Sometimes, a best-of-seven series is neck-and-neck.
Other times, it’s neck-and-neck-and-neck.
This one is both.
The health of Luka Dončić’s cervical strain in his neck/back/left shoulder is going to determine whether the Mavericks can stay on their wobbly legs and throw another punch or two in this first-round series that has been riveting for all the twists that have happened in the span of four games.
Tied at 2 wins apiece is not a reason to panic. It’s the way that the Mavericks have gotten here that gives them reason for concern.
The Clippers lost twice at home, but then came back and figured out how to exploit the Mavericks’ defense in Games 3 and 4.
Coach Rick Carlisle broke it down pretty succinctly.
“They’ve got two great players who are just putting their head down and basically trying to go through us,” he said of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. “We’ll look at the film and see where we can do better.”
Defensively is where Carlisle and his staff are going to have to find ways to improve. But the offense also has withered. The 3-point shooting and the ability of Dončić to create when he penetrated had the Mavericks running up the score in the first two games.
They continued to shoot the 3-ball well in Game 3, but their defense abandoned them.
Now, they head to LA for Game 5 on Wednesday night needing a new round of adjustments. And hoping that Dončić has an improved neck. There was no medical update Monday.
“The first two games we won were very high-scoring games,” Carlisle said. “We just got to stick with it offensively. We had a lot of looks we liked (in Game 4), we just got to keep stepping into them with force.
“And we got to work on the defense. Leonard’s a great player, George is a great player. They got great shooting. So it’s a challenge.”
Leonard has averaged 33 points and 8.5 rebounds in the series. He’s shot an incredible 62.7 percent, including 47.6 percent from 3-point range.
George has averaged 25 points and 8.5 rebounds. He’s shot 50 percent from the field and the scary part is that he has not found his stroke from long range yet, hitting only 29.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Those are numbers that are slowly extinguishing the Mavericks.
“They are really good at kicking the ball out when we are doubling,” said Kristaps Porzingis. “(They’re) moving it around the perimeter. Then we run them off to the 3-point line. Then they drive and there’s the paint attack.
“I’m not able to support in the paint so we got to look to see how we can take some of those away. Overall, we know we can do a better job on both ends.”
And the clock, clearly, is ticking.
Two of a kind: There were eight teams participating in playoff games on Sunday.
Only one of them had two undrafted players in their starting lineup – the Mavericks.
This is either a testament to how good the player-development staff is under Rick Carlisle, or a commentary on how good the Mavericks’ scouting department is at uncovering gems that fall through the cracks.
It also shows that Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith have uncommon drive, willpower and heart.
The only other team on Sunday that started a single undrafted player was the Los Angeles Lakers, who had former Maverick Wesley Matthews in their lineup. The other 37 starters in Sunday’s games were drafted, the vast majority of them in the first round.
More than two of a kind: While the Mavericks have regressed, the Clippers have gotten progressively tougher as the series has evolved.
And while Leonard and George have been terrific, they’ve had help.
“We’re playing great, that’s all I care about,” Leonard said. “I want the whole team to play great. One or two players can’t win a championship or win a playoff series.
“I’m happy we’re playing well now and playing better defense.”