After lots of drama, but no real changes in the Western Conference on a wild and crazy final day of the NBA’s regular season, the Mavericks can scream a familiar battle cry.
Bring on the Clippers.
The Mavericks finished the regular season Sunday with a thud at Minnesota, but of much greater importance was the Los Angeles Clippers losing at Oklahoma City, cementing them as the No. 4 seed in the West.
That sets up the first-round best-of-seven rematch against the Clippers, who eliminated the Mavericks in six games in the first round of the bubble playoffs last summer.
Game 1 will be either Saturday or Sunday.
The Mavericks’ ended their regular season with a 42-30 after they forgot to pack their defense on the flight from Dallas and got lashed 136-121 by the Timberwolves Sunday night at Target Center in Minneapolis.
That outcome meant the Mavericks needed the Los Angeles Lakers to beat New Orleans, which they did. That created a three-way tie among Portland, which beat Denver, the Lakers and Mavericks, who earned the No. 5 seed that they started Sunday with by virtue of being the Southwest Division champions.
The Clippers could have passed Denver and moved up to No. 3 in the West with a win at OKC. Instead, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and company will test the Mavericks for the second season in a row.
“It’s a great matchup. They have a hell of a team,” said Luka Dončić. “I think a lot of experience from last year when we played them (will help). It was fun to play. I’m not going to lie.
“There was a lot of trash talking, a lot of hard plays. But it was fun. That’s what basketball is about.”
Trash talk? Much of that was between Luka and Marcus Morris last postseason.
“He’s a hell of a player, hell of a defender,” Dončić said. “Trash talk is always there. If it’s not, you’re not really competing. So it’s going to be great.”
The Mavericks won two of three games against the Clippers this season, including a 50-point win in LA on Dec. 27. The back-to-back games in Dallas, which the teams split, were far more competitive.
“They’re a great team,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We certainly have a level of familiarity from last year’s playoffs and also playing them three times this year. But their team is different this year. We’ll have to do a very close study and figure out the best way to go in terms of matchups and how to defend and attack them.”
It will be a lot different than last August when Dončić, Kristaps Porzingis and several other Mavericks were making their playoff debut. The series was 2-1 but things changed when Porzingis went out with a knee injury and didn’t play in the final three games.
Plus, that series was played in an empty gym at Walt Disney World near Orlando. This playoff series will start in LA, then switch to American Airlines Center, where Carlisle said an increase in fans will be waiting.
“This year’s going to be different,” he said. “There are going to be arenas and there are going to be fans. I don’t know what the Clippers have certified for their arena in terms of number of fans. In Dallas, we’ve got I think so far a minimum of 9,000 and I know they were working at possibly getting more. So that will change the dynamic some. This is really the essence of the playoff experience.
“It’s a very challenging series. They’re a top team. They’re a legitimate contending team. It’s a big challenge. But we’re looking forward to it.”
As well they should, especially after a regular season in which every twist and turn brought new challenges – COVID-19 issues, Texas blizzards, injuries and just an overall weirdness.
Through it all, the Mavericks finished the 2020-21 regular season right where people projected six months ago.
They were expected to be a playoff team. They are.
They were expected to be in the middle of the Western Conference pack. They are.
Heck, even Las Vegas had them pegged at 42.5 wins.
OK, they came up a fraction short on that one.
They still were a dangerous team that finished strong. They ended with a 21-15 road record, the same as they had at AAC.
The Mavericks went into the night not knowing if they would finish fifth or sixth in the West. Their game against the Timberwolves tipped off at the same time as Portland’s game against Denver, the Lakers’ visit to New Orleans and the Clippers’ meeting with Oklahoma City.
At that time, spots three through seven were all uncertain.
The Mavericks needed one of three things to happen Sunday to clinch No. 5. A win would do it. That obviously wasn’t going to happen as the Mavericks were more concerned with keeping key players healthy than anything else.
Neither Dončić nor Porzingis played big minutes. Both played enough to keep their edge. But this was more about getting past the last regular-season game without any further physical problems.
Maxi Kleber (Achilles) and J.J. Redick (heel) already were sitting to rest their aches.
As a result, the Timberwolves jumped on the Mavericks with a 76-point first half, grabbing a 16-point lead in the process. The advantage was up to 23 at one point in the second quarter.
The good news is that at least the Mavericks didn’t give away any of their defensive secrets against the Timberwolves, who had no trouble running up the score as the Mavericks left their defensive notes back in Dallas.
In spite of the dud in the finale, the Mavericks now return home with at least five days to prepare for their first-round series.