Ideally, game-winning shots are reserved for a team’s best player. The player who usually is the face of the franchise.
But that wasn’t the case Saturday night for the Dallas Mavericks. And as far as the Mavs – and the team’s best player – are concerned, that was perfectly fine.
Dorian Finney-Smith calmly buried a game-winning 3-pointer in front of Washington’s bench with just 9.3 seconds remaining and the Mavs maneuvered their way to a hard-fought 125-124 victory over the Wizards at American Airlines Center. With the win, the Mavs are now tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for fifth place in the Western Conference as each team is 36-27.
However, since the Mavs won the season series against the Lakers, 2-1, Dallas would enter the postseason as the No. 5 seed out West if the playoffs started today. So that scintillating basket by Finney-Smith definitely has long-term playoff implications.
On the play, the Wizards trapped Luka Doncic on the perimeter, forcing the ball out of his hands to a wide-open Finney-Smith, who promptly nailed the precious game-winner.
“They trapped (Doncic) the last three possessions and I just got a layup two possessions before that, and then I got the turnover out of bounds,” Finney-Smith said. “So I knew the ball was going to find me most likely.
“I just wanted to be ready to shoot, because I didn’t shoot the ball when I stepped out of bounds. I told (Doncic) if you find me again I’m going to let it go, and he found me.”
The shot gave the Mavs their sixth victory in the last seven games headed into Sunday’s home game against the Sacramento Kings.
Doncic adequately made the proper basketball play in delivering the ball to Finney-Smith, who finished with 22 points while converting 6-of-9 shots from downtown.
“There was strong-side help, so I saw (Finney-Smith) open and I had no doubt,” Doncic said. “That was a helluva shot, and very clutch.”
Doncic also was very clutch. The third-year veteran had 31 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high 20 assists while joining Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Russell Westbrook as the only players in NBA history to post a 30-point, 10-rebound, 20-assist triple-double.
Asked if he was more impressed by the season-low tying one turnover that he committed or the gigantic triple-double company that he joined, Doncic said: “I think I’m more impressed by only having one turnover. That never happens, so I’m more impressed by that.”
This was a wild race to the finish line for the Mavs, who had the Wizards looking disheveled while mounting a 46-28 cushion early in the second quarter. But behind Westbrook (42 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) and Bradley Beal (29 points), the Wizards stormed back and carried a 97-89 lead into the fourth period.
Nevertheless, the Mavs got a major spark from Trey Burke, who only played the entire fourth quarter and contributed seven points on three-of-four shots while making some key baskets.
“That’s the biggest thing for me is just never checking out mentally and knowing that there’s always an opportunity for me to go in the game,” Burke said. “My ability to get buckets quick, I know coach looks at that as valuable.
“Sometimes he feels like he can throw me in and I can be a spark like I was tonight.”
In the meantime in this massively entertaining game, Doncic was as steady as they come as he kept breaking down the Wizards’ defense and finding the open man for easy opportunity baskets. Doncic manufactured a pair of lob dunks to Dwight Powell and one each to Willie Cauley-Stein and Tim Hardaway Jr. – all in the first half.
“I thought Luka’s poise down the stretch was spectacular,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He just was very, very focused, he made every single right play and fittingly got the last rebound off the Beal miss.
“Everyone expects greatness from him every single night. And just think about it — at 22 years old and having that kind of expectation put on you every night. But he’s an amazing player and does an amazing job absorbing all of that.”
The Wizards (29-35) entered the game as the NBA’s hottest team since April 7 with 12 wins in 14 games. But they couldn’t come up with a key stop down the stretch, and Beal’s late potential game-winning 3-pointer missed its mark.
“They threw a hellacious game at us on the second night of a back-to-back,” Carlisle said. “We’re going to have to keep working on doing a better job of working with a lead early in the game, and not take them for granted.
“They’re hard to come by in this league and when you get them you’ve got to bear down, and teams are going to make runs. (But) all things taken into consideration, a phenomenal win, a very important win and we’ve got a quick turnaround here.”
The Mavs are now 27-13 in their last 40 games after starting the season 9-14. And Saturday’s win was equally impressive, considering the Mavs had to fight off the hottest team in the NBA while forward/center Kristaps Porzingis didn’t play due to right knee soreness.
“That’s just been the story of this whole season with guys sitting out because of COVID protocols and us not having a lot of our starters,” said Hardaway, who scored 16 points. “For us to turn the page and keep moving forward and stay on each other to make sure we prevail through each and every course of the season is really exciting. We’re starting to lock in at the right time of the season.”
Behind 13 points and six assists from Doncic, the Mavs held a 38-26 lead after the first quarter. But the Wizards chopped the deficit to 70-65 at the half and kept the momentum through the third quarter before the Mavs seized control at the very end.
In the aftermath, Carlisle noted it was a no-brainer for Doncic to get the ball on the last possession to Finney-Smith, who came into the NBA in 2016 as an undrafted player that was basically known for his defense.
“It’s been a wonderful evolution to watch a guy that was a great defender in college,” Carlisle said of Finney-Smith. “He basically re-built his shot.
“He went through a down period as the re-build was happening, but never stopped believing. Now he’s one of our most important players. I’m really happy for him.”
So were Finney-Smith’s teammates.
“We be on him about trying to be a little bit more aggressive on the offensive end so teams can really, really respect you on that end of the floor,” Hardaway said. “He’s out there doing his thing now, and coming down and shooting pull-up threes – something you’ll never see (Finney-Smith) do.
“He’s being the ultimate aggressive player that we want him to be right now and we’re loving it, and we need him to continue to do that if we’re going to be a great team.”