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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Thunder, Game 4

The worst loss of the season.
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Another poor offensive game from Luka Doncic helped cost Dallas a series-shifting win against Oklahoma City.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

Let’s begin with the free throws, because that’s the simplest place to start. 

You can’t win a basketball game bricking almost half your shots from the line! You’ve heard your favorite talk radio host, and/or your buddy in the group chat, and/or your crusty retired JV basketball coach screech this, and they are not wrong. It is asinine for a professional basketball team to execute so well in the white-knuckle moments and position itself to win from the proverbial charity stripe—only to flub the payoff.

Except the simplest take is often the most reductive one, and that holds true here. As friend of the program Law Murray notes, Dallas was also putrid from the field (34.1 percent) and from three-point range (21.4 percent) in the second half. This was total system failure, perpetuated most by the two players who are the system: Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Together they were 10 of 31 from the field, each hitting only two of seven shots across the final 23:50 of game time. Irving, who seemed poised to control this series, couldn’t crack double digits for the second time in four games. Just like he did in the first round, Dončić continues to misfire; he’s shooting 39 percent for the series and 31 percent from three. 

It’s important to acknowledge how both players have played bigger than their shooting lines. The Mavs are not positioned to squander this game, nor do they win the two prior, without its stars flinging themselves wholeheartedly into rotations and recoveries and all the gritty, annoying defensive intricacies the very best scorers often choose to disengage from. There is no better indicator of Dončić’s ongoing transformation into a two-way force than his final sequence of the first half, when he buried a 27-foot step-back and blazed back downcourt to block a Chet Holmgren dunk in the span of four seconds. This, too, as he continues to slog through injury: as “everything” hurts and each bit of ache shows. 

But the reality is these amount to garnishes—important garnishes but garnishes all the same. Dončić and Irving are paid to get buckets above all else, because championship-caliber lead scorers are the most valuable resource in basketball for all the potholes they can pave over. (Related: anyone who tries to argue Kevin Garnett was a better basketball player than Dirk Nowitzki is wrong.) And in the most important game of the season to date, Dončić and Irving combined for one point over the final seven minutes. 

The free throws do not matter if the sport’s premier scoring duo plays to even half its potential. Nor does Oklahoma City making all the right adjustments down the stretch, from banishing Josh Giddey in favor of rookie (and Richardson High alum) Cason Wallace to Jalen Williams finally getting unshackled late after spending most of the night fruitlessly heaving himself at Mavericks’ rim protectors. 

But Dončić and Irving didn’t play well down the stretch, and so everything else does matter—albeit not nearly as much as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander delivering a fourth quarter for the ages. The MVP runner-up made sure the little things couldn’t overshadow the biggest thing. The Mavericks are licking their wounds because they failed to do the same.

What It Felt Like

The worst loss of the season.

There are dumber ones, sure. Recall, for instance, the regular-season contest between these teams when Dallas ripped off an NBA-record 30-0 run and still lost. More perplexing ones, too. Alexa, play “The Max Strus Game.” 

But there is no more pivotal defeat than this one, the game that would have propelled Dallas to a 3-1 lead, good for a series win about 95 percent of the time. Now the Mavericks must do this the hard way, and the last three games have brushed against the outer bounds of how far the hard way can take them. 

This team is not constructed for role players to carry it to a series win this important, yet Dallas has asked them to do so for three games straight. That it even worked once, let alone twice (and damn near a third time), stands as testament to what Nico Harrison has assembled, to what Jason Kidd has molded, to what Dončić and Irving have done to set the tone. But it is unfair to demand that P.J. Washington, essential and beloved as he’s already become, be this team’s top scorer three games in a row. Ditto Dereck Lively being given the ball in crunch time considering how eager the Thunder are to foul him and wait out his free-throw misses. Same goes for leaning on Tim Hardaway Jr., whose ebbs have drastically unnumbered his flows for months, to hit a bail-out three with 1:52 remaining to keep Dallas within a possession—and, later, Jones doing the same on an alley-oop that doubled Dončić and Irving’s crunch-time output. 

These are meant to be supplementary contributors, scaffolding for the All-Star duo’s brilliance. For the better part of the series, these players have instead served as load-bearing columns. That is no way for Dallas to make a conference finals, let alone a sustainable formula for competing in them, but a third straight win, however rickety, would have postponed that reckoning a while longer.

But there’s no hiding now. This team’s engine is broken, and the longer it goes unrepaired, the more hopeless this series will feel. One week ago, it was inconceivable to think of Dončić and Irving being this underwhelming with the ball in their hands. That makes it difficult to imagine one or both won’t course correct sometime in the next two games. And if neither does? Then there won’t be a third. 

Author

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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