In a game that had a playoff-type feel to it, the Mavs punched the right buttons at the right time and got out of Fiserv Forum with a crucial 118-112 triumph over the Bucks before a Sunday afternoon sellout crowd of 17,902. It was the 14th win in their last 19 games for the Mavs as they improved to 49-30 and still trail Golden State (50-29) by just one game for the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed after the Warriors beat Sacramento on Sunday, 109-90.
The Mavs, who lost to the Wizards, 135-103, on Friday, will now play at the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday before returning home to close out the regular season with games against Portland and San Antonio.
Make no mistake about it, the win over Milwaukee was a huge bounce back victory for the Mavs against a Bucks’ team that’s mired in a tussle with Miami, Boston and Philadelphia for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. But with all five starters scoring in double figures, and with Luka Doncic punctuating his 32 points and eight rebounds with some pin-point passes that amounted to 15 assists, the Mavs overcame a sluggish start and knocked the defending champs back on their heels.
“Sometimes games, they don’t go your way and you have to move forward,” said coach Jason Kidd, referring to the 32-point drubbing at the hands of the Wizards. “But I thought yesterday we had a great practice. I thought the spirit was in a good place. We were happy.
“This group is always happy. They have a lot of fun. I thought coming in against the champs we knew this was going to be a tough game, and we put ourselves in position to win.”
The Mavs put themselves in position to win after they finally started chasing the red-hot shooting Bucks off the three-point line. In the first quarter alone, the Bucks were a terrific 8-of-16 from downtown.
But with the aggressive-minded Mavs finally adhering to the game plan, the Bucks were just 7-of-24 from the three-point stripe during the game’s final three quarters.
“I thought the guys did a great job of running them off the three,” Kidd said. “We worked on it (Saturday in practice) and it didn’t look like we had a carryover there in that first quarter.
“But I think we talked about it and they responded. From that point (after the first quarter) I think we understood what we had to do.”
And then there was Doncic.
As he continues to blossom like a spring flower, the fourth-year point guard mesmerized the crowd with his passing skills and with the way he seemingly has eyes in the back of his head. On Sunday, Doncic kept throwing one dart after another that led to multiple baskets by a Mavs’ team that shot 51.3 percent from the field, converted 16-of-38 three-pointers and surprising won the rebounding battle against the much taller Bucks, 38-36.
In the end, this is the third game this season where Doncic has scored at least 30 points, grabbed at least eight rebounds, and distributed at least 15 assists. The rest of the players — in the entire NBA — have combined for just two such games this season.
“I think for me, obviously, I’m reading basketball-wise what the center is going to do and what the corners are going to do,” Doncic said. “A couple of times the corners were open and I didn’t see them.”
Doncic will have a difficult time getting the Bucks to believe that. He simply set the game at his tempo, and the Bucks had problems trying to rattle him or speed him up.
“When it looks like he’s going for a layup, he can find the corners or he can find the guy behind him popping. His tempo sets the tone for the drop.”
In other words, when guys like Reggie Bullock (17 points, seven rebounds), Jalen Brunson (15 points), Dorian Finney-Smith (11 points, six assists) and Spencer Dinwiddie (11 points) were dropping in corner three-pointers, it became a huge problem the Bucks couldn’t solved. And when they solved that crisis, Doncic simply dropped the ball off inside to Dwight Powell, who finished with 22 points and grabbed a season-high 13 rebounds.
“He’s able to pick apart whatever the defense is throwing at him,” Brunson said, referring to Doncic. “He tries to put guys in the right positions where we can succeed.
“He does a lot for us. Night in and night out, it’s pretty special.”
It’s also pretty special that the Mavs now have rallied from a 10-point deficit to win 17 games this season. That’s the most by any team and shows they never get demoralized, no matter the deficit they have to climb out of.
Behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks led, 35-25, early in the second quarter and 91-90 at the outset of the fourth quarter. That’s when Doncic decided to continue putting his stamp on this game as he was at the forefront of an 11-2 run which provided the Mavs with a 101-93 lead with 6:55 remaining in the game.
The run started when Doncic made a gorgeous three-point shot over the outstretched arms of Antetokounmpo, who finished with 28 points and 10 boards. Doncic followed that up with a pair of charity tosses, then fed Finney-Smith and Bullock for back-to-back three-pointers.
A short time later, Powell perfected a three-point play, then also scored inside. From there, Doncic buried three free throws when Jrue Holiday fouled him in his hair while he was attempting a three-point shot. (The play was unsuccessfully challenged by Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer).
“Jrue told me after the game, ‘You’re welcome for that haircut,’ “ Doncic said while laughing. “But he got me a little bit. I think that’s a foul.”
And when Bullock scored on a short jumper with 4:11 left, the Mavs suddenly built a comfortable 111-101 lead that not even the hard-charging Bucks (48-30) could overcome.
“They’re a great team,” said Powell, who converted 8-of-10 baskets. “They had their guys, an energetic arena.
The Mavs rose to the challenge because Doncic has a history of taking his game to historic levels when a player of Antetokounmpo’s ilk is wearing the opposing jersey.
“Obviously when you’re playing superstars like Giannis today, you always have extra motivation,” Doncic said. “He’s a champion, he’s a two-time MVP. You just give a little bit extra.”
The “little bit extra” Doncic gave Sunday now has him just one game shy of the franchise record of six consecutive 30-point games Mark Aguirre scored in 1981.
“He came in and he did what he normally does,” Kidd said. “He reads the floor. If they don’t stop him he’s going to lay it up. If they come, he’s going to find a lob or the three.
“He did a great job of controlling the tempo and being able to answer their runs. And then on the defensive end I thought he did a great job too of rebounding the ball.”
After the Bucks mounted that 10-point lead in the second quarter, Dinwiddie led a comeback by scoring all 11 of his points in the second quarter. And it was his three-pointer that knotted the score at 48 with 3:24 remaining in the first half.
Dinwiddie followed that up with another basket from downtown, and then Doncic drove downhill and scored, and shortly thereafter added a fast break dunk as the Mavs led at the half, 57-55.
For the Mavs, the win was doubly sweet because they had to overcame a 14-0 run the Bucks pieced together that put Milwaukee up, 77-72, with 4:42 remaining in the third quarter. However, Davis Bertans and Bullock each buried three-pointers via feeds from Doncic, and Doncic followed that barrage by nailing a triple, and suddenly the Mavs were nursing an 88-83 lead.
“There’s no panic,” Kidd said. “We all, I think, trust one another. The chemistry and the accountability is high and we accept when things don’t go well. We don’t blame anyone, we learn from it, we talk about it and we move forward.
“Overall, on the road against the champs, it’s a hard place to win, especially after we had that performance in Washington. This group in that locker room know they can respond even when they know they didn’t play well. They came in this afternoon and played a great game.”