Luka Dončić is on the verge of winning a playoff series in the first round for the first time.
Given the well-deserved size of the 23-year-old Dallas Mavericks star’s reputation, it’s such a strange statement to make for newsworthy purposes. Still, despite everything he has done, from the three All-Star appearances to the two first-team All-NBA selections and a career statistic from his four regular seasons that are just bonkers (26.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and eight assists per game). Dončić has yet to make any playoff run in his famous young career.
There was the 33-49 rookie campaign, where the Mavs came to shortly after the postseason, the bubble loss of six games to the Clippers in his second season and the loss of seven games to the Clippers last season, where his performance in game 7 – 46 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds – left little room for him to be considered the trap. Still, while Trae Young led Atlanta to the Eastern Conference finals last season and changed the not-so-good-as-Luka narrative around him at Dončić’s expense, the slow start to his playoff career remained.
But with the appearance of the Utah Jazz’s shattered spirit in Dallas’ 102-77 victory in Game 5 on Monday that gave the Mavs the lead on the 3-2 series, this superstar brand is changing. And no, for those who are wondering, there will be no star of this series just because Dončić missed the first three games with a calf load. His last two matches were a reminder enough that he is as special as they are among today’s young stars.
Match 4: 30 points (11-of-21 shots), 10 rebounds, four assists and a plus-7 mark, which was somehow not enough in Utah’s 100-99 victory.
Match 5: 33 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, a plus-33 rating and this ugly 3 over Bojan Bogdanović midway through the third quarter that pushed the lead to 28 and inspired a Steph Curry-like kind of shoulder shimmy from Luka.
Here’s the funny part of Dončić’s blank playoff resume: It’s not like there was anything for him to be ashamed of here. On the contrary, in fact.
Even before Monday night’s match, he had averaged 33.3 points, 9.1 assists and 8.9 rebounds in his 14 playoff games and was thus, statistically speaking, the best postseason performer ever! No not really. But it’s still impressive.
In terms of an individual player’s post – season history, no one has ever come close to taking an average of that kind of number. According to Stathead.com, LeBron James – with his record-breaking record of 266 playoff games and an incredible league record of 39-11 – comes closest to the Dončić marks with an average of 28.7 points, nine rebounds and 7.2 assists.
Aside from a revival of this Jazz mojo that made a rare appearance in Game 4, Dončić and his Mavs are finally on their merry playoff path against the winner of the riveting Phoenix-New Orleans series.
All that (awful) jazz
Talk about an identity crisis.
For a moment, jazz center Rudy Gobert talks about how his team’s victory in Game 4 is a sign that this was the “team we want to be.” And the next, with their uncertain offseason looming so big once again as this jazz era tilts to the edge, they make an embarrassing effort that makes it virtually impossible to see them survive this series.
Along the way, a worrying trend continued: Donovan Mitchell just may not seem to be playing well on a consistent basis lately. Given the effort here, with all the signs pointing to second-year Jazz owner Ryan Smith prioritizing Mitchell over everything else when it comes to his organization’s future, this is… less than ideal.
After Mitchell’s 4-of-15 outing in Game 5, where he missed all seven of his 3-pointers, he shoots just 37.1 percent for the series from the field and 19.2 percent from beyond the arc (at 8.2 attempts per .). Overall, he averages 26 points, five assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.2 turnovers. And remember, all of this comes after a stretch in the second half of the regular season where Mitchell’s fights in the fourth quarter were a major problem as Utah developed the brutal habit of blowing late leads.
For those who did not watch, Mitchell suffered a left hamstring injury late against Dallas, but insisted afterwards that he would “be fine” for Game 6 in Utah on Thursday. He’s going to have to be even better than that if they have any hope here.
Here is to Fur …
Whatever happens next, these New Orleans Pelicans have laid the kind of foundation that should serve them very well in the years to come. Especially if Zion Williamson starts wearing that Fur sweater again at some point.
Brandon Ingram has been elite in his first playoff game against the league’s most dominant team in the regular season in Phoenix, averaging 29.8 points (fourth among all players), 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists. CJ McCollum just keeps making the Pelicans ‘executive vice president of basketball operations, David Griffin, look smart to bring him to town by the trade deadline – no small feat considering how brutal the first half of New Orleans’ season was gone. And Jonas Valančiūnas, whose straight hair keeps reminding me to catch up with HBO’s “Winning Time” because of the Pat Riley resemblance, chose a great time to play the best playoff game of his life by finishing with 26 points, 15 rebounds and four assists in New Orleans’ Game 4 victory over Suns Sunday.
Raise your hand if you had this series draw 2-2 on your way into Game 5 tonight in Phoenix. Now stop lying.
Devin Booker’s absence (hoarding) is certainly massive for the Suns, but they spent the entire regular season winning matches with key players out. This daunting challenge goes much deeper than that.
As our talented Pelicans beat writer, Will Guillory, discussed in his Game 4 split, Chris Paul looked confused in ways we almost never see against this Pelicans defense. The eight-second offense that Jose Alvarado forced proved to be just as much as any other game, but it was Paul’s brushing of Herb Jones’ head just a few minutes later on his drive in the middle of the fourth quarter that seemed to reveal the level of his frustration.
And what about Jones’ unspoken message of discontent shortly after, when Paul tried to help him get off the floor and the 23-year-old rookie did not.
If you have not kept up with this point, Jones’ defense is worth your time alone. The draft will always have landed for would-coulda choices, but it’s still overwhelming to think that the Alabama product was taken as number 35 after winning the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards as a senior in last season.
Last but not least, first-year Pelicans coach Willie Green deserves all the credit for pushing this group through a 3-16 start that made it look doomed before the turnaround began. The fact that he faces his close friend and mentor, Suns’ Monty Williams, adds another human layer to the matchup that has been another highlight (our Jason Quick wrote a great piece about that relationship here).
You will not hear any complaints from me if this series turns seven.
A Boston beatdown
Speaking of particular young stars, I left a fascinating Jayson Tatum note from my Saturday story discussing Boston’s dynamic defense against Kevin Durant. According to one of the rival scouts I spoke to, his team’s defensive analyzes of opposing players indicate that Tatum is the best defender in this Celtics team stuffed with them.
It means two things – one obvious and the other not so much …
- Tatum rated himself even better than recently named Defender of the Year Marcus Smart… or the great Robert Williams… or Jaylen Brown… or Grant Williams. You understand the idea.
- I’m justified (ish) in my own home as my youngest son’s classmate recently learned that I did not have Smart in my top three for DPOY and took great exception to this. I voted Jaren Jackson Jr. first, Mikal Bridges second and Gobert third.
After finishing the sweep of Brooklyn on Monday night, Boston will now wait to face the winner of the Bucks-Bulls series. But that did not stop Smart from reminding the masses that the Celtics – in stark contrast to Milwaukee – made the bold decision to keep winning games at the end of the regular season, even if it meant facing Durant-Kyrie Irving-led Nets in the first round.
“It’s fun for us because we do not dive or dodge anyone,” Smart said told reporters after the 116-112 closeout victory in Brooklyn. “It’s part of the game. We should play them eventually, so you might as well get it out of the way now.”
Did they ever. If only Irving and these Nets could have figured out why they did not have time to jell during the regular season (insert facepalm emoji here).
(Photo: Tom Pennington / Getty Images)