DALLAS — You see it when Jason Kidd has to turn to Maxi Kleber, knowing every minute the score doesn’t drift away from his Mavericks is a win.
You hear it when the oversized speakers on American Airlines Center’s rims confirm what’s on the stat sheet, the clangs sounding more and more painful as the game wears on.
It’s evident when Luka Doncic has to be a starred Super Mario for his team to have a chance, and the second that power wears off, he is worn, tired and looking to the referees for refuge.
The Dallas Mavericks have gone further than even they expected, which is an equal indictment of the Phoenix Suns as it is praise of Kidd’s team. But they’re not ready for this stage, not against these Golden State Warriors.
And by the time they are, many key pieces probably won’t be around or as prominent.
Consider this: The Warriors’ fifth-best player, and on some nights, sixth or seventh, would be Doncic’s No. 1 running mate in this series — and he’s a former overall No. 1 pick who doesn’t have to play like a franchise savior to be effective.
All Andrew Wiggins has to do is guard Doncic — and dunk on him on occasion. He’s every bit as talented as his pedigree suggested, even though his career hasn’t played out as such.
And he’s a player the Warriors don’t have to have every night. His playoff consistency, 27 with 11 rebounds on this night, propels the Warriors to another level. One that doesn’t just have them playing in June, but taking on the Miami-Boston slugfest winner and comfortable with him against Jayson Tatum or Jimmy Butler.
“Wiggins is a talented player, he’s an All-Star,” Kidd said. “And when you look at what they’re asking him to do, high level.”
The Warriors are a team full of, pardon the expression, grown-assed men. Hardened and even emboldened by championship experience. The Mavericks are in their fancy, by comparison.
“And this was a great lesson learned from us,” Kidd said. “This isn’t the end. This was just the beginning, and I said this in the Phoenix series, if you guys recall. You guys got good memories.”
The Warriors have vivid memories of the team they saw in Game 2, the one that played a damned good game for a road team but came away deflated† There was an emphasis on winning this game, suppressing any remaining confidence and capitalizing on whatever doubt crept in over the last 48 hours.
“You can essentially put a team away tonight,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green, who picked up a technical but triggered a decisive third-quarter run soon after. “We came out with a certain intensity level, focus level that it takes to come on the road and steal one. We kinda wanted to go all-in on this one for sure.”
It was the 26th straight playoff series featuring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green where the Warriors won at least one road game, an NBA record. If the Mavericks win a road game this series, it means they’ll have staved off elimination two consecutive games and turned this series on its ear, bringing it back to Dallas for a Game 6.
With Doncic, anything is possible, but it’s like asking him to defend Wiggins at the rim — expecting it only ends up in embarrassing and entertaining replays.
“That was impressive, I’m not going to lie,” Doncic said. “I saw the video again, I was like, ooh† That was pretty incredible. I wish I had those bunnies.”
Doncic’s greatness has been on display this entire postseason, his production placing him on those cute visual displays with basketball ghosts. It evoked a thought that maybe he could elevate the upstarts to an unlikely NBA Finals appearance in his fourth year, beating a championship-decorated team along the way.
But this isn’t LeBron James in 2007, and it’s no slight to Doncic. The only decoration this team has is in its sideline antics, which has drawn the ire of the NBA’s league office with multiple fines†
His showmanship — a shimmy in Curry’s direction after a buzzer-beating triple to end the first quarter — was more artistic and impactful than anything else he’d done in the evening, and this was his third 40-point game of the postseason, all coming in losses.
He takes on the scoring burden, and one wonders how he’ll perform when there’s a talent who demands the ball at an All-Star rate. Only Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie have the runway to do their own thing, and everyone else must eat off what Doncic hunts.
“I think there’s a combination, we just didn’t shoot the ball well,” Kidd said. “Look at the three guys who score, that’s just not enough. Against the Warriors, you need guys to participate offensively, but we’re getting good looks.”
Doncic’s nightly shows obscure the flaws in his game that he’ll have to improve before being Slovenian Harden: playing off teammates, playing through inevitable frustration and, of course, individual defense.
But staring at Luka on every switch is the greatest shooter of all-time, a top-five shooter of all-time, an up-and-coming max player … and then the guy who made him a playoff poster for all the wrong reasons , Wiggins.
It’s easy to see why Dallas is enamored with Wiggins’ former teammate, a high-flyer out of Chicago by the name of Zach LaVine who’ll be a free agent in July. A player with that athleticism, that one-on-one excellence who puts stretch marks on the defense would make you forget about Doncic’s own stretch marks when he’s not playing defense.
Or a player who was milling around the arena in the postgame, another potential summer target the Mavericks are familiar with because he played for them several years ago, Suns center JaVale McGee.
The disparity is wide, and the team-building has been nearly 10 years in the making for the Warriors.
“For example, like Draymond. He’s a max player. He’s one of the greatest role players of all time,” Dinwiddie said. “But he’s not a traditional standalone max guy, right? Like, you’re not going to put him on the phone that hey, go get 30. Right. They’ve got a great team makeup, have great chemistry, they’re essentially a dynasty.”
The Mavericks have gone essentially as far as their talent will take them, and having players performing above their heads every other night for three weeks caught up to them, with Reggie Bullock going 0-for-10 (seven missed triples) and Kleber taking and missing all five of his attempts.
The clanks added up to 13-for-45 from three, with well over half their shots coming from long range.
Changing their style to take fewer threes this late in the game seems rather foolish to ask, considering it’s served them well in series wins against arguably the toughest set of dispatched opponents, Utah and Phoenix.
“We can attack the rim for sure. But we’re constructed the way we’re constructed,” Dinwiddie said. “You get to the Western Conference finals and you start missing shots but you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The babies cold, and the Warriors just threw another merciless cold blanket on it — plans for June are awaiting, and the Mavericks have work to do.