t keep up. The Mavericks secured 16 more field goal attempts through hustle on defense. One-third of their 39 baskets were dunks, while the Clippers had just three. 

The Clippers kept swarming Luka Doncic, who had another rough shooting night. But because the defense was so good, all it took was one dominant quarter by the Slovenian superstar to build separation. In fact, that second quarter was the only one Dallas won all game, but they did so convincingly thanks to Doncic orchestrating a 36 to 18 run through 12 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue made it interesting in the third quarter by throwing the Mavericks off balance with a zone defense, especially after Kyrie Irving, who had scored only two points until that moment, hit the bench with four fouls. But Irving returned with five and a half minutes left in the period and did what he has done so many times this season: take over and put the opponent away. Irving scored 19 of his 21 points in the next 15 minutes, single-handedly ensuring the Clippers never got close again.

But we’re used to Doncic and Irving taking turns demoralizing opponents. The real story of this game was the supporting cast flying around on the home court. Daniel Gafford finally showed up; together with  Dereck Lively II, he attacked the rim on one end and put the lid on the other. Josh Green’s hustle was off the charts, while Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. continued to play unbelievable defense.

If the Mavericks can feed off the rocking energy of the home crowd at American Airlines Center and soar once again on Sunday afternoon, they’ll have a real chance to put the ailing Clippers on the ropes.—Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

You know what it felt like? Swagger

It felt tough, it felt brash, it felt like a version of the Dallas Mavericks that has been rare and fleeting at best over at least the duration of the Luka Doncic-led era—and really, for most of the team’s history. The Mavericks are led by a player who rather enjoys breaking his opponent’s will. The problem is extrapolating that to a team-wide disposition requires a group of teammates willing and able to execute being Stanced Up. 

Finally, it appears the Mavericks have it. They have a roster that attitudinally matches the way that Doncic plays offense: like somebody you don’t want to see. Doncic and Irving did not shoot the ball well, and yet the team was able to produce by grinding out dunks and lobs and tough buckets. Irving had two points in the first half, Doncic’s shot was not falling, and it’s a testament to Jason Kidd and his coaching staff that Dallas continued to attack the weaknesses of their opponent’s defense. Gafford, a game-time decision due to injury concerns, put forth his best effort of the series. Washington did what we thought Grant Williams might do. Lively II and Green both gave the team solid, tough minutes.

This was a game I attended in person, and as someone who has been fortunate enough to attend a lot of Mavericks basketball games over the last decade, the energy created by this team is different. I don’t advocate becoming the Knicks or Pistons or the 80s or 90s, but there is something different about a crowd for a team that demoralizes the opposition with defense rather than with open threes. 

Interestingly, though, Dallas has threaded the needle on both fronts. They have two offensive talents who can dazzle and play the game as it will likely be played in 2040, while the rest of their team is stuck in 1993 stylistically. Right now, it’s working.

The Mavericks could very well still lose this series. If they don’t, they could lose quickly in the next round instead. But it can no longer be said that Dallas hasn’t done everything possible to properly position their generational star to succeed, given the resources at their disposal. Doncic is an F You player. At last, his Mavericks are now an F You team.—Jake Kemp

Authors

Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…
Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…
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