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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Clippers, Game 5

The latest Luka Doncic playoff opus.
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Another game, another Doncic and Irving-powered win. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports Kirby Lee-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

Some of my Slovenian friends were upset when I questioned whether Luka Doncic could further mature as a player, asking if there was another level of sacrifice he could reach for the sake of winning. They had a point: how could one expect more from my ailing countryman, who is already averaging 43 minutes per game? Yet following the Mavericks’ demoralizing loss in Game 4, I couldn’t help but wonder if Doncic could make another adaptation in a season filled with many.

In response, Doncic answered the call in Game 5, delivering one of the most mature performances of his career. 

His sprained knee was tested from the jump by the Clippers, but as was the case in Game 2, Doncic showed he can defend and stay in front of James Harden and Paul George when he puts his mind to it. His patience and dedication to playing faster were even more impressive. Process-wise, this was the Mavericks’ best offensive game of the series. They played with pace and tempo in the half-court. Not only did they run actions, they got in them early. Staggered screens replaced simple pick-and-rolls. The ball moved. Despite continuing struggles with his three-point shot—Doncic missed his first six from beyond the arc—he wasn’t forcing things. He stayed committed to the plan.

Then, in the third quarter, the dam finally burst. Doncic took over, scoring 14 points in the period to help the Mavericks assemble a 25-point lead from which they’d never look back. We witnessed another signature playoff game from Luka exactly when it was needed most.

Doncic was the main story, but he was far from the only one. The Mavericks played suffocating defense again, giving Doncic and Kyrie Irving the luxury of easing into the game. Irving scored only 14 points but set the tone by hounding Harden and making momentum-changing plays in transition. Derrick Jones Jr. was in George’s jersey all night long. Dereck Lively II played as mature a game as a 20-year-old rookie center can. And Maxi Kleber hit five threes, reminiscent of the player who helped end the Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell era in Utah in 2022.

The job is not over yet. The next step for Doncic and Co. is to show that they can repeat this process, and not only when their backs are against the wall. If they can, they’ll close this series in Dallas and confidently look toward Oklahoma City. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

We will remember the tape on his shoulder, the sleeve on his knee, the Flonase presumably jammed up his nostrils.

To the degree that the latest Luka Doncic latest playoff opus—35 points, 10 assists, and seven boards on 14-of-26 shooting—endures, it will be in the context of how he did, too. He was somehow his most Luka while at his physical low point, rummaging through every fold of his bag to demoralize his playoff nemesis. 

Stepbacks and a Dirk fade. 

Bull rushes to the rim and whipped passes to open shooters. 

Even a quick dusting of Ivica Zubac for old times’ sake. 

Doncic should not have been playing through a bad knee and a sinus infection, and probably wouldn’t have been were this a regular-season contest. Yet there he was, toying with the Clippers while orchestrating the worst postseason defeat in L.A.’s history. 

It felt bigger than the 30-point final margin, too. Pivotal as it was for Dallas to shrug off its little brother complex in Game 3, disposition cannot shake chronology. The Mavericks remain the Clippers’ junior in the very best way: younger, bouncier, and utterly fearless. Here’s Daniel Gafford dominating the tail end of the second quarter to pad Dallas’ halftime lead. There is Jones Jr.’s jump scare of an and-one flush. Over yonder are Lively and his alley-oops, with war cries even louder than the flushes themselves. Tucked away in the right corner is Josh Green for the four-point play that snuffed out the Clippers’ last gasp of momentum late in the third quarter. 

On the opposite sideline, Ty Lue’s best attempt at a response was excavating a fossilized P.J. Tucker—39 years old this Sunday—from the depths of his bench. The league’s oldest team appeared heavy-footed and slow to adapt, speed walkers losing steps in a track meet. The Clippers looked like a team getting passed by. 

It’s on the Mavs to do that, of course: to zoom beyond Los Angeles once and for all to set up a stiffer challenge in Oklahoma City. History tells us they’ve got an 81.7 percent chance of doing precisely that after taking a 3-2 lead in the series. As for Doncic’s own playoff history, that now contains another beautiful, banged-up chapter—in all likelihood, the penultimate one before a long-awaited finish to his story against Hollywood’s lesser basketball light. Mike Piellucci

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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