LOS ANGELES – From the moment Luka Doncic declared for the NBA draft in 2018, this game seemed inevitable.
That game where he would make it clear that he was not only a great talent, but one that was ready to lead a team to a victory against any opponent, in any playoff series, on any field.
Doncic has been great throughout this first-round series against the LA Clippers. But it was supernatural Wednesday night at Staples Center, leading the Dallas Mavericks to a 105-100 victory and a 3-2 series lead.
Playing with duct tape all over his injured left shoulder, the third-year point guard finished with 42 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds. It was his fourth game of 40 or more points in 11 playoff games, all of them against the Clippers. And yet, somehow this was the most impressive of all.
“Luka Doncic is, he’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s just a warrior guy who happens to be one of the best players in the world. He’s the engine that drives our offense. There is no secret there. But this is a responsibility that he covets. I think he sees it as a privilege.”
The Clippers didn’t play as badly Wednesday night as they did in the first two playoff losses at Staples Center. If anything, they made some nice adjustments compared to how they defended the Mavericks previously, when Doncic also groomed several teammates for the best games of their career. Tim Hardaway Jr. (20 points) was the only other Mavericks player to score in double figures in Game 5, but Doncic was so brilliant he was able to beat them himself.
“They are important games,” Doncic said. “You have to play hard. You have to play with heart. I don’t know what else to say.”
In all, Doncic scored or assisted on 31 of Dallas’ 37 field goals (84 percent) on Wednesday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Doncic is only the third player in NBA history to score or assist in 80 percent or more of his team’s field goals scored in a postseason game.
Doncic scored 19 points in the first quarter, including his five 3-pointers. He scored or assisted on 28 of the Mavericks’ 35 points in the fourth. Doncic had 27 points by the end of the second quarter, his most in a career half of the playoffs.
The Clippers threw everything they had on Doncic. None of that mattered. He made four of his first five shots with Paul George defending him. Then Kawhi Leonard, former Defensive Player of the Year, devoted time and valuable energy to him. It didn’t work either. Doncic had 40 points against eight different Clippers defenders at the end of the third quarter, as Dallas built a 14-point lead.
About the only time the Clippers were successful in stopping Doncic was in the fourth quarter – he scored just two points as the Clippers cut the lead to 101-100 with 39.5 seconds left on a three-point play by Leonard.
But Los Angeles couldn’t get close, as George committed two key turnovers and Leonard badly missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the score with 4.9 seconds left.
It was the strangest game of what is easily the strangest series of these playoffs thus far. Neither the Clippers nor the Mavericks have won a home game. Dallas will try to close things out on Friday playing home, but the way this series has gone, who knows?
According to ESPN Data research, this is the second best-of-7 series in which the away team has won the first 5 games. The last time it happened was in 1995 in a Western Conference final between the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets. No series has seen this happen in the first six games of a series (excluding last year’s second-round Toronto Raptors-Boston Celtics in the bubble, a neutral site).
Subsequently, the Clippers looked very similar to last week when they faced withering criticism for their poor play and expressions of confidence, or lack of concern, after losing Games 1 and 2 at Staples Center.
“I think we’re fine,” Lue said. “We’ll see him in two days. But, everyone talked about it in the locker room, we’re fine.”
But LA has spent five straight games trying to figure out how to stop Doncic and hasn’t figured it out yet.
“That’s our man,” Hardaway Jr. said of Doncic. “We are going to do everything we can to support him in any situation, at any time. And the performance he had today (Wednesday) would have been horrible if we had not come away with the victory.”