Luka Doncic is all the rage in the NBA bubble as we gear up for the playoffs that technically begin next weekend with the play-in tournament.
As an aside, judging from the excitement that has generated, the No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup might become a regular thing. And perhaps include more teams. But that’s a subject for later on.
For now, the Mavericks have the hottest player in the bubble with Doncic, or at least one of the hottest. And they also have one of the most under-the-radar stars of the restart, too: Kristaps Porzingis.
You don’t have to look any further than the numbers for proof.
Porzingis in the five bubble games: 29.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 27.3 percent from 3-point range.
Porzingis before the season was suspended on March 11: 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 34.9 percent from 3-point range.
Porzingis in New York in 2017-18 before his knee injury: 22.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 39.5 percent from 3-point range.
In a way, Porzingis’ job is every bit as difficult as the one Doncic has to do. While the point guard is the unquestioned leader, Porzingis has to play his game and run up monster numbers while still allowing Doncic to be, as they say, “The Man.” So far, even without shooting the long ball well, Porzingis has aced this test.
“KP has developed a real understanding of how things are fitting together with our group,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We don’t call that many plays. A lot of this is trusting the pass, trusting the spacing, trusting your teammates, reading situations, reading the rolls vs. the pops.
“It’s showing a lot of growth on his part and also his teammates understanding his spots, where he can be most effective and cause the biggest problems.”
While he believes that he can still get better in his chemistry with Doncic and in general, Porzingis admitted that he’s turned a corner in terms of being able to do things that he was doing second nature when he was an all-star with New York in the 2017-18 season before the anterior cruciate ligament tear.
“I’m feeling better,” he said. “I still feel I’m not 100 percent there offensively.
“Mistakes I’m making and decisions I know with just a little more playing time with these guys are going to be easier and quicker and sharper. But I’m getting better. I’m more comfortable within the offense.
At the end, I just want to win. That’s all I care about.”
That’s what made the start of the bubble games difficult for Porzingis and all of his teammates. The Mavericks were 1-3 halfway through the eight bubble games. Then came Saturday night.
But along the way, Porzingis was rolling up major numbers and learning the nuances of what works and what doesn’t at this point of the season. The referees already are getting into playoff mode. Teams are, as well. And Porzingis’ ability to get to the free-throw line so many times has been a big advantage for him.
“Opportunities to run down the court and seal on the inside, those have been great,” Carlisle said. “And he’s gotten to the free-throw line because he’s been aggressive in knowing how to get to his spots on the floor and people are just being physical and fouling him.”
Digging in at the end: For fans who have lost sleep about the Mavericks’ inability to close out nail-biting games – and we know there were some groggy folks out there – Saturday’s effort probably led to a really good night’s rest.
The Mavericks did so many things well in their 136-132 overtime victory over Milwaukee, you’d have thought they were the grizzled, playoff-tested favorites to be playing for the NBA title this fall, not the Bucks.
“Execution-wise, I think everybody did a great job of staying in the game, locking in,” said Maxi Kleber, who was on the floor with Porzingis for much of crunch time. “Everybody had big plays. Everybody was locked in and just willing to win in overtime. Clutch plays from everybody.”
The Mavericks’ woes in close games are well-documented. But the only way to fix those is to learn from them, which they clearly are, albeit probably not fast enough for themselves or their fans.
“The game was a really good one because it showed a lot of resilience and a lot of growth,” Carlisle said. “We really dug in there. When you’re down seven with 1:43 or whatever it was against a team like that, the odds of getting back even or getting to overtime are extremely minute. But everybody hung in and did a great job. It was great to see.”
Briefly: The Mavericks had a relatively light practice Sunday afternoon after going to overtime late Saturday against the Bucks. Guard Seth Curry, still recovering from right leg soreness, played 21 minutes and went through practice on Sunday . . . The teams below the Mavericks are grappling for the Nos. 8 and 9 spots that will have a play-in tournament next weekend. The eighth seed has to win once against No. 9 to retain the playoff spot. The ninth seed must win twice against the eighth-place team. “The teams that have a shot and are trying to get there have done a great job of winning games and trying to get to that nine and eight spots,” J.J. Barea said of Phoenix, Portland and San Antonio, who all are chasing Memphis. “It creates a good buzz for the fans. But the teams have done a great job. They’re fighting for every game.”
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