Bless the Dallas Mavericks’ hearts, they went for it on Sunday. They were one game behind the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference standings. If the Warriors — sans Stephen Curry — had lost to the New Orleans Pelicans and the Mavericks defeated the San Antonio Spurs, the Mavs would have jumped the Warriors in the standings and became the No. 3 seed in the West.
The Mavericks held up their end of the bargain with a 130-120 victory, but Klay Thompson delivered 41 points in 30 minutes to lead the Warriors to a 128-107 victory against the Pelicans. Not only did the Mavericks fail to move up the standings, but the one thing happened on the 2021-22 regular season’s final day that could ruin their season: An injury to Luka Dončić.
It was supposed to be good news on Saturday when the league rescinded Dončić’s 16th technical foul of the season, allowing him to play in the season finale. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to finish the game after tweaking his left calf late in the third quarter. Dončić underwent an MRI on Monday, which revealed that his calf was strained. His status for Game 1 against the Utah Jazz on Saturday is questionable.
In hindsight, maybe he would’ve been better off if that tech had stood. It wouldn’t have carried over to the playoffs, and the difference between the third and fourth seed is a matchup with the Denver Nuggets or the Jazz in the first round. The Jazz may have the better total roster than the Nuggets who are dealing with injuries to their second and third best players —Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — but the Mavericks probably have a better shot at advancing past the opening round for the first time since their 2011 NBA Championship, by avoiding reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokić, who is playing better this season than he did last. Look at me encouraging a team to tank in the final game of the season. Now I may never get to sit next to Adam Silver at a playoff game.
Ignoring the clarity of the day after a player gets hurt and being armed with a diagnosis, if Dončić misses time, or is not at full speed, this is a disaster for the Mavericks. It’s widely known that Dončić is one of the best players in the NBA, but his team relies on him more than any team relies on a player. For the second consecutive season, he leads the NBA in usage rate. Three seasons ago he was second. Dončić is the Mavericks’ leader in points, rebounds, and assists, and also attempts 21.6 field goals per game.
Spencer Dinwiddie has been a great addition for the Mavericks as a secondary scorer who can create his own shot, but it would be as hard as yard work in July for him and Jaylen Bruson to carry their team offensively against the Jazz, with Rudy Gobert in the paint and the world being lifted off of his shoulders, not having to worry about Dončić.
For the Mavs to get through this series with Dončić out for a portion, and/or hobbled for all of it, they’re going to have to take their new and improved defense, and muck up this series (high school me would be more shocked at me saying this than my explanation of Amazon’s place in the world in 2022.) They have sixth best defense in the NBA, per defensive rating, and play at the slowest place in the league. The Mavericks average 95.4 possessions per game. If possible they should cut it to 65. The Jazz have the best offensive rating in the league, and for the Mavericks to finally get out of the first round they will have to smother Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanović, and Jordan Clarkson. The same rules apply if Dončić is available for every game. His usage rate usually rises during the playoffs. For at least this round, it needs to decrease.
It’s been all good for the Mavs for some months now. Their 17-18 record from the 2021 portion of this season, feels like it happened an entire year ago. At 52-30, the team that regularly has one of the highest attendance rates in the NBA, finally had their chance with their new transcendent star to make a playoff run for the first time since Joel Anthony averaged the fourth-most playoff minutes for the Miami Heat behind LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
Surely, they’re hoping this injury is something that Dončić can power through and be extremely close to the player that has run roughshod over the league the second half of this season. Regardless, they’d be best served to go full 1993 New York Knicks on the Jazz, or next season they will be looking to end their streak of consecutive seasons without a playoff series win at 12.