MILWAUKEE — Losing Luka Doncic over the weekend as the Dallas Mavericks prepped for their turn in the tank against the Milwaukee Bucks Monday night seemed, well, like a bridge too far.
Bad enough that the Mavericks were headed into the shredder against the reigning Eastern Conference champions. With the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player. On the road. With Milwaukee barreling along on an 18-game winning streak.
All that was happening regardless. But then Doncic went down Saturday in Miami with a sprained right ankle, an injury projected to sideline the marvelous, triple-threat 20-year-old perhaps through Christmas.
For what it seemed to mean to Dallas’ chances Monday, Doncic’s first name might as well have been Jenga.
So, naturally, Dallas beat Milwaukee 120-116 to snap the winning streak, improve to an unlikely 10-2 on the road, stake itself to a 1-0 mark without its young star and gate attraction and steal a little luster from the Bucks’ network-televised showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers, the West’s juggernaut and the league’s rapidly restored glamour team.
“I mean, the NBA is crazy,” said Dallas’ Kristaps Porzingis, who scored 26 points, nine in the fourth quarter and six on a pair of deep 3-pointers on consecutive trips down the floor after the Bucks had crept within 99-92 with nearly seven minutes left.
That lead got up to 15 before Milwaukee whittled it down but good: From 110-95 with 3:13 left to 114-103 with 39.7 seconds to go, at which point the Bucks flirted with the improbable by outscoring Dallas 13-5. That made it 119-116.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, at his MVP best and a little overworked, finished with 48 points but missed his and-one free throw at 5.2 seconds. Teammate Sterling Brown grabbed the miss and might have sent it to the perimeter for a chance to tie, but he went up with the ball only to have Porzingis block his layup.
The streak was over. The Bucks, whose previous loss had come way back on Nov. 8 at Utah, had been better than their opponent on 18 consecutive nights. The Mavericks were better on this one.
“I’ve been in this league for a long time,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, “and an 18-game winning streak is a spectacular demonstration of how good a team is.”
Carlisle had talked beforehand about his team’s need to move the ball and rely on multiple creators to pick up slack in Doncic’s absence (29.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 8.9 apg is serious slack). They got that from Jalen Brunson (13 points, 11 assists), from Seth Curry (26 points, four assists), and from Delon Wright (13 points). Even with Brunson’s production shifted into the starting lineup, Dallas’ bench scored 56 points, an 11-point advantage over Milwaukee’s subs.
Carlisle and his players had talked beforehand, too, about hitting the Bucks hard from tip, sticking them with an uncustomary early deficit. Milwaukee, after all, came in averaging 29.5 points in first quarters, outscoring teams by 4.6 points on average (a third of its record-pace 13.6 point differential). The Bucks are 17-2 when leading after the first quarter.
But they trailed 36-22 12 minutes into this one. The Bucks scored 40 in the fourth thanks to their furious scramble at the end, but Dallas countered with 34. The Mavericks outshot Milwaukee across the board — overall, from the arc and from the line — and somehow managed to give up only six points off its 14 turnovers.
Dallas had offered a glimpse of its resiliency Saturday after Doncic got hurt in the opening minutes. Gathering themselves at halftime, they outscored the Heat 62-39 to force overtime. This time, they had 48 hours and a whole game with which to work.
“We’re missing a lot of points, a lot of playmaking without Luka,” Curry said. “We’ve got to move the ball a little bit more. We played with the same attitude we have every other game.”
The Bucks claimed to have done likewise, resisting any temptation — they said — to look past the wounded Mavs to their ballyhooed clash Thursday with LeBron James, Anthony Davis & Co. So now they’ve won 18 of their past 19 and still have matched the franchise mark for best start after 28 games (shared with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s squads in 1971 and 1973).
Milwaukee was without its starting point guard, too — Eric Bledsoe missed his second game with a right shin fracture — and Bledsoe’s all-NBA defense was notably absent. Brunson got his first double-double of 2019-20 and Curry reached 20 points for only the second time this season.
But there was no beating up the Bucks for this one, not after the 18 that came before. They went 7-0 when Khris Middleton was out, beat New Orleans on Wednesday when Antetokounmpo sat with a sore right thigh and even felt buoyed by Monday’s flurry near the end.
A team whose season will rise or fall on what happens in May, and possibly June, finds its challenges and bright spots where it can. This was that, in a don’t-cry-that-it’s-over, smile-that-it-happened way.
“I’ll be quiet probably,” Antetokounmpo said, imaging his drive home from Fiserv Forum late Monday. “Be quiet and not say much to my mom and my girlfriend. But at the end of the day, my dad said this and my brother always says, ‘To be better, you’ve got to face adversity.’ Starts with the leader of the team to the last player.
“It’s good. You get better.”
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