The Dallas Mavericks returned home for Game 3 of their first-round series with the LA Clippers eyeing a sweep. After two wins in LA, the Mavericks were in prime position to pull off a mathematically mild but perceptually colossal upset. With Luka Dončić operating like a superstar, Dallas didn’t even have to be too concerned that big man Kristaps Porziņģis was playing small.
Up 30–11 less than 7½ minutes into Game 3, Dallas had to be feeling pretty good about its chances. Then, almost without warning, the roof caved in. Now the Mavericks are looking at avoiding an epic collapse.
Luka Dončić’s literal pain in the neck hurt the Mavericks in many ways
The Clippers closed the first period on a 20–4 burst, led 63–61 at the half, and pulled away for a 118–108 victory. Luka Dončić struggled through a neck injury in Game 4, which LA won in blowout fashion to reclaim homecourt advantage in what becomes a best-of-three series.
And about Kristaps Porziņģis? He had 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting in 28 minutes, but the Clippers exploited his defensive deficiencies by going small. Porziņģis came away from the rim, as LA used Rajon Rondo as the screener for Kawhi Leonard. Rondo passes the ball quickly out of a short roll. Porziņģis doesn’t recover quickly. Leonard drives or an open shooter fires against the scrambling Dallas defense.
But Porziņģis didn’t set the series on fire before the Clippers turned him into The Human Torch at the defensive end.
In the first three games of the series, Dončić averaged 38.0 points, 9.0 assists, and nearly 8.7 rebounds per game. Those numbers came while shooting 51.9% overall, draining 45.9% on 12.3 3-point tries a night, and we won’t mention the free throws. Seriously, Luka, 48.1% is Shaquille O’Neal-level bad. In Game 4, Dončić had 19 points on 24 shots, made only 1-of-7 from deep, and clunked all five of his foul shots in 36 minutes.
Kristaps Porziņģis isn’t the star Dallas thought it got
In a blockbuster trade in January 2019, the Mavericks acquired Kristaps Porziņģis from the New York Knicks with Tim Hardaway Jr. (still with the Mavs), Trey Burke (not so much), and Courtney Lee (also gone). Former first-round pick Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan, and 2021 and 2023 first-round picks went the other way. The 2021 pick belongs to New York; the other holds top-10 protection.
Porziņģis would be the star-caliber partner to young Luka Dončić, almost like a taller Dirk Nowitzki-Steve Nash tandem. That has happened, just not often enough.
The Unicorn has responded by averaging 20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game in 100 games for Dallas. He missed 18 games in 2019–20 (along with the final three games of their first-round loss to the Clippers). He sat out 29 games this season. And in the first three games against LA in this series, Porziņģis put up 14.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks. He hit 42.9% overall, 38.5% from deep, and was 8-of-10 at the line.
Stat Muse shared the tweet above, showing that Denver Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo was outrebounding Porziņģis through the first three games of the playoffs.
In fairness to the 7-foot-3 Porziņģis, he is now averaging 4.0 boards a night in the series in 32.4 minutes a game. By comparison, the 5-foot-11 Campazzo is averaging the very same 4.0 boards in his 30.2 minutes an outing in Denver’s series against the Portland Trail Blazers. Perhaps Mad Men’s Pete Campbell sums it up best.
Porziņģis has to come up big if Dallas is to stay in the series
Luka Dončić can’t do it alone, and Kristaps Porziņģis was the star the Dallas Mavericks chose to bring in to pair with Dončić.
But here’s the thing. Porziņģis has now played in seven career postseason games. The Mavericks are 3–4 in those games. Porziņģis’ lone double-double in that span was a 34-point, 13-rebound explosion in Game 3 against the Clippers last year. But the effects of a meniscus tear sustained in Game 1 ended his season after that game.
Owner Mark Cuban has said the two stars don’t always mesh off the court, though he insisted they are fine when on it. But there have been signs that the relationship on the hardwood isn’t always great, either.
Game 5 is back in LA, and there will be a Game 6 in Dallas. Whether the series goes anywhere beyond that, or if the Mavericks advance past the first round for the first time since winning the NBA title in 2011, will ultimately come down to what Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis can cook up.