DALLAS - The Dallas Mavericks entered Sunday night’s first-round NBA Playoffs Game 4 with three stated/whispered goals against the Clippers.
One, get the sore-necked Luka Doncic some help with “easy baskets” from underperforming mates like Kristaps Porzingis, who needed to win small-ball matchups.
Two, endure the offensive brilliance of Kawhi Leonard but reduce the bookend level of play from Paul George with a concentrated defensive focus on the second banana.
Three, don’t waste what was once a 2-0 series lead - and the unique atmospheric advantage of 17,000 Dallas fans packed into American Airlines Center. To do so would be to squander an edge unique to the NBA.
Los Angeles 106, Dallas 81, and consider it squandered. All of it.
Doncic, playing despite a cervical sprain, winced his way to a struggle-laden 19-point evening that typified a Mavs' loss in which they spent much of the final three quarters trailing by 20 or so on the way to allowing the series to be knotted at 2-2.
"I don't think that's important right now,'' said Doncic, trying to downplay the injury. "We just lost ... but I played terrible."
Overall, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle’s most problematic concern going into Sunday was on display in disappointing ways.
“We have to defend better,” he’d said of Friday’s Game 3 loss, in which the Clippers shot 58 percent. “Better defense is always going to create more opportunities offensively.”
Alas, in L.A.'s building of its massive lead, Leonard and George were again allowed to explode, in the second quarter alone combining for 35 points on 14-of 22 shooting. And from there, it was the Clippers who created opportunities. Leonard (29) and George (20) having their way all night.
What did Porzingis and other Mavericks defenders do to contain them?
Very little, including rim-protect, something the 7-3 Porzingis simply must contribute, especially if he is struggling elsewhere.
KP, to be fair, was not "the problem,'' not "The Missing Unicorn,'' here. He scored 18. But the Mavericks, maybe as a way to keep Porzingis engaged, talk often about Doncic being just one of this franchise’s pair of superstars. In fact, the inability of Porzingis to take charge of games offensively - let alone when matched against smaller defenders, as has been the case in this series - is maddening.
Worth noting: Los Angeles didn't necessarily “hunt” KP defensively, maybe because the Clippers found most every Dallas guy vulnerable.
READ MORE: How 'Small-Ball' Is Beating Mavs
In this Game 4, the Clippers had an assortment of contributors who were more productive for their team than most of Luka's helpers were. (Tim Hardaway Jr., with just four points before exiting late after a nasty fall, low-lighted the list.) Carlisle resorted to grab-bagging, trying the diminutive duo of Jalen Brunson and Trey Burke in tandem early, and the gigantic duo of KP and Boban Majanovic (who did have 12 points in 15 minutes) together late.
Nothing really worked.
Of course, Doncic - taped up as he was due to the neck issue - didn't help himself in some ways, either, including missing all five of his free-throw tries and going 1-of-7 from the arc.
And at that point? The Mavs aren't just being outdone physically ... it's become a mental and emotional deficit as well.
"He's in pain,'' said Carlisle of Doncic. "It appeared to me that he couldn't turn left, couldn't look to his left, and that's difficult for a guy that relies on peripheral vision and basically has played his whole life with his head on a swivel."
Game 5 is scheduled for Wednesday at L.A. The Mavs will have their goals, some stated, some whispered. And if they don’t see some of them achieved?
They will have shriveled from being “the confident 2-0 team with a 94-percent chance of advancing” to being a shaken young team facing desperation and self-doubt.