Part of your initiation as a young NBA nucleus is getting your ass whooped in the playoffs. But last season, the Dallas Mavericks were robbed of what could’ve been.
Remember, in The Bubble, the seventh-seeded Mavs paired up with the No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the postseason. The Mavs’ Kristaps Porzingis injured his knee in the first half of Game 1, but remained in the game. He was subsequently ejected in the third quarter while the Mavericks, who had previously led by 14, still maintained a 71-66 edge over the Clippers with over nine minutes to go. Neither LeBron James nor Dirk Nowitzki approved of the ejection.
In less than 20 minutes of play, Porzingis had accumulated 14 points and six rebounds, but the Mavericks eventually lost 118-110 despite 42 points from Luka Dončić. In Game 2, Porzingis returned with 23 points and seven boards, and the Mavs dispatched the Clippers 127-114, making a strong argument that they should’ve been up 2-0. Porzingis then erupted for 34 points and 13 rebounds in an eight-point loss in Game 3, putting the Clippers up 2-1 before he missed the rest of the playoffs with a lateral meniscus tear. The Mavs won Game 4 but dropped the series 4-2.
This season, Dončić came in as the odds-on favorite to win MVP, but is probably out of most people’s top five with about six weeks left to go. But the Mavericks have quietly won 8 of 11 and are amid their most proficient stretch of basketball this season, even though they find themselves back in that seven seed, and a play-in game. The Mavs are 29-22, but given the perpetual swings between teams this particular NBA season, they find themselves one game out of not needing a play-in to get in the eight-team postseason field, and they’re just four games out of the four seed. They probably won’t get that far, but it’s not out of the question if their surge continues.
Dončić, 22, is the unquestioned leader of the rising Mavs, and his cartoonish stats of 28.5 points, 8.7 assists, and 8.2 rebounds are only one element of the team’s success. Porzingis, 25, has been mostly healthy after a delayed debut due to that same knee injury, averaging 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. But he’s improved to 23.1 points and 11.6 rebounds over his last seven appearances. If NBA history tells it, though, the Mavs could face another playoff roadblock this season before accelerating to whatever their destination eventually is.
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In the 2010 postseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder were dropped, 4-2, by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers before reaching the Western Conference finals the next season, losing to the 2011 champion Mavericks, and then getting to The Finals the following year, losing to the Miami Heat. Another memorable young core, the Chicago Bulls in the early Derrick Rose days, lost in the first round during both of Rose’s first two seasons before getting to the conference finals in Rose’s MVP 2010-11 season. Those Bulls are a monstrous NBA what-if due to Rose’s knee injuries in following seasons.
And in later years, the Portland Trail Blazers have become a playoff constant built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum since first making it in 2013-14, but only have one conference finals berth. The John Wall and Bradley Beal Washington Wizards were touted as a duo in the same vein, and reached the semifinals three times in four seasons between 2013 and 2017, before their recent regression. The ultimate outlier of a young core to win an NBA title were the 2015 Golden State Warriors built around Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, with Andre Iguodala as the veteran stabilizer, who even won NBA Finals MVP.
The uniqueness of this season could favor the Mavericks so long as their Tim Hardaway Jr.-led supporting cast (I know, I know) continues to improve, as they have over the past 11 games. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are still injured, the Clippers are still the Clippers, the Utah Jazz are tailor-made to lose in Round 2, we’ll see about the Phoenix Suns, the Blazers can’t stop anyone, and who knows about the Denver Nuggets. Dallas being in the mix this season helps, because the playoff margins are incredibly thin. Of course that is heightened in 2021 for obvious reasons, along with inevitable injuries, some of which cannot be played through.
For now, they’re heading in the right direction, and Porzingis is healthy. Again, for now.