Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis set for NBA Playoffs debut
By Marc Stein
For the past several days in the NBA bubble, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have been asked various forms of the same question, occasionally with the tone of a lecture.
Don’t you know the playoffs are different?
As they prepared to make their NBA playoff debuts together Monday, when Doncic and Porzingis were to lead the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks against the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in the evening’s marquee game, they seemed to realize there was nothing they could say to make the question go away. Only convincing, forceful play could do that.
Doncic averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists a game in 61 games in his second NBA season — thrusting himself into the Most Valuable Player Award conversation by hitting bench marks only Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook have matched over a full season. Porzingis has left the New York Knicks (and many Knicks fans) with a sense of seller’s remorse after he capped his first full season with Dallas by joining Doncic as one of only six players to average more than 30 points a game since the season resumed July 30 in Florida. (Porzingis has a bruised left heel, the Mavericks announced Sunday, but he was listed as probable for Monday’s game.)
Yet it is often this way for even the NBA’s top imports. Whatever they might have done in playoff conditions abroad is dismissed until replicated in the NBA.
“I don’t think they’re that different, but I’ll tell you after we finish the playoffs if it’s different or not,” Doncic said Friday in an interview.
How the European duo fares on the NBA postseason stage looms as one of the foremost curiosities as the league shifts from two disorienting weeks of teams adapting to games without fans or travel to four rounds of best-of-seven series to crown a champion. But Doncic and Porzingis do have the backing of at least one notable observer with some pertinent experience.
Dirk Nowitzki, in his first year of retirement after 21 seasons and one championship with the Mavericks, interrupted a family vacation Sunday to proclaim that Doncic and Porzingis were “both ready for it.”
“I got to play with Luka for a year, and I’ve always said that from the first practice, which was more like a scrimmage, that this kid is built different,” Nowitzki said in a telephone interview. “The passes and the way he read the game already, I was super, super impressed.
“I thought he would have a little more trouble adjusting to the size and the speed of the NBA game, but he’s had zero problems,” Nowitzki continued. “And K.P., playing at the five now, that’s a tough, tough matchup for any team because they have to try to step out and guard him. The way this game is going, it’s so wide open on both ends. There’s shooters everywhere. There’s always lanes to drive. Obviously the game will slow down a little bit in the playoffs, but I don’t think it’s anything those two can’t handle.”
The matchup with the Clippers, which are teeming with quality perimeter defenders to hound Doncic, is the Mavericks’ first playoff series without Nowitzki since 1990. As Dallas has quickly learned since swinging a draft-day deal with Atlanta to acquire the Slovene star’s rights in June 2018, Doncic has a penchant for speeding up timetables.
“They’re a two-star team now,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of the Mavericks.
Porzingis, a 7-foot-3 Latvian, celebrated his 25th birthday in the bubble on Aug. 2, but knows, for all the praise he has been receiving from Rivers and others, that he is about to face a higher level of scrutiny under the playoff microscope.
“Stats and all that are great, but when people look back, they want to see who was a winner, who won it all and who achieved great things as a team,” Porzingis said. “The main goal has to be team success.”
Porzingis acknowledged that he and Doncic were “getting more comfortable with each other on the floor” and what “a good thing in the long run” that could be. But this team also has some warts. The Mavericks’ 115.9 points per 100 possessions established a single-season league record for offensive efficiency, topping Golden State’s 115 last season, but their late-game execution has long raised concerns that the playmaking load Doncic must shoulder nightly wears him down.
Beyond the defenders the Clippers can send at Doncic, including Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley, Dallas has to be worried most about its recent defensive decline. Dallas ranked 21st out of the 22 teams in Florida in defensive efficiency through the seeding games, allowing a whopping 120.6 points per 100 possessions.
Yet it’s clear that in whatever order Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle ranks the potential dangers of a matchup with the Clippers, fretting about how Doncic copes hasn’t cracked his list.
“He’s wired for big moments,” Carlisle said. “He’ll be fine.”
Doncic proved that as an 18-year-old at the EuroBasket tournament in 2017, when he teamed with the Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic to lead tiny Slovenia to a championship no one expected. At the end of the ensuing season, one month before he was drafted, Doncic was named MVP of the EuroLeague after leading Real Madrid to the most prestigious club title outside the NBA.
“He likes the big stage,” said Igor Kokoskov, the former Phoenix Suns coach who coached Slovenia to its EuroBasket glory in 2017. “Even at a young age, I never felt that he is afraid of the moment. I think he will play even better in the playoffs.
“One thing about Luka: If you put him in any kind of basketball drill, he will be OK, but if you put him in any kind of real competition, he completely changes and turns himself into a warrior.”
Remembering the hostile crowds that greeted him in Utah in his 2001 playoff debut, Nowitzki added: “I was a little overwhelmed by the atmosphere — that place gets as loud as any place in the league. That first game was definitely jittery, but that’s maybe where the bubble can help. They already know the surroundings and there are no fans.”
Given the opportunity to make his own forecast about the series with the Clippers, Doncic went no further than insisting the Mavericks had “nothing to lose” against a team with significant championship aspirations and promising that the coming postseason is “for sure not going to be my best year.”
“I’m excited to be in there, but I’ve got a lot to learn, to work on, to get better at,” Doncic said. “It’s only my second year.”