Luka Dončić’s career has been ahead of schedule ever since his first weeks as a rookie in 2018. So it wasn’t necessarily surprising last season when Dončić dazzled with 31 points per game in the first round against the Clippers.
Dončić’s buzzer-beater to beat Los Angeles in Game 4 was one of the defining images of the playoffs, and his 38-9-9 stat line in the final game of the series evoked memories of a young LeBron in Cleveland. A rematch with the Clippers now looms, and the Mavericks are once again regarded as underdogs. But it’s not unfathomable for Dallas to pull off the upset with enough Dončić magic.
“I know [Dončić] is looking forward to the playoffs,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle says. “This is the kind of challenge that he relishes.”
Dallas’s leading man turned in one of the most impressive rookie seasons in league history in 2018-19, earning 98 of 100 first-place votes in the rookie of the year race against Trae Young. His ascent continued as a sophomore. Dončić spearheaded the NBA’s top offense as he flirted with averaging a triple-double, leading the way as the Mavericks snapped a three-year playoff drought. Paired with Kristaps Porzingis and an expected deep cast of contributors, expectations were high in the Lone Star State entering 2020-21.
But as we so often learn in the NBA, growth for both Dončić and Dallas wasn’t exactly a linear process. The Mavericks limped out to a 9–14 start amid a rash of injuries and COVID-19 absences, and Dončić shot an ugly 30.9% from three in his first 25 games. Porzingis didn’t enter the lineup until Jan. 13. Dwight Powell missed eight games in the season’s first month. The Mavericks sat No. 11 in the Western Conference as late as Feb. 11, and even as the All-Star break approached, a playoff berth was anything but a guarantee.
We shouldn’t place too much of a damper on Dončić’s third season. Dončić shot a career-high 35% from three in 2020-21 as he averaged 27.7 points and 8.6 assists per game, and he could very well earn first-team All-NBA honors at the end of the season. Yet there seemed to be an underlying frustration simmering throughout the season. Dončić racked up 16 regular-season technicals (the second-most in the league behind Dwight Howard), and there was consistent chatter throughout the Mavericks’ organization regarding how Dončić is officiated. His third season wasn’t necessarily a step back, but there wasn’t any MVP consideration as many assumed prior to the start of the 2020-21 season.
Dallas’s roster didn’t necessarily do Dončić any favors for much of the year. Powell’s production took a precipitous dip from his marks over the last two years. Dealing Seth Curry for Josh Richardson proved to be an ill-fated move, as the former Philadelphia wing failed to provide a significant playmaking boost as he shot just 33% from three. Jalen Brunson’s breakout was an enjoyable subplot–Dallas outscored teams by 6.8 points per 100 possessions when he and Dončić shared the floor–though outside of the Villanova product, the Mavericks’ supporting cast largely struggled.
Perhaps those struggles are fully in the rearview mirror as the postseason nears. Dallas closed the regular season with 12 wins in its last 16 games. It sits No. 6 in net rating since the All-Star break. Porzingis registered a strong three games before the postseason, canning nine of 15 threes as he rounds into form. There remains uncertainty regarding Maxi Kleber’s status for the series, though with a healthy and productive Porzingis in tow, Dallas may have the firepower to pull off an upset.
There remains an uphill climb ahead for the Mavericks even with a strong performance from Dončić. The Clippers were steadily one of the top teams in the league throughout the season, armed with a superstar duo and a deep cast of long, versatile defenders. Los Angeles is outscoring opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George share the floor. Ivica Zubac provides a legitimate deterrent at the rim. The 3–1 jokes will likely continue ad nauseum throughout the postseason, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is anything but a legitimate championship contender.
Dallas will lean on its experience against Los Angeles in the NBA bubble as it prepares for the 2021 postseason. This is a Clippers roster still largely intact compared to last season’s group, though the additions of head coach Tyronn Lue and Rajon Rondo have provided a legitimate boost to the group’s collective basketball intelligence. Yet even considering the additions, Dončić is likely to see similar defensive coverage as the 2020 playoffs.
Los Angeles will blitz Dončić on a stream of pick-and-roll attempts, forcing a pass to a rolling big or a shooter splayed out across the floor. Lue may opt to switch certain actions involving Dončić, yet it’s not as though there is some magic coverage waiting to be unleashed. Just how big a factor the familiarity will be remains an open question. But it certainly can’t hurt for Dončić to enter the upcoming matchup with a year of playoff experience under his belt.
“There’s no substitute for experience in any walk of life,” Carlisle says. “That’s how you learn, that’s how you grow.”
“The fact that we’re playing the same that’s structured with a high level of similarity, there are some things to draw on for sure.”
This season hasn’t exactly featured the smooth ascent many expected for the Mavericks in 2020-21. Dončić showed up to camp admittedly out of shape as the Christmas Day start snuck up on the league. A rash of injuries early didn’t help matters, and a condensed schedule only exacerbated Dallas’s issues as it tried to get its season on track. Though perhaps the adversity facing the Mavericks throughout 2020-21 will pay dividends in the postseason.
This is a group hitting its stride at the right time, with Porzingis getting healthy and Dončić playing brilliant basketball once again. The Mavericks’ phenom is no longer the wide-eyed kid he was entering last year’s playoffs. Year 3 featured an evolution from phenom to voice of the franchise. As Dončić matures, a signature playoff series could follow.
“The way he handled adversity, with us being 9–14 and making our way back into the playoffs, he’s been remarkable,” Mavericks forward Tim Hardaway Jr. says. “He’s our general out there.”