• Complete coverage: Western Conference finals
DALLAS — You might hear resignation piercing Jason Kidd’s voice when the coach discusses “the beginning of this journey,” which has led Dallas into a 3-0 hole in the Western Conference finals.
But it’s important to note the consistency in the message, first delivered when the Mavericks fell behind 2-0 to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semifinals. Heading into Game 6 of that series, Kidd discussed “the beginning” of the team’s journey, and before tipoff of Dallas’ stunning Game 7 upset of the Suns at Footprint Center, he said, “the season doesn’t end if we lose today. It’s just a start.”
So, if it’s sounding like the Mavs are prepping for surrender Tuesday to the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 at American Airlines Center (9 ET, TNT), go back and listen to what Kidd has said all along.
Besides, “we don’t know what the white flag is,” Kidd said Monday at the team’s practice.
That doesn’t discount the fact that no team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA playoffs, and just three squads rallied to force a Game 7 — only to lose the series.
Here are four things to watch as the Mavericks scratch and claw to prevent a sweep against an experienced Warriors team that has now won at least one road game in an NBA-record 26 consecutive series:
1. Warriors steepen Luka Doncic’s learning curve
Doncic torched Golden State for his second straight 40-point performance in Game 3, and he’s racked up 40 points or more in three outings so far this postseason. We’ve pointed out there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing, judging from the team’s 2-6 record all-time when he scores 40 points or more in the playoffs.
It’s also impossible to ignore that Doncic registered the worst plus-minus of Game 3. Golden State outscored the Mavs by 19 points during the 23-year-old’s time on the floor, and the Warriors — like Phoenix in the previous round — mercilessly hunted the superstar whenever he was on defense.
The second quarter shed light on Doncic’s ineffectiveness. As he sat on the bench resting, Dallas embarked on a 12-4 run to take a five-point lead. Once Doncic re-entered the game, he returned to playing one-on-one ball and leaky defense as the Warriors mounted another run.
“I’m still learning,” Doncic said. “I think the first two quarters, I played very bad. That’s on me. It’s my first time in the conference finals in the NBA. I’m 23, man. I’m still learning a lot.”
Hopefully, he’s retained enough useful info from Game 3 to put together a much-needed bounce back. It would also help tremendously if Doncic’s teammates knocked down shots. Outside of Doncic and Jalen Brunson, the rest of Dallas’ starting five shot 4-for-18 from the field and 2-for-12 from deep. Credit Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins for forcing the ball out of Doncic’s hands on offense, while punishing the superstar defensively by attacking with physicality.
The reax.@22wiggins ✈️ #PhantomCam pic.twitter.com/UPQnJczQE8
— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2022
“You don’t win in the playoffs without guys like Wiggs,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “We’re basically mirroring Doncic’s minutes so that Wiggs can stay on him.”
You can expect more of that in Game 4.
2. Dallas seeking some rebounding
At 6-foot-10, Mavericks center Dwight Powell stands an inch taller than Golden State big Kevon Looney. But Kidd played the 30-year-old for just eight minutes, opting to lean on the team’s five-out lineups
That probably contributed to the Warriors slaughtering Dallas on the boards 47-33, while outscoring the Mavs 18-4 in second-chance points. Kidd joked on Monday that “our smalls right now are hanging from a pole trying to stretch and get taller.”
Perhaps a more consistent effort in that facet of the game would help, too.
Golden State owns the roster full of stars and future Hall of Famers. Yet in Game 3, those players demonstrated more effort against the smaller, younger underdog team that should be outhustling the favorites. Looney and Wiggins combined for 23 rebounds in Game 3. Outside of Doncic snagging 11 boards, every other player on Dallas’ roster combined for just 22 rebounds. The Warriors also outscored Dallas 46-34 in the paint.
“We’ve got to be more aggressive,” Kidd said. “We’ve got to be physical. We’re small, but we’ve got to be able to team rebound. It’s gonna take all five.”
3. Conference finals excellence
That’s likely what we’ll see on display from this Golden State team that hasn’t lost in the Western Conference finals since Game 5 of its 2018 series against the Houston Rockets. The Warriors fell to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Finals, but they swept Portland that year in the West finals.
“It’s not over yet,” Doncic said. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
Golden State owns a 3-0 lead in the conference finals for the fourth time since 1971 after astutely recognizing the opportunity presented in Game 3. So, the Warriors seized it. Kerr felt like Game 3 was a must-win with Dallas on the ropes at home.
With Golden State on a four-game winning streak, Kerr mentioned the Warriors are in the midst of “probably our best stretch of the season,” which doesn’t bode well for an inexperienced Mavericks team that is still learning how to win on one of the game’s biggest stages.
“I just think there are circumstances in every series that you have to acknowledge,” Kerr explained. “I think our comeback win in Game 2 put us in a great spot coming here with only a day in between because we were in command. But they played a great game. We were lucky enough to pull it out.
“But sometimes, trying to respond to a game like that coming home is difficult. We’ve been on the other side of that, too. So, we wanted to really come out and get off to a good start.”
With a battle-tested team like the Warriors smelling blood in the water, you can expect them to come out throwing haymakers in search of their sixth Finals berth in eight years.
4. Mavs hoping for some Warriors déjà vu
It seems like a lifetime ago, but Golden State could’ve swept the depleted Denver Nuggets in the first round on the road, but it fell 126-121 in Game 4 behind a 37-point effort from two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic.
The Warriors recovered to bounce Denver from the postseason in five games.
Then, in the conference semifinals, Golden State blew an opportunity to close out Memphis in a Game 5 road outing as Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Tyus Jones each scored 21 points in a 134-95 Grizzlies rout. The Warriors were forced to finish that series at home in Game 6.
Dallas just hopes for an opportunity to extend the series — or as Kidd calls it, “the journey” — for a Game 5, which would tip Thursday in San Francisco if necessary.
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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