DALLAS — There has been a week of basketball since the July 30 return of NBA regular season action.
After a grueling 142 days of life without professional basketball, time warping into itself, and banana bread baking, at long last it was time for Luka Doncic and his Dallas Mavericks.
Ultimately, we probably could have waited a few more days for the Mavs’ bubble debut. The Mavericks stumbled to a loss in their first game against the Rockets, in which Houston and Dallas continued the tradition of hating each other in various societal competitions, this time in basketball.
There were a combined 302 points scored and a couple of attempts at defense. At one point, it looked like the Mavs swatted at the cloud outline of James Harden's body. Yes, a foul was surely called. In the end, Dallas blew a seven-point lead with under a minute left and fell in OT.
Still reeling from being unable to put away Houston, a two-point loss to Phoenix followed on Sunday, wasting 40 and 30-point efforts by Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis respectively. The Mavs, through no effort of their own, had clinched a playoff spot for the first time in the Doncic-Porzingis era but had no on-court reason to celebrate.
As Tuesday’s game against the Sacramento Kings got to overtime, the creeping feeling of another close loss settled in.
Then Doncic went all Doncic on the Kings, scoring 34 points while adding 12 dimes and 20 (!) rebounds, the youngest person ever to have a 30+ point / 10+ rebound / 20+ rebound stat line. The great Oscar Robertson’s record was broken in what was another round of Luka looking at the Sactown brass and asking them how he looks to them now.
Once again, he’s 21.
The triple double was his 16th of the season, two more than the entire league combined. Even with sky high expectations coming into the season, Luka has seemingly shattered his ceiling this year.
Doncic’s running buddy is also peaking at the right time.
When the league shut down in mid-March, Kristaps Porzingis was in the midst of a hot streak. The confidence was boosted, the shots were falling, and the partnership with Doncic that was envisioned when he was given a maximum salary contract in free agency was blossoming.
It took several months for the lineup chemistry to become properly balanced, and for Porzingis’ role in the offense to be clearly defined, but that was to be expected as the Latvian big man got used to not having to be the main attraction. The remaining concern was the one that had led him to becoming available to the Mavericks in the first place; his health.
Prior to the shutdown, it was common to see Porzingis in a suit on the second night of back-to-backs. The Mavs were cautious because they would rather see him in play in June, not February.
The four months of unexpected rest has clearly helped, and now they are seeing him play in August.
Porzingis is averaging 30.3 points in the bubble so far, and has upped his season average to nearly 20 (19.9) per game from 19.2 prior to the shutdown. If he can maintain his surge, Porzingis could become the first Maverick to average at least 20 per contest as a second option since Michael Finley finished the 2001-2002 season with 20.6 points per game.
The recent birthday boy dropped 39 on Houston in Dallas’ first game back, then another 30 on the Suns and 22 on Sacramento. While Porzingis feasted on the space created by Doncic’s presence, Houston and Phoenix also happen to have the 2nd and 4th worst team ratings in opponent points in the paint per game.
Enter Los Angeles with the best rating in the conference.
When the league announced their restart in early June, there was certainly a real opportunity for Dallas to move up from 7th in the standings and avoid an initial match-up with the title-contender Clippers. The Houston loss put a damper in that dream. Now the Mavs face their likely 1st round dance partner, with the Doc Rivers team fresh off a loss to the Suns via a Devin Booker buzzer-beater.
Dallas will not have to deal with perimeter pest Pat Beverley nor Montrezl Harrell’s inside presence in the match-up, but the Clippers defense still features all-world defenders in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. The pair have been very vocal about how impressive Luka Doncic has been, which might make for another rough night for the 21 year old if they follow the Kobe Bryant system of off-court praise and on-court punishment.
Keep your eyes on Doncic’s patience, as the young superstar has shown visible frustration with the officiating and it’s possible that a talented, savvy Clippers team could help play into that. I also suggest ordering chicken wings for the game in tribute to Lou “Lemon Pepper” Williams.
The short-term reward for finishing a fight with this season's likely final boss? A Saturday matinee matchup against likely league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Eastern conference leading Milwaukee Bucks. The long game, with Doncic’s ascension and Porzingis’ resurgence, is going along faster than expected, regardless of this season’s result.
Do you think the Mavericks will be able to make some noise in the NBA playoffs? Share your thoughts with Irvin on Twitter @Twittirv.