It didn’t merit picture-in-picture vigilance or a running clock by the folks in the production truck, but it could have: Dallas’ Luka Doncic sitting on the bench. His Mavericks team trying to hang onto their double-digit lead against the LA Clippers in Game 5 of their Western Conference first-round series and the fourth quarter beginning to tick down.
Be honest, Doncic sitting at that point was as suspenseful as anything happening on the floor. How much rest could he get? How long would Dallas coach Rick Carlisle dare to keep his star playmaker out of the game? How many points would the Clippers wring out of that deficit by the time Doncic returned, and would momentum have shifted by then?
Doncic already had logged nearly 33 minutes in leading the Mavericks to their 89-75 lead, built off a 22-3 run to close the third quarter. His average in the regular season was 34.4 minutes. Clearly he was going to exceed that again, but by how much? Only Carlisle knew.
And then, fidgeting over, Doncic was up, checking in with 9:41 remaining. He stayed for the duration. The Clippers whacked down Dallas’ lead all the way to one, 101-100, but never flipped it, losing 105-100. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Richardson hit four free throws in the final 8.8 seconds, sandwiched around Kawhi Leonard’s off-balance, forced 3-point miss from the right corner.
Doncic wound up with some gaudy numbers: 42 points, eight rebounds, 14 assists and 6-for-12 shooting from 3-point range. Thing is, he had most of that before he raced back in to finish the game.
Doncic’s fourth-quarter line? He took eight shots and missed seven, including three from 3-point range. He had one rebound, a pair of assists and a turnover that nearly proved lethal, coming with 18.3 seconds left and the Mavericks up by that single point.
It all worked out for Doncic, Carlisle and their team. But the gaudy number that got as much attention as any in the postgame media session was the Dallas All-Star’s 42:31 in playing time. He’s up to 196 minutes in the five games so far, a 39.2 average that he topped in only three regular-season games spaced a month or so apart. Here, he’s packed it into five games across 12 days.
Asked about that workload, Carlisle said: “Yeah, one thing about these games in the playoffs, [in] national TV games during the regular season the timeouts are 3:15. These are 3:30. Fifteen seconds doesn’t sound like much, but in an NBA game it’s an eon. That along with the fact that there were multiple reviews, which are essentially extra timeouts, and you just got to look and see how guys are doing.”
That was particularly important with Doncic, given the cervical neck strain he was suffering after Game 4. The pain in his neck and shoulder had lessened the next day, and with the two-day gap before Game 5 – along with massage and ice treatment – he was feeling much improved.
But finding the right balance between leaning on his team’s best player and making sure Doncic doesn’t wear down is on Carlisle. And the coach knows it.
“Look, we got to watch this thing very closely,” Carlisle said. “Tim Hardaway ended up playing more minutes than him (45:14) and his minutes have gotten very high as well. But this is the kind of series it is. It’s to a point where the matchups are so taxing that we have got to have the right people in the game to be able to hang in. And, look, everybody understands it. Our guys are doing a great job with it so far and we have just got to keep pushing.”
Maybe not past the point of diminishing returns, though. That’s how it has gone for Doncic in the series: His late minutes have been his worst minutes. That’s not good for him or the Mavericks.
Here is a breakdown of Doncic’s quarter-by-quarter shooting: 22-of-43 (51.2%) in the first, 21-of-33 (63.6%) in the second, 19-of-39 (48.7%) in the third and 6-of-27 (22.2%) in the fourth. Repeat: 6-of-27.
His other stats show a similar pattern. Doncic has posted 38 assists to 16 turnovers through the first three quarters of the five games, compared to nine assists with seven turnovers in the fourth. So far, he is plus-34 in the first three quarters, minus-10 in the fourth.
His usage is up to 41% in this series compared to 35% in the regular season. And the 37 shots he put up against the Clippers Wednesday were his most ever, including playoffs.
Doncic made 17, more than double anyone else on the floor. But the memory of his fourth-quarter misses lingered afterward.
“I think it was too much,” he said. “I shot some shots that I shouldn’t have shot. Honestly, I think it was too much. … But we got a win.”
That’s the balance, right there. Neither team has won at home through the five games, and Game 6 is Friday on the Mavericks’ floor. Peeling back Doncic’s minutes probably isn’t top-of-mind for Carlisle, the player or anyone else. But tuckered Doncic isn’t peak Doncic, either.
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