Even after a disastrous start, they weren’t shaken.
Not Luka Doncic or Kristaps Porzingis, the Dallas Mavericks youngsters plowing through their first taste of NBA playoff action.
Certainly not Rick Carlisle, the veteran coach who watched Doncic fight his way back from a brutal start to set the scoring record for a playoff debut and Porzingis get ejected in the third quarter of a game his team was leading by five after battling back from an early 16-point deficit.
Carlisle said it after the Mavericks rallied to take a lead at the end of the first quarter. And he said it again after his team’s 118-110 Game 1 loss to the LA Clippers in this Western Conference playoff series.
“It’s a long game,” he said, “a long series.”
It seemed far-fetched when Doncic was stumbling through the opening minutes; he had more turnovers than points when he went to the locker room to get his left ankle re-taped after a spill on his way to the basket.
But not so much after the Mavericks’ 30-point turnaround before halftime and not even after Porzingis shoved Marcus Morris with 9:10 to play in the third quarter, coming to the aid of Doncic when the playoff intensity cranked up on a hard foul.
The Clippers survived, of course, with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard combining for 56 points and shutting the door down the stretch. They were aided by what Clippers coach Doc Rivers called a “phenomenal” performance from Morris, whose 19 points were every bit as crucial as the physical defense he used to try and bother Doncic.
Try being the operative word, since Doncic’s 42 points put him atop a list that includes legends like George Mikan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving. The previous high was John Williamson’s 38 in 1979.
That’s roughly 20 years before Doncic was born.
“Yeah, he’s amazing,” Rivers said. “I actually didn’t think … I thought we guarded him pretty well. Forced him into a lot of tough shots. Forced him into 11 turnovers. I thought what we did poorly and what shows his greatness, is every time we made a mistake on the weak side, when we pulled in when we shouldn’t have, he found that guy. And that guy made a shot. So I didn’t mind his basket attacks, I didn’t mind his threes. I mind our help so he can get the assist. I’ll give up the points to him, I just don’t want to give up the points and assists. And I thought we allowed him to have both tonight.”
Carlisle wasn’t at all surprised that Doncic responded the way he did.
You don’t watch a 21-year-old pilot the most efficient offense in NBA history and worry about a turnover or mistake, not when he’s working against a team many have picked as the title favorites.
“He’s a fighter. He’s always going to battle. He will never get discouraged,” Carlisle said of Doncic. “He’s got a very positive attitude on the floor with his teammates. He’s played in so many games in his young career that he’s seen everything. He’s seen slow starts, he’s seen situations where teams get off to great starts. You can’t get too high or too low.
“I love the fact that we didn’t get too low when we were down 10-0 to start the game. … I thought his performance was spectacular when you factor in everything and how often he’s getting hit, fouled, held and everything else.”
Porzingis had seen enough when Morris and Doncic got tangled up in the third quarter. He saw Morris shove Doncic and jumped into the fray, forgetting he’d drawn an earlier technical for punching a fist in the air after being called for a foul, an automatic technical. It was his first career ejection.
“I understand we got into it a little bit and I saw him getting into Luka’s face and I didn’t like it,” Porzingis said. “That’s why I reacted. That’s a smart thing to do from their part and I just have to be smarter and control my emotions next time.”
Game 1 was every bit the long game Carlisle suggested it would be, physical and full of playoff-level intensity. Wednesday’s Game 2 (9 ET, TNT) could be another interesting affair, with the Mavericks full of confidence and the Clippers working with their full roster for just the second time since arriving in Orlando.
If the Clippers aren’t careful and can’t find a way to slow down Doncic, this might become that long series Carlisle spoke of.
“These games add up,” George said. “We’re going to continue to make it hard on him.”
Doncic, who joined Magic Johnson, LeBron James (twice) and Tracy McGrady as the only players to sore 40 or more points in a playoff game at 21 or younger, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“For me, everything was the same,” he said. “Every game they’re going to be physical with me. I should never have 11 turnovers. That’s 11 more possessions I can have. The thing about this game is I’ve got to be way better than that for sure.”
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