When the Dallas Mavericks set a goal of advancing to this season’s playoffs, the overwhelming majority of the so-called experts didn’t believe they had the cache to lock up one of the eight postseason spots in the Western Conference.
Needless to say, the grit and determination the Mavs displayed was sorely underestimated.
Not only did the Mavs finish the regular season with a 43-32 record and qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2016, they also took the Los Angeles Clippers to six games in their first-round series. Not bad for a team that didn’t have two of their top six players – Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson – for the team’s entire experience inside the NBA bubble.
And the Mavs also were without injured forward Kristaps Porzingis for the final three games of their best-of-seven series against the Clippers.
“I feel like we had a very productive year and a lot was accomplished,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s hard to put your hands around everything at this particular moment.
“Getting back to the playoffs is very significant. Being 11 games over .500 in the regular season is significant. We didn’t win a lot of games in the seeding games, but we went through some great experiences. We went through three or four overtime games and that got us ready to play the Clippers.”
The No. 7 seed out West, the Mavs, according to Carlisle, are ascending in the right direction with a crop of young players, many of them hardened after just experiencing their first-ever NBA playoff series.
“We’re on the climb,” Carlisle said. “You never know the exact timing of things like that, but that’s our passion, that’s our obsession. It’s shared by the guys in the locker room.
“We matched up probably against the most physical and the most talented team in the entire league, and it was a difficult series, but it was the kind of experience we needed.”
It definitely was a memorable experience for Luka Doncic. Arguably one of the NBA’s Top 5 players after the way he dominated in the regular season and in the playoffs, Doncic averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the regular season, and added a league-high 17 triple-doubles. In the playoffs he averaged 31 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists while tacking on two more triple-doubles.
“He has an irrepressible enthusiasm for the game, for his teammates and for winning,” Carlisle said. “(Sunday), it was hard getting him out of the game – in the second half we didn’t do it until the very end.
“We’re so fortunate to have him. Now we’ve got to get our roster completely healthy and keep working to get the right players around him.”
With major assistance from Doncic, the Mavs produced the signature game of this year’s NBA playoffs. Down one point to the Clippers with 3.7 seconds remaining in overtime in Game 4 of their series, Doncic drained a dramatic 3-pointer at the buzzer to put the finishing touches on a staggering 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist game and give the Mavs an exhilarating 135-133.
“We know this kid has got a flair for the dramatic,” Carlisle said. “He’s a guy that lives for these moments.”
The things Doncic does on the court to gain control of a game and get his teammates involved in the action amazes forward Maxi Kleber. It also lets Kleber know that the 21-year Doncic has an old basketball soul.
“I can’t even describe the things that’s he’s doing, especially offensively for us,” Kleber said. “He’s a very rare, very special talent, and he just does it all for the team. Passing, creating for other guys, shooting the shots, step-back threes. He’s not afraid of anything.
“So as a teammate, it’s fun to watch. Even when a team throws a double-team at him, he has a solution for everything. He’s just way ahead of his age and it’s just a lot of fun for everybody to watch him play.”
That fun is displayed through the fearless way Doncic plays the game, and the way he’s known to not back down to anyone. The second-year point guard also is a fearless leader who can put a team on his back and drag them across the finish line.
“He plays with a lot of heart,” Kleber said. “He’s not afraid of anything. He’s developing and talking more and more, and that will be his role and he knows that. But right now he’s doing a lot by leading by example.”
The biggest example Doncic set is for he and his teammates to set some lofty goals, and to mentally focus on achieving those goals. In Doncic’s world qualifying for the playoffs is a nice little nugget. But he said:
“My goal at the start of every season is to win a championship. There is no other goal, so that is going to be mine.”
The Mavs could have been closer to reaching that goal this season if Porzingis hadn’t suffered a tear to his lateral meniscus in his right knee that caused him to miss the last three games of the Clippers’ series.
In the regular season, Porzingis averaged 20.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and was fifth in the NBA in blocks with two per game. The 7-3 fifth-year veteran also converted 142 shots from behind the 3-point line, which were the most this season by any 7-footer. In addition, Porzingis played six seeding games in the bubble and averaged 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds.
Together, Doncic and Porzingis, 25, are the two cornerstones for a Mavs’ team expected to advance deep into the playoffs for many years to come – with the appropriate pieces around them.
“He’s the big key of our team,” center Boban Marjanovic said of Porzingis. “He and Luka are the best players, and (each) one of the best players in the NBA. They do a great job together.”
Meanwhile, Tim Hardaway Jr. was the Mavs’ third-leading scorer this season with 15.8 points per game. He also shot a career-best 39.8 percent from 3-point range. And the 204 baskets Hardaway made from behind the 3-point arc are exceeded in Mavs’ history only by the 257 George McCloud made during the 1995-’96 season.
Also, Seth Curry averaged 12.4 points and shot 49.5 percent from the floor and 45.2 percent from 3-point land. And Trey Burke, signed as a substitute player on July 1, averaged 12 points and made 43.2 percent of his 3-pointers in the eight games he played inside the bubble.
Overall, the Mavs finished the regular season as the most efficient offensive team in the history of the NBA. And they were the only team that didn’t lose more than two regular season games in a row during the 2019-20 season.
“There were a lot of great things that came out of this season and there is going to be great optimism for the future,” Carlisle said. “We’ve got to keep building the roster around Luka and KP, keep adding pieces that fit around those two guys so that as we move forward we can continue to grow the team. That’s really the most important thing.”
Also, with the coronavirus pandemic still around, neither the Mavs nor the NBA know when next season will start. Or whether it will include fans in the stands.
Either way, the Mavs believe they are poised to make a long run in next season’s playoffs. Especially if they’re are able to have all hands on deck.
“I’m very excited,” Kleber said. “I think we stepped out there, played with a lot of heart. I think we have a lot of potential, a lot of room for improvement, and it was the first time we played in the playoffs.
“It was a different situation here in the bubble and not the usual with our fans, because they would have helped us too. But you know it’s a great learning experience and we definitely take a lot away from that.”