The Dallas Mavericks had the chance to deliver the Los Angeles Clippers an utterly humiliating death blow in Game 3 of their first round series in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The Mavericks had upset the Clippers in each of the first two games to grab a 2-0 series lead, and headed home to Dallas for the next two games. The Clippers had absolutely no answer for Luka Doncic who was getting whatever he wanted against the LA defense. Dallas’ role players were also stepping up and hitting enough shots to put LA on the brink of disaster.
Game 3 could not have started any better for the Mavericks. After the first couple minutes, the score was Doncic - 8, Clippers - 0. By the time Doncic checked out of the game on his normal substitution pattern with five minutes left in the quarter, Dallas led 28-11. The Clippers responded with a 14-4 run with Luka on the bench, and the game was tightly contested from there.
The Clippers would go on to win, 118-108, to get back into the series and give themselves a chance to tie it up in Game 4. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George played like the superstars they are, torching the Dallas defense all night to combine for 65 points. As a team, the Clippers shot 58 percent from the field. For as brilliant as Doncic was again — 44 points with nine assists on 15-of-24 shooting — this was the first game of the series where LA looked like the decidedly more talented team.
There is no reason to panic for the Mavs. Part of the loss can be chalked up to the old ‘make or miss league’ axiom: Dallas was the team with unsustainably hot shooting earlier in the series, and now it was LA’s turn to hit shots with an outlier degree of accuracy. Part of it is because Leonard and George were incredible, and a shaky Dallas defense simply has no way to stop them, just like the Clippers’ defense has no way to stop Doncic. The Mavs can tighten some things up, hope the Clippers’ role players go cold, and give themselves a great chance to go up 3-1 in the series when Game 4 tips off on Sunday night.
That’s the positive spin for Dallas. The counter-point would be that the Mavs let a winnable game where Doncic was incredible slip through their fingers. It feels like Doncic is a one-man show right now, and that isn’t supposed to be the case. The Mavs are supposed to have a legitimate co-star, but Kristaps Porzingis simply isn’t playing like it.
Porzingis finished the night with nine points and three rebounds on 3-of-10 shooting from the floor. For the series, Porzingis is averaging 14.3 points and under four rebounds per game, while not imposing himself defensively. As the Clippers came away with the Game 3 win, Porzingis’ performance made him a punching bag on social media:
Facundo Campazzo (who is 5’11") is averaging 1 more rebound per game than Kristaps Porzingis (who is 7’3") in this playoffs. pic.twitter.com/pRouzV9wRe— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 29, 2021
While there’s still plenty of time for the Mavs to win the series, the situation with Porzingis is starting to look like a red alert-level problem for the immediate future of the organization.
The Mavs traded for Porzingis just before the 2019 trade deadline to be Doncic’s go-to sidekick for the next decade. At the time, Doncic was a 19-year-old rookie sensation and Porzingis was a 23-year-old, 7’3 center who could stretch the floor with his three-point shooting and had flashed superstar potential at his best. Porzingis was rehabbing a torn ACL at the time of the trade and had irreconcilable differences with the New York Knicks stemming from Phil Jackson’s tenure as the team’s lead decision-maker.
By moving to Dallas, Porzingis didn’t just get a fresh start in a new city, he also found a supposedly perfect match with a superstar shot creator. It was easy to envision the Doncic-Porzingis two-man game as the foundational offense of contending teams in Dallas for years to come, while Porzingis’ shot blocking helped tie together the defense. The Mavs rewarded him before he ever played a game for the franchise, signing him to a $158 million max extension before the 2019-2020 season.
Porzingis’ first season in Dallas was solid enough, but as the Mavs entered the playoffs in the bubble, he suffered another knee injury. This time Porzingis tore the meniscus in his right knee — the opposite knee of the ACL tear — and it ended his playoff run and delayed his debut this season. Porzingis still had a pretty good year in his 43 games — a second straight year of averaging more than 20 points per game, better three-point shooting and overall scoring efficiency than his first season in Dallas — but the matchup vs. the Clippers is exposing some troubling long-term questions regarding his fit with the Mavs.
Dallas’ offense almost seems like it has to go out of its way to get Porzingis shots. As Doncic dominates the ball, and shooters wait to fire around him, Porzingis often feels like the odd man out unless Dallas is prioritizing getting him looks inside. Head coach Rick Carlisle’s thoughts on post-ups are well known, and Porzingis was solid but unspectacular on those play-types anyway, scoring in the 58th percentile of the league.
The bigger issue feels like Porzingis’ defense. He was supposed to be a terrifying 7’3 shot blocker who could protect the paint and fortify Dallas’ backline, but that hasn’t happened. The Clippers have been confusing Porzingis by slipping screens and cutting behind him throughout the series:
Good things happen when the Clippers get into the paint, great cut from Batum behind Porzingis along the baseline. pic.twitter.com/ReAFUAvQJf— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 29, 2021
This is a beautiful slip from Kawhi with Porzingis ready to jump out PG coming off a pindown opening the lane and a great pass from Jackson to him. With how confident Jackson threw the pass, pretty sure it was a call out of the timeout. Two more paint points for the Clips. pic.twitter.com/jNXZzaMLlV— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 29, 2021
All of this is leaving a bigger existential question for Dallas: Is Porzingis really good enough to be the running mate Doncic needs for the foreseeable future?
Porzingis still has three years and $101 million remaining on his contract — it’s worth noting the final season is a player option. For that type of money, the Mavs simply need more from him on both ends of the floor.
Doncic is good enough to compete for championships right now. If he isn’t the best player in the league, he’s certainly comfortably in the top-seven or so. Yes, Luka is only 22 years old and will continue to get better, but he’s still good enough to be the centerpiece of a championship team right this second. The Mavs need everyone else to step up around him, and that starts with Porzingis as the team’s highest paid player.
Porzingis’ floor spacing has certainly helped Doncic’s development, but the Mavs needs higher volume and increased accuracy from him from deep if he’s mostly going to be a catch-and-shoot player. The big man the Mavs thought they traded for was supposed to be more dynamic than that. The Mavs are still waiting for him to show it.
The Mavs’ non-Luka perimeter players did miss Kristaps open on the arc several times in Game 3. The loss is not all his fault, of course. But if the Mavs let the Clippers back into the series — and especially if they lose it — Porzingis’ performance will be under a harsh spotlight. For the Mavs’ present and future, Porzingis needs to give them more starting right now.