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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Clippers, Game 6

At long last, Dallas defeated L.A.
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Luka Doncic finally took down his playoff nemesis. Jerome Miron, USA Today Sports. Luka Doncic finally took down his playoff nemesis. 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

It took some time, but the Mavericks eventually figured out the Clippers.

They weren’t ready for their Kawhi Leonard-less foe in Game 1, had to gut out an ugly Game 2, and absorbed another punch when the Clippers shot lights out in Game 4. But ever since they split the first two games in Los Angeles, the Mavericks’ offensive process and results have steadily improved, with their points scored per 100 possessions increasing in each game: 105, 105, 117, 121, 127, 129. Meanwhile, the Clippers remained stuck in the mud, overwhelmed by the Mavericks’ suffocating defense.

Game 6 was a classic example of Dallas’ winning script since their post-trade deadline makeover: Luka Dončić starts by systematically grinding down the opponent’s defense, while the Mavericks’ supporting cast applies relentless pressure on the other end of the floor like a pack of hounds. And in the playoffs, Kyrie Irving joined that pack, chasing and locking up James Harden as if he were possessed. The Clippers tried to resist in the first half, managing to stay even, but the damage was already done. The older team ran out of gas, and as he had done all season long, Irving smelled blood and went for the kill, scoring 28 points after the break.

Watching Irving dismantle the Clippers’ hopes, shaking 38-year-old P.J. Tucker with an Uncle Drew-style four-point play, perfectly encapsulated the series. The Mavericks were simply too young, too fast, too spry. They won a series where Dončić didn’t need to go supernova. He was banged up, his best weapon—the step back—had deserted him, and they couldn’t afford him a breather due to Tim Hardaway Jr.’s injury and Dante Exum’s struggles. Still, they got the job done. It’s further proof of how differently this team is built compared to past iterations in the Dončić era. 

The win grants Dallas a much-needed few extra days of rest before taking on the West’s top seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Mavericks won’t be the younger team anymore and perhaps not the most athletic, either. But the first round showed us this is a tough, resilient group that can find ways to win even when things don’t go as planned. So don’t go planning a second-round exit for them just yet. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

An echo from a different epoch—two years ago on the calendar but far longer in the lifecycle of this franchise.

It’s easy to couch the last three games of this series in what they mean in Luka Dončić’s story, the white knight finally plunging his sword through the dragon’s neck. It wouldn’t be wrong, either. The hero’s journey primarily trades on romance, sure, but every so often it’s rooted in truth. Dirk Nowitzki had to take down the Heat to capture his championship ring. The Rangers needed to go through the Astros to finally win that World Series. And now here stands Dončić, a better player than the greatest athlete this city’s ever known and more recognizable than its reigning championship team, finally victorious over the first important postseason nemesis of his NBA career.

But look closer and these final 144 minutes stand out for how they could be ripped out of the one first-round series Dončić’s Mavericks have played against a different opponent. A squandered Game 4 as promising as it was frustrating. A resounding Game 5 triumph, powered by a Luka third quarter too brilliant for his injured body to contain. A Game 6 closeout that calls into question whether Dallas merely eliminated its opponent or laid the groundwork for a total dismantling of said opponent’s roster. This was the 2022 Jazz series all over again, which positions Oklahoma City as Phoenix, the top seed the Mavs will not be expected to defeat in the second round.

Except, what if they do? Because they can, for reasons that begin with having the best player in the series. However the MVP ballots fall, Dončić remains better at basketball than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. All those arguments will be dissected soon enough, but one thing matters above all else. Even a different outcome next round will not dampen the feeling that has returned after two years of dormancy, this time stronger than ever: these Mavericks are on the upswing. —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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