The Dallas Mavericks’ best-of-seven playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers is now a best-of-three after a 135-133 overtime win that had to be seen to be believed. The reason for the shock and awe?
The rise to legendary playoff hero status for the Mavericks’ sophomore sensation Luka Doncic.
Doncic was a game-time decision as he could not finish the previous game due to an ankle sprain, and he faced a tight turnaround to get back on the court with the Sunday matinee against the Clippers being 36 hours after the conclusion of Friday’s loss.
If Doncic couldn’t go, Kristaps Porzingis would have been looked upon to duplicate his performance from Game 3 where he scored a playoff career high of 34 points.
In some last-minute drama, it was actually Porzingis who was unable to shake leg soreness and was scratched from the lineup with a right knee flare up prior to tip-off. Doncic, however, was deemed ready for the pivotal Game 4.
Playoff surprise Trey Burke’s number was called upon to enter the starting lineup once Porzingis was ruled out, but the surprise absence led to the Mavericks looking flat to begin the game. Dallas opted for a smaller lineup without Porzingis and they were clearly processing the loss of their highest paid player and were still unsure of how much Doncic had to give on a bum ankle.
“I see him (Porzingis) in the warmups, I see how he was moving. He wasn’t moving like himself,” Burke said after Game 4. “You got Luka’s situation with rolling his ankle last game and him being a game-time decision. It just shows the reliance that this team has one through 15.”
Ultimately, the Mavericks’ fortunes in this game fell on a hurting Doncic’s tolerance for pain and desire for high-pressure situations. As Dallas was still attempting to figure out what they had, the Clippers led by 21 points at just under four minutes into the second quarter. However, with the contest looking like a blowout and regroup situation, Dallas began to chip away.
As it turns out, the ankle ended up being an afterthought that will only add to the lore of the day in the years to come.
Doncic drove to the basket seemingly at will and found open shooters on the perimeter, helping Dallas overtake the L.A. lead at the 8:24 mark of the third quarter. The game remained close until the final possession and went to overtime, with Clippers leader Kawhi Leonard missing a mid-range jumper for the win at the end of regulation.
In OT, the Clippers won the tip-off and the two teams traded baskets until the Mavericks faced an inbound situation down one with 3.7 left. A win would tie the series. A loss would put the Mavericks on the brink of elimination. Like all the best before him, everyone knew Luka Doncic would be taking the shot.
With Dorian Finney-Smith inbounding, Luka went to work on Reggie Jackson, cooking him on a step-back three as time expired. The game-winning buzzer-beater capped off a 43 point performance, with 17 rebounds and 13 assists in 45 minutes for a second consecutive triple-double.
He wasn’t even supposed to play.
Doncic’s coach, Rick Carlisle, who has instructed Hall of Famers and was a part of the Larry Bird Celtics teams, was struck by the rollercoaster of emotions that was capped off by an early career-defining moment for Doncic.
“This is my 18th year as a head coach in this league, Carlisle said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game where a team fought as hard to come back, hang in, go through the adversity of them tying at the end and then finding a way to win.”
The Game 4 victory had Dallas erase a 21 point lead to tie the series. The win was the franchise’s largest comeback in a playoff game ever, surpassing the 19 point comeback win over San Antonio in Game 5 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals.
Doncic – who turned 21 in February – and LeBron James (32 points,11 assists,11 rebounds on 04/22/06) are the only players to have been 21 years old or younger while recording a 30 point triple-double in a playoff game.
Leonard and Lou Williams led the Clippers in pushing the Mavericks to what looked like an eventual loss before the 21 point rally. Leonard finished with 32 points, nine rebounds and four assists and Lou Williams had a team-high 36 points.
Doncic is rewriting the record book in seemingly every game he plays. His fourth career playoff game joins a couple of Dirk Nowitzki’s Western Conference Finals efforts for best individual playoff games in franchise history.
Dirk’s greatest hits included his 48 point performance in Game 1 against Oklahoma City in 2011 and his 2006 50 point Game 5 effort against Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns. Luka’s Game 4 win has all the makings of an instant classic.
“I was just trying to make it. I can’t explain the emotions I had, not only when the ball goes in but when I see the whole team running toward me,” Doncic said. “That was something special, one of the best feelings I’ve ever had as a player. Just something special.”
It was an exhilarating sight to see the bench swarm and surround the 21-year-old, knowing they were one game closer to stunning the basketball world. In that pile hugging Doncic was birthday boy Seth Curry, who had a big game himself.
“That is who [Doncic] is, that is what he is every night for us. He has the ball in his hands making plays,” Curry said. “As soon as we saw that he was in the lineup we knew we were going to get something special from him tonight.”
Curry finished the overtime win with 15 points, continuing to be a scoring threat after his playoff career-high of 22 in Game 3. The sharpshooter is now 26-40 (.650) from the field and 9-16 (.563) from beyond the arc in this series. Curry has scored 14 or more points in all four games, which is above his 12.4 regular season average. The active career leader in three-point percentage likes the Mavericks chances heading into Game 5.
"Nobody on the court can guard us when we get it going so we just had to find a little bit of energy at the beginning of the game,” Curry said.
Aside from Doncic and Curry, in the absence of Porzingis, the Mavericks’ backcourt depth proved to be a crucial element to the Game 4 victory. Burke ended Game 4 with a playoff career high of 25 points and 5 rebounds.
Tim Hardaway Jr. compiled 21 points and 5 rebounds, with 19 of his points coming in the second half. Game 4 marked Hardaway Jr.’s second straight game with 20+ points following his playoff career high of 22 in Game 3.
Sunday’s Game 4 was an awakening for the rest of the nation to the fact that Luka Doncic is one of the brightest young stars in the league and it came within the crucible of playoff basketball where the greats are molded. This one was special.
The work isn’t finished, however, as Doncic and Dallas will be trying to get back to full strength and grab a series lead against the favored Clippers in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
Do you think Luka Doncic’s Game 4 performance is now the best in Mavericks’ playoff history? Share your thoughts with Irvin on Twitter @Twittirv.