MIAMI – With a very large group of folks from his native land of Slovenia at American Airlines Center on Friday night, Luka Doncic was poised to put on a show and lead the Dallas Mavericks to victory on his 21st birthday.
However, the Miami Heat wouldn’t cooperate and subsequently blew out the candles on Doncic’s birthday plans en route to upending the Mavs, 126-118.
The loss dropped the Mavs to 36-24 at the three-quarters point of the season and 1-1 on this four-game road trip that resumes Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Meanwhile, the Heat, who had been struggling lately with seven losses in their previous nine games, improved to 37-22.
Still in pain from the left thumb sprain he suffered during Wednesday’s win in San Antonio, Doncic played 38 minutes and was 7-of-17 from the field, committed six turnovers and missed all six of his 3-point attempts. The second-year point guard looked out of sorts all night and never could get a solid grip on things.
“I’m sorry with my language, but I played like (expletive),” said Doncic, who turned 21 on Friday. “I wasn’t myself today, obviously, but we just got to learn from that and move on.
“I couldn’t catch the ball. I didn’t know how important the thumb was until I couldn’t hold the ball, so it was tough.”
What was especially tough for the Mavs is that they battled back from a 12-point deficit in the third quarter and steamrolled into the fourth quarter with a 93-88 lead after outscoring Miami in the third quarter, 38-25. Seth Curry poured in 14 of his career-high 37 points in the third quarter and Doncic – he also was whistled for a technical foul — added 11 as the Mavs were brimming with confidence and had the Heat back on their heels.
But that was all short-lived as Miami muscled its way into scoring the first 13 points of the fourth quarter to take a 101-93 lead, and that left the Mavs scrambling for survival for the duration of the game. In fact, the 38-25 margin the Mavs outscored Miami in the third quarter are the identical numbers (38-25), the Heat outscored the Mavs in the fourth quarter.
“They hit us with a big run in a three- or four-minute stretch,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I thought the key to the game is we really didn’t get much traction offensively or defensively for the majority of the game.
“Their zone stuff got us passive, and that’s my fault. I’ve got to get our guys better prepared to attack it, so that’s on me.”
The Mavs didn’t help their cause by sending the Heat into the penalty situation very early in the fourth quarter after picking up three team fouls in the opening 57 seconds.
“They’re all factors, and the fouls in the first half, along with the threes and the rebound discrepancy was a big problem, too,” Carlisle said. “Look, they’re basic fundamental areas and we fell short in those.
“I love the run we made in the third (quarter), but NBA games are 48 minutes and we just got to be better on both sides of the ball from start to finish.”
Curry certainly was on top of his game from start to finish. The sixth-year guard absolutely scorched the Heat by converting 13-of-15 shots, including an amazing 8-of-9 baskets from beyond the 3-point arc.
“They left me open a few times and I just made all the shots I should have made,” Curry said. “They played a little zone press and my teammates were finding me and I tried to give us a little energy to keep us in the game in that second half.”
The Heat took a 63-55 lead at the half and led by as much as 12 points in the third quarter before the Mavs finally rolled up their sleeves later in the quarter.
“We talked about it at halftime,” said Kristaps Porzingis, who collected 24 points and 13 rebounds and also received a technical foul. “We knew we had to pick up our energy.
“We went there in the first half and kind of just played like. . .kind of like auto-pilot. We talked about it at halftime that we wanted to come out with more force, execute our own stuff with more force, going into screens faster – just be more physical all around and that’s what we did and that’s what got us the lead.”
The game was played with a large crowd of Slovenians in attendance to watch Doncic and Heat guard Goran Dragic, both of whom are from Slovenia and are former teammates on the national team. Even the U.S. ambassador to Slovenia – Lynda Blanchard – was in attendance and met Doncic for the first time.
“It was great,” Doncic said. “A lot of times I wish it was seven games.
“But this is how Slovenia supports their athletes and it was amazing to see that.”
While Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson were the key weapons for Miami with 26 and 24 points, respectively, Dragic came off the bench to add a spark and contribute 16 points and five assists. The Heat shot 51.9 percent from the field and made 17 of their 35 baskets from behind the 3-point stripe.
“It’s disappointing, because we did a lot of good things during the course of the game,” Carlisle said. “But some of those runs – it wasn’t just the beginning of the fourth quarter – really did a lot of damage.”
Enough to spoil Doncic’s 21st birthday.