Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis officially won a postseason game, with the Dallas Mavericks hanging 127 points on the vaunted Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night to even the series at one game apiece. Despite Doncic landing in foul trouble, the Mavs kept Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at bay throughout Game 2, with Dallas' bench providing a needed boost early in the fourth quarter to put L.A. away. It was in stark contrast to Game 1 of the series, in which the Doncic-led Dallas offense couldn't keep up with the Clippers' attack.
Dropping a combined 227 points over two games on one of the league's top defenses isn't exactly surprising for Dallas. The Mavs ran the most efficient offense in NBA history this season, averaging a blistering 115.9 points per 100 possessions. That's statistically superior to the Kevin Durant era of the Golden State Warriors, the 72-10 Chicago Bulls and the "Seven Seconds Or Less" Phoenix Suns.
If those offenses were metaphorical blowtorches, then Doncic & Co. were a high-powered flamethrower -- except, it seems, during crunch time. Like Cinderella losing her magic at the stroke of midnight, the Mavericks' historic offense tends to wither away in late-game situations.
This season, Dallas' otherworldly offensive efficiency plummeted to a measly 99.2 points per 100 possessions when the game was within five points in the final five minutes. Only five teams were worse in clutch situations, per NBA.com tracking. Even the New York Knicks -- without the help of that guy Porzingis -- checked in above the Mavs at 104.6 points per 100 possessions this season. Go throw your parade, Knicks fans.
On Wednesday night, in Game 2, those issues weren't so much a concern, but in Game 1, the familiar story played out again. Despite losing Porzingis to an undeserved ejection early in the third quarter, the Mavs got within striking distance against the Clippers only to watch Kawhi Leonard's squad pull away down the stretch.
The Mavs' late-game struggles are the single biggest impediment to them making the leap from fun playoff team to championship contender. It's also why you didn't hear more MVP chatter for Doncic, who sported a ridiculous line of 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists this season. The Mavericks simply lacked the thrilling clutch moments that seer into voters' brains and, more importantly, lead to more wins.
So, what is it about Dallas' offense that makes it choke when it matters most? Is Doncic to blame? Or is it something else? And is there anything that can be done to fix it? Let's dive in.
How bad is it?
NBA teams don't normally clam up like the Mavs did this year. The nearly-17-point difference between their overall offensive rating and their clutch-situation offensive rating is historically bad. The Mavericks have the fifth-largest dropoff in clutch scoring of any team since the NBA began tracking the stat beginning in 1996-97. This is not an affliction felt by elite teams.
‘99 Bulls: 91.4 ORtg, 71.5 ClutchORtg, -19.9 Diff
‘17 Bucks: 108.5 ORtg, 88.8 ClutchORtg, -19.7 Diff
‘20 Pistons: 108.8 ORtg, 90.8 ClutchORtg, -18.0 Diff
‘07 Magic: 104.1 ORtg, 87.1 ClutchORtg, -17.0 Diff
‘20 Mavericks: 115.9 ORtg, 99.2, ClutchORtg, -16.7 Diff
Looking at the list, crunch-time ills appear to be a disease that usually only affects the young. The 2019-20 Mavericks with a 20-year-old Doncic, the 2016-17 Bucks with a 22-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo and the 2006-07 Orlando Magic with a 21-year-old Dwight Howard all appear on the same list of crunch-time crumbles.
Each of those teams featured a young superstar emerging on the national scene as the team tried to navigate their own growing pains. Those Mavs, Bucks and Magic power outages happened to occur in the same season that Doncic, Antetokounmpo and Howard each made their All-Star debuts.
Perhaps there's a bit of a growing-pains effect happening here as a young star tries to take on the closer role years ahead of their prime. LeBron James wasn't immune to these issues either. In his first two seasons in the league, the Cavs saw their offensive efficiency dry up in closing time -- though not to the same degree as Doncic and the others on this list. It wasn't until James' third season, when LeBron finished second to Steve Nash in MVP voting, that the Cavs actually sharpened their claws in crunch time and saw their scoring rate rise down the stretch.
But the Mavs' strong play in Game 2 without Doncic on the floor raises another possible explanation for the Mavs' attack. Is there something about Doncic that makes Dallas vulnerable down the stretch?
The Luka Doncic Effect
There's no doubt that Doncic has been a revelation in Dallas. The All-Star guard possesses off-the-charts ability to control speeds and surgically maneuver his way into the teeth of opposing defenses. He also quarterbacks the Mavs' offense with a rare latitude to make decisions. Nobody on a playoff team this season possessed the ball longer than Doncic, who clocked in at 8.9 minutes of ball-possession per game, according to NBA.com/stats. As a comparison, Stephen Curry led the 2018-19 Warriors in time-of-possession at just 4.8 minutes on an offense that averaged a then-record 115.0 points per 100 possessions.
Is Doncic's ball-dominant style dooming Dallas? The former Euroleague MVP had the third-highest usage rate (percentage of team possessions ending in a field goal attempt, free-throw attempt or turnover while he's on the floor) in the NBA this regular season behind only Antetokounmpo and rather infamous ballhog James Harden. However, Doncic's usage rate falls to 12th in clutch situations, per NBA.com. In other words, Doncic isn't ball-hogging more than he usually does. Doncic also tallied 29 assists in clutch situations, tied for second-most in the league behind LeBron James (32).
Sorting through Doncic's pile of clutch assists, a separate problem begins to emerge and it points directly at the Doncic-Porzingis connection, although not for the reason you might think.
In their first year playing together, Doncic and Porzingis proved to be one of the top young duos in the league, each averaging over 20 points, nine rebounds and two 3-pointers per game. Despite some growing pains earlier in the year, in part due to Porzingis year-plus ACL recovery, one might assume that their complimentary skillsets would make beautiful music together in crunch time. But of Doncic's 29 clutch assists, only six of them were directed to Porzingis, while seven others went to Maxi Kleber and six other dimes went to Dorian Finney-Smith. Considering that, in non-clutch situations, Porzingis is by far the biggest assist target for Doncic overall (110) compared to Tim Hardaway Jr., and Finney-Smith (84) and Kleber (74), that's an alarmingly low total of Doncic-to-Porzingis connections in crunch time.
Is Doncic freezing out his co-pilot? Slow down. Porzingis is hardly carrying his end of the bargain here. In 112 minutes of clutch time this season, Porzingis is just 3-for-19 (15.8 percent) on 3-pointers and 13-for-31 (41.9 percent) on 2-pointers. That's a lot of would-be assists from Doncic.
Rather than some sort of systemic issue rotting out the offense, the crunch-time woes can be traced back to plain old shot-making, by both of them. Doncic is a mere mortal in crunch time, having made just seven of his 41 3-point attempts in clutch situations this season, a conversion rate of just 17.1 percent. Looking at shot types, his percentage of stepback 3-pointers aren't going way up. He's just not hitting them.
It's certainly possible that weary legs aren't giving Doncic the sturdy foundation to propel his deep 3-point shots. Stepbacks aren't easy. There's a reason it took 60 years before the shot became popular in the sport. But stepbacks while you're fatigued? That's almost impossible. It stands to reason that stepback 3-pointers, which by definition see players moving in the opposite direction of the shot, would probably be one of the hardest shots to pull off with tired legs (right, Paul George?).
Harden and the Houston Rockets have certainly had issues closing out teams in the postseason, but that's probably more a product of running into the Warriors' dynasty than some sort of deeper systemic issues.
As Wednesday night showed, the Mavs can win a game here and there without Doncic and Porzingis on top of their games. But to win consistently in the postseason, they need to make sure Doncic and Porzingis are humming when the lights shine brightest.
Can the Mavs solve the issue in time?
The Mavs are on the precipice of becoming a legit championship contender. Thanks in part to their shot-making woes, Dallas' record is just 8-19 in close contests that come down to one-possession games in the final minute. If the win-loss ledger flips to 19-8, we're talking about a 54-21 team, which would be the best record in the West.
That's how close the Mavs are to elite status. Their luck may turn around and the shots may start falling for the Mavericks, but I wouldn't just pray to the basketball gods. I'd find Seth Curry. The 29-year-old Mavs guard owns the second-best 3-point field goal percentage in NBA history at 44.3 percent, trailing only Steve Kerr (45.4 percent).
The Mavs signed Stephen's younger brother to a four-year, $32 million contract this past summer and he responded by hitting 3s at a 45.2 percent clip this year. Despite that fact, Curry has just 10 3-point attempts in 73 minutes of playing time in clutch situations, a shockingly low amount considering his laser-like shooting talents. To put it in perspective, on a per-minute basis, Antetokounmpo takes more 3-pointers in clutch situations than Curry, who, again, statistically is the best 3-point shooter alive.
That needs to change. If the Mavs are going to cure their crunch-time ills, head coach Rick Carlisle has to do a better job of getting Curry more looks late in games. Opposing teams know that Curry is a flamethrower from deep, which makes it tough for Curry to break free, especially if the offense devolves into watching Doncic go one-on-one. Instead of standing idly on the perimeter waiting for a standard Doncic drive-and-kick, the Mavs could use some more off-ball pindown actions to unleash Curry's longball.
Getting Curry more involved is a band-aid, albeit a potent one, for Dallas. Ultimately, the Mavs will have to find a third star to complement Doncic and Porzingis if they want to truly crash the contender party. With Doncic in his sophomore season, they have plenty of time to find that third wheel. Tim Hardaway Jr., is not quite at that level, but he's a serviceable third piece on a solid playoff team. More intriguingly, Hardaway Jr., could be a centerpiece in a deal to upgrade the roster this offseason.
Pairing Hardaway Jr.'s expiring contract (assuming he picks up his $18.9 player option for next season) with whomever the Mavs pick at No. 18 in this year's draft could entice a team trying to offload some long-term money. Sacramento's Buddy Hield, who makes $24 million next season, could be interesting as another 3-point marksman, although a Doncic-Curry-Hield backcourt would struggle to slow down your local YMCA in crunch time. New Orleans' Jrue Holiday, who holds a $27 million player option for next season, is maybe the best fit for Dallas as a two-way stud, but his looming free agency may deter the Mavs from plopping down substantial assets in a deal.
With the Clippers series tied up at 1-1, it's probably too early to go deep into Dallas' long-term options, but they're incredibly close to being in the title conversation, thanks in large part to Doncic's special set of skills. Maintaining their historic offensive levels in crunch time is their surest ticket to getting there. Without any evidence of the offense being too Doncic-centric, it may just be a matter of time before the shots start falling and their fortunes start to turn. It may not happen this season, but that's not a problem with this up-and-coming roster. With two young studs locked into long-term deals, time is on the Mavericks' side.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks need to find a crunch-time fix originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia