The prevailing wisdom is that this once-in-a-lifetime NBA playoffs is wide-open.
The Mavericks did their part Wednesday night to reinforce that notion.
Matching the Los Angeles Clippers blow-for-blow and deep-bench-for-deep-bench, the Mavericks evened the first-round series at a win apiece with a strong-willed 127-114 victory over the Clippers at the Walt Disney World bubble.
In doing so, they answered a lot of questions about their young team packed with several key players who earned their first NBA playoff win.
“Did we need the win? Absolutely,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I’ll agree with that. I think it’s really important. Winning in the playoffs is difficult. You got to deal with a lot of things coming at you, great players coming at you a hundred miles an hour, whistles blowing.
“Tonight, our guys showed a lot of poise throughout the game. The Clippers are super-talented, very aggressive, very physical. And we did a good job of holding up under a lot of pressure and that was great to see.”
They did so with their amazing one-two punch of . . . Trey Burke and Boban Marjanović?
Faced with the reality that teams that fall behind 2-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series recover to advance to the next round only 7 percent of the time, the Mavericks played with every ounce of grit and heart they could muster.
This was nothing short of a mandatory win if they were serious about pulling off the upset in this best-of-seven series.
They even overcame foul trouble for Luka Dončić that kept the young superstar on the bench for most of the fourth quarter.
Not to worry. Burke was constantly motoring around the Clippers’ defense, rolling up 16 points. Marjanović had 13 points and nine rebounds in just under 10 minutes of court time and was instrumental in getting the Mavericks a 17-point first-half lead.
Want more from the bench? Seth Curry had 15 points as the Mavericks’ bench was every bit as potent as the Clippers’ heralded set of reserves. The backups piled up 17 of the Mavericks’ 29 fourth-quarter points when they were protecting a lead that never dropped below 10 points.
Not that Dončić wasn’t remarkable – again. He had 28 points and Kristaps Porzingis showed what a difference he makes when he’s around for a full game as he had 23 points and showed up big late in the third quarter when a two-point lead ballooned to 98-85 with a 12-2 surge to close out the period.
“I just think they’re playing well,” LA coach Doc Rivers said. “Honestly, they’re playing better than us right now.
“They had such a great rhythm against us. Every single guy on their team on their team had confidence with the basketball. They were the more physical team. They played harder. They attacked us. We didn’t respond well.”
Not that it was easy at the end. Though the lead never got below 10, the Mavericks saw their 18-point advantage trimmed to 120-110 with 3:28 to play. Those last minutes went by like jail time for a team that has lost a few late leads this season. When Dončić made a floater in the paint with 1:34 to go, the lead was 124-112 and the Mavericks had knotted the series.
It was an exhausting ordeal. But it also was a complete team effort.
“It was great,” Dončić said. “We tied the series. We were better today. We just have three (wins) left. I think we can fight for it.
“Any series we go in(to) we believe we can win. If you don’t believe it, you’re not supposed to be here. You have to believe it every time.”
Before the game, both teams had been worried about injuries. The Clippers’ concerns proved to be more real than the Mavericks’.
LA was without Patrick Beverley, the point guard who is such a pest defensively but missed the game with the strained left calf that cost him the final five seeding games. He had played in Game 1, but only for limited minutes. And he could not return on Wednesday.
Rivers said he had no sense of whether Beverley would be available for Game 3 on Friday.
Meanwhile, Porzingis had been listed as questionable on Tuesday with a sore right knee. His condition improved greatly over the span of 24 hours.
“(Tuesday) there was soreness,” Carlisle said. “It seemed to get better as practice went along. He got treatment. And (Wednesday) morning he felt a lot better . . . which is great for us.”
Porzingis responded with solid play. And when he wasn’t on the floor, he was spelled by Marjanović, who had an impact every bit as huge as his 7-4 frame.
It was that way for the bench, which helped the Mavericks galvanize as a group and convince everybody inside and outside the bubble that they can compete with anybody.
“We took a step tonight in the right direction,” Carlisle said. “And it’s important to feel what winning feels like.
“It’s 1-1. It’s a five-game series. And we’re looking forward to this opportunity. It’s great for our guys.”