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Mavericks to face stiff challenge against Clippers in NBA playoffs

The Dallas Mavericks have qualified for the NBA playoffs but they won’t have an easy road going up against the Western Conference No. 2 seeded Los Angeles Clippers
Credit: AP
Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard, right, applies pressure on Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic (77) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

DALLAS — When the NBA restarted the season two weeks ago, many skeptics wondered whether the housing bubble experiment would hold up. There was plenty of juicy drama around the league as the quarantined locale in Florida survived curfew breaks, outside food cravings, and player opt-outs to finish its eight-game season restart without a single positive test.

With 40 wins accumulated at the time of the league shutdown in March, the Mavs had to win just one game in eight tries to clinch a playoff spot. Dallas avoided any embarrassing hotel antics but went 3-5 in the restart due to some tough breaks in clutch situations. 

Losing three of those five games by four points or less, the Mavericks’ boots were firmly dug in at 7th place in the Western Conference and a date with the Los Angeles Clippers awaiting.

While the Mavs bench had some bright spots here and there in the bubble, the heavy lifting once again fell on their talented young duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

Luka Doncic in the bubble continued his flair for the dramatic. A marquee match-up against 2019 League MVP and possible future teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo resulted in a career high 19 assists, a game in which a casual 36 points and 13 rebounds were also dropped in a humble flex of his toolkit. 

Once Dallas and Los Angeles became a lock for a first round matchup, Porzingis sat for the entirety of the regular season finale against Phoenix. Doncic wasn’t far behind, putting a bow on his sophomore season by halftime. Doncic scored at least 20 points in 7 of the 8 bubble games. His lone sub 20 performance came in the finale when he scored 18 before being pulled after 13 minutes of gameplay. 

Porzingis' last game of the season came in a loss to Portland but not before dropping 36 points in 35 minutes of action. After finding his rhythm and place in the offense as the season progressed, he finished his first full year in Dallas with an average of 20.4 points and 9.5 rebounds, the highest season rebound average for his career. 

Porzingis is 25, signed for four more years, and just became the first Mav to average at least 20 points as a second option since Michael Finley in the 2001-2002 season, when Dirk Nowitzki entrenched himself as the franchise stalwart.

Luka had the second best scoring season as a Maverick ever and doesn’t turn 22 until next February.  The Point Forward finished his second season with 28.8 points, 8.8 assists, and 9.4 Rebounds a game. He led the league with 17 Triple Doubles.  

Luka earned himself a place as a surefire top 5 MVP candidate for the foreseeable future and he now leads the Mavericks into the playoffs against the team we all assumed would be in the finals when they pulled the rug from under the Lakers and Free Agency last July.

We have seen teams win the offseason before, only to crumble under the altered expectations.

The Clippers have had a target on themselves from the moment they pulled reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard away from the 2019 world champion Toronto Raptors. When you are the league Oasis, you are in the business of pairing two legit stars, like Los Angeles did in the Summer of 2019. The Clippers swung a heavy bat, putting everything on the line to team Leonard and Paul George together. 

It is pretty remarkable how quickly Doc Rivers’ Clippers retooled from two aging and oft-injured stars in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul to the premier two-way players in basketball.

The Clippers, who had once convinced Deandre Jordan to break his commitment to Dallas and ruined their 2015 offseason for the sake of loyalty, got out of their five year $173 Million commitment with Griffin within six months of its July 2017 signing, and shipped Paul to Houston by the summer of 2018. Why the roster overhaul? The books needed to be clear in case Los Angeles native and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard wanted to go home.

When Kawhi and Paul George teamed up in L.A, they instantly formed the best defensive duo in the league. Locking down the opposing team’s best offensive players along the perimeter in an era where perimeter defense has never been at more of a premium. 

The two franchises are theoretically on different timetables. 

George and Leonard will both be in their 30s by next season. Leonard is trying to win a championship as the anchor of a third different team. The Clippers face pressure to perform in a fight for their own city, looking to fully shed their label as a second tier franchise. What better way to run out the clock on their Staples Center lease on their way to Inglewood?

There is no other team sport driven by individual performance like the NBA. If you don’t have a couple of aces at the ready, you won’t be at the table for long. After one year of trading their previous stars of the past decade for spare parts, the Clippers were right back in the game as a destination.  

That sort of rebuild on the fly thing is available to a franchise when it is located in Los Angeles. People in the NBA want to go live there and win there. It’s not a hard sell for free agents.

Dallas? 

The Mavericks will be in their first playoff series since losing a gentleman’s sweep to the Thunder in 2016. It will be the first time Dallas will be in a playoff series without Dirk since the 1989-1990 campaign. 

If Dallas does win this series, it will be the first playoff series win since the 2010-2011 championship. If they don’t win this series, they get to leave the bubble and prepare for the offseason with the hopes of landing their next free agent recruits. The best thing is, the Mavs don’t really need to smokescreen their pitches anymore, just be opportunistic in their roster building. 

Therein lies the beauty of KP and Luka, the Mavericks now have two stars who haven’t even hit their prime yet.

There are obvious holes in this team. The defense needs an anchor and a third option upgrade that has to be carefully curated still awaits. Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell are sorely missed. There will be plenty of roster crunching this offseason, but this league will bend to Doncic and Porzingis’ collective will fairly soon. 

It’s not supposed to be their turn yet, but here they are anyway with the stars in place to make some noise and a bright future ahead of them.

Do you think the Mavericks are capable of defeating the Clippers in the first round? Share your predictions with Irvin on Twitter @Twittirv.