Overachievers to the end, the Mavericks battled the Los Angeles Clippers through injuries and boycotts, all the way to the end of what will be remembered as a brutally hard-fought six-game series.
In the end, the Clippers proved to be the better team. But not by much. They simply had too much Kawhi Leonard.
The Clippers needed their superstar, plus Paul George and more as they finally vanquished the Mavericks 111-97 Sunday afternoon to win the first-round playoff series four games to two.
Leonard finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds. It was the fifth time in the series he topped 30 points.
The Mavericks countered with Luka Dončić, who proved to be every bit the statistical monster that Leonard was with 38 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
And what the Mavericks know now more than ever is that their future is incredibly bright.
“I am proud of our team and how we fought,” Dončić said. “I think we fought till the end but the Clippers have an amazing team so it was hard. I think we gave everything and played especially hard in the playoffs. I am proud of our guys.”
The Mavericks’ fight was clear in the second half. They fell behind by 23 points, then chopped the deficit to 88-82 early in the fourth quarter.
But Leonard, who had been sitting on the bench, came alive the rest of the way, making all four of his shots and getting loads of help from Reggie Jackson as the Clippers pulled away.
When they were done after 50-some days in the NBA bubble, the Mavericks had confirmation that they are headed upward and onward from here.
After all, they were not expected by many to make the playoffs in 2019-20.
“I’m in full agreement with that,” coach Rick Carlisle said of being on the rise. “It was a tough series for a lot of reasons. We’re down some of our guys, which those things are going to happen. Today the way that our guys fought through all the ups and downs was something that could make all Mavs fans proud, it makes our organization proud.
“We got a lot of great experience from being down here and being in the playoffs. They fought as hard as they possibly could. Everyone was into it. You hate to lose but the effort was phenomenally good.”
The Mavericks will always wonder what might have been. But with injuries to so many key players, the latest being Kristaps Porzingis’ knee injury, there simply wasn’t enough manpower for them to pull off the upset of the No. 2-seeded Clippers, who remain one of the favorites to win the NBA title.
The Mavericks did not go down easily.
After a first half that was competitive throughout, the Mavericks fell behind by 10, then 15 and, finally 77-54 early in the third quarter.
By the end of the third quarter, with Dončić making threes and three-point plays the old-fashioned way, the Mavericks got back to a working margin. Luka got Paul George up in the air and converted a three-point play and drew within 85-74 going into the fourth quarter.
They cut it to 88-82 early in the fourth quarter when Leonard was taking a breather.
After that, the Clippers gathered themselves and got hot from 3-point range. They eventually pulled back ahead 108-92 with under five minutes to play.
And then, it was over.
What the Mavericks have done in this season is serve notice that they will have to be reckoned with in the future. They have a legitimate, transcendent superstar in Dončić. And a strong sidekick in Porzingis, when he’s healthy.
Their future is bright.
But this was not their time. That will come down the line.
“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. It’s an arduous climb to get back in the playoffs.
“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. There were a lot of great things that came out of this season and there is going to be great optimism for the future.”
And the keys going forward?
“We’ve got to get our roster completely healthy,” he 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.”
This was the Mavericks’ first run in the playoffs since 2016. It was a memorable one.
Dončić proved beyond any doubt that he’s going to be a force for years to come. He dominated the Clippers at times and even without the help of Kristaps Porzingis for the final three games because of a knee injury, the Mavericks gave the Clippers everything they could handle.
It was evident from the start on Sunday just how tough the Mavericks were going to be to get rid of.
The Mavericks weathered an early storm, but it was a storm that caused a power outage for the Clippers rather than the Mavs.
As Dončić made a move toward the rim, he got tangled up with Marcus Morris, who lifted a leg into the midsection of Dončić as he swiped across the Maverick point guard’s head and neck.
Dončić came up ready for a tussle after the play. He was restrained by teammates and Mavericks’ support personnel. The result was that Morris was ejected for a flagrant-2 foul.
This was something Dončić may have thought was way overdue. It was Morris who had perhaps inadvertently stepped on Dončić’s shoe in Game 5, causing a stir that bubbled during the boycott of games for three days.
The Mavericks then had the seldom-seen four-to-make-three free-throw opportunity – two for the foul on Morris, two for the flagrant.
Dončić needed them all, and could only make two.
It was that kind of half as the Mavericks let everything fly on the court. They traded momentum swings and leads with the Clippers, who eventually led 57-51 at halftime, thanks to a late Paul George 3-pointer.