DALLAS — Postseason basketball was back after the weirdest regular season in history, and, for the Dallas Mavericks, it was a night of firsts.
Monday night’s Game 1 was Dallas’ first playoff game in four years and the first playoff appearance without franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki since the ‘89-’90 season. Four out of the five Dallas starters were experiencing their first playoff tip-off, with only Tim Hardaway Jr. having seen prior playoff minutes.
For Dallas’ opponent, the No. 2 seeded Los Angeles Clippers, former central Texas hero and two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and his running mate Paul George clamped down defensively on Luka Doncic early and set a physical tone, with Doncic often ending up on the floor on multiple drives to the basket.
While the Clippers were running off to a virtually unchallenged 18-2 start, the Mavericks seemed to tense up. The shots were pulling up tight, if they even went up at all. There were six turnovers in the first four minutes of the game, and on one of Doncic’s trips to the floor, his ankle seemed to roll on a slick piece of floor.
When Doncic headed to the locker room, expectations for the youthful Mavs in this series seemed to plummet.
But after shaking off the nerves during what looked to be a blowout, Dallas went to work.
Doncic returned with some fresh ankle tape. The game finally seemed to settle in and the lead was chipped away and eventually overtaken. Late-season signee Michael Kidd-Gilchrist provided the first lead of the night at 35-34 nearly 11 and a half minutes into the game, and the Mavs kept it at the end of the first quarter on an arching Doncic three.
By Halftime, with Dallas leading 69-66, the series looked to be more competitive than anyone had realized. The Mavericks broke their own playoff record for most threes in a half, previously set in their 2011 championship year.
However, it was ultimately a night of weird game rules changing the vibe for Dallas sports, and the beginning of the third quarter may have led to some browser searches on parallel universes.
Within minutes of the third quarter beginning, Doncic and Marcus Morris Sr. ended up in an entanglement after a Doncic drive to the basket, and things got chippy relatively quickly. As Morris Sr. was aggressively asking Luka how his summer went, Kristaps Porzingis came into the huddle to defend his teammate. The officials took this as instigation, with Porzingis receiving a technical foul.
Porzingis had been assessed a technical foul earlier in the game for punching the air after contact had been errantly called on a clean block on George. The second tech warrants an automatic ejection, and the Mavericks second best player was tossed just two minutes and 50 seconds into the second half with the Mavs holding a precarious 71-66 lead.
It was a deflating moment for a team with renewed energy and momentum after the game had started with the Mavericks on such shaky footing. Both teams seemed to be in disbelief at the decision to eject Porzingis, and the onus fell on Doncic to keep Dallas in the game in his playoff debut.
If the Mavericks had cratered at this point and been blown out, plenty of intrigue had already been planted for the follow-up. The outlook for Game 2 would have still left a positive enough impression to warrant a full game of what Porzingis/Doncic could do together before making further judgment, regardless of the final score.
The thing is, Dallas didn’t crater.
The game ended with an 8-point loss to Los Angeles, 118-110, but it hovered on a two-possession swing until the final minutes of the fourth quarter. An unlikely scenario considering the amount of turnovers Dallas had (21). Most of them were in the hands of Doncic (11), who mitigated this concern with an all-time performance.
Without Porzingis, Luka Doncic finished his first playoff game in a familiar place: the NBA record book.
In the entire run of the National Basketball Association, no player in their playoff game debut has ever scored as many points as Doncic did against the Clippers in Game 1.
Continuously lost in Doncic’s record-breaking performances is just how good Porzingis was, too, when he was allowed to play. Porzingis’ per 36 minutes for Game 1 amounted to losing out on a 25 point, 11 rebound performance, not counting the presence he brings in the paint as a shotblocker.
George and Leonard combined for 56 points in addition to their tenacious defense to close out the expected victory. However, despite the ejection that cost Porzingis the second half of the game, the Dallas duo matched them point for point.
Porzingis saw limited action but set the tone for the remainder of the series by standing up for his teammate. That teammate just dropped an NBA record 42 points on the best wing defenders in the league. Sure, it’s a No. 2 vs No. 7 seed matchup in the Western Conference, and Dallas may be beaten, but they will not be bullied.
While previewing the series, I mentioned how the two franchises are theoretically on different timetables. Leonard is trying to take a third team to a championship while the talented Mavs duo just played their first ever playoff game.
Timetables are just projections though and Doncic keeps breaking every expectation set in front of him. If Porzingis is on the court with him, there’s no reason the 21-year-old can’t pull the Mavs closer and closer toward contention and leave the timetable in the dust.
Do you think the Mavericks will be able to bounce back and win Game 2? Share your predictions with Irvin on Twitter @Twittirv.