NBA playoffs: Luka Dončić, Mavericks embrace defense, physical identity in Game 2 to even series with Clippers

LOS ANGELES — If there’s anything to be learned in the early days of the NBA playoffs it's that aggressiveness is rewarded, incidental contact is deemed just that, and it certainly helps to have late-game shot-makers who can create in scramble situations.

See Jamal Murray. See the blessed and highly favored New York Knicks, who seem to get every good bounce going their way.

And then there’s the Dallas Mavericks, who we don’t know just what to make of. But we know about Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, offensive wizards who can excel in a free-flowing game and make due in one of those grinding affairs.

Dončić scored 32 and Irving 23 as Dallas tied its series at one game each with the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday at Arena with a 96-93 victory.

The game was ugly for the most part, but Dallas seemed in firm control throughout. The Mavericks team that saw Doncic score 70-plus in Atlanta during the league’s inflated explosion no longer exists; that NBA doesn’t actually exist between April and June.

Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said the score was “'90’s basketball at its best” in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but his team held the Clippers to their lowest field-goal percentage for the year (36.8).

Perhaps the Clippers were thrown off a bit by having Kawhi Leonard return for his first game since March 31, and the jump in intensity between regular-season basketball and playoff ball could’ve caught him off guard.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 23: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks drives to the basket on Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers during a 96-93 Mavericks win in game two of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Arena on April 23, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

But it could’ve also been the long and wide bodies the Mavericks can throw at each of the Clippers' talented wings, disrupting their offensive flow. At the trade deadline, the Mavericks acquired Daniel Gafford from the Wizards and, in a separate deal, P.J. Washington from Charlotte.

Despite both players coming from losing teams, they’ve aided the Mavericks in developing and adding a new layer to their defensive identity — a necessary layer.

“Ever since March, we could see there was a shift in officiating,” Kidd said. “Less whistles and the physicality has stepped up and we embraced it. That’s who we are. The playoffs are no different.

“We’re not afraid of the physicality. Maybe that’s why we were a little disappointed in Game 1. We weren’t physical. Maybe the rust, maybe the time off. Tonight we played 48 minutes of physical basketball.”

Dallas made things uncomfortable and whatever playoff jitters arose in Game 1 clearly dissipated by Tuesday night. Kidd believed that was clearly the case, particularly for his playoff-inexperienced bigs, Gafford and Dereck Lively II. Ivica Zubac bulled them in the opener, but a repeat was not to be had.

Zubac scored 13 with 12 rebounds but wasn’t able to set the tone like he did Sunday. And even with Gafford being ineffective, Maxi Kleber stepped in to hit two threes, including a triple with 2:08 left after a scramble to put Dallas up six.

Even the unlikely — Dončić and Irving — made impactful defensive plays and were generally attentive. The Clippers hunted Dončić on switches, but Dallas often sent second defenders to aid, like Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. And when Dončić was left on an island, nobody actually scored on him.

Washington scored 10 of his 18 points in the fourth as Dallas turned what was a six-point deficit into a quick five-point lead. Even with the slim lead, the Clippers never felt air, and Dončić nailed two step-back threes in the fourth — one to break a tie at 73 with seven minutes left and another with 1:26 remaining to put the Mavericks up nine.

Kidd made football references to describe Dončić, a finalist for the Most Valuable Player award. Calling him the Mavericks’ quarterback, Dončić made a risky pass in the final minute to beat a Clippers trap in Dallas' own backcourt.

It just went past the reach of Terance Mann and to Irving, and victory was secured.

“You trust your quarterback. He makes a lot of passes a lot of people can’t make,” Kidd said. “It comes down to the receiver being able to catch it. Ky caught it and went to the free-throw line.”

Therein lies the formula for the Mavericks, not only through this series but should they advance and how they’d plan for Oklahoma City or New Orleans. It's a hellacious defense that makes things ugly, and then they give it to the talented quarterback with a few minutes left who can make plays.

Paul George scored 22 but dealt with foul trouble, while Leonard played 35 minutes in his return, scoring 15 with seven rebounds and four steals but missing all five of his 3-point attempts — many hitting front rim to illustrate his legs not quite being playoff-ready.

James Harden dominated Game 1 and had his moments in Game 2, but missed eight of his 10 3-point attempts and scored 22 with eight assists and six rebounds.

“That’s the playoffs right there. If you rewatch '80s, '90s, early 2000s basketball and series, you can see the game slows down,” Irving said. “Some of the great players, their [scoring] goes up or down, efficiency goes up or down, depending on the series. You just gotta be ready for the unknown.”

One of the unknowns was Dončić drawing a technical foul, his first in quite awhile. Although he’s always been chirpy, it didn’t throw him off his game too much. Instead, he channeled the frustration into encouraging teammates — he and Irving, the unlikely pair of leaders dishing out positive reinforcement.

“I’ve learned with playing with other co-stars. You gotta trust him, you gotta let him be him and grow,” Irving said. “We empower each other to have that voice. I'd rather be out there with someone that's emotional, wants to do better for themselves and for the team, than someone that's quiet or just allow things to happen, depending on everybody else to step in.

“Sometimes when you get techs you just move on. That’s where we are, it’s the playoffs. You just have to bury and move on.”

Perhaps it’s a continuation of the Mavericks finding themselves, or maybe it’s the beginning of yet another dogfight between these two rivals. But the Mavericks seem to have come to the table with an added dimension of toughness this time around, one the Clippers were unable to match.