LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It pervades the NBA bubble. It’s as omnipresent here as the thick humidity and nearby Hollywood Studios’ looming Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
Opportunity. It’s here in abundance.
The young, upstart Mavericks snatched some of it Wednesday night, beating the Los Angeles Clippers 127-114 to tie the teams’ first-round best-of-7 series at 1-1.
Dallas is a long way from seizing the ultimate opportunity, but it’s here for the taking in what has started as a wide-open playoff race.
The Mavericks certainly think it’s possible. After winning their first NBA playoff game, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis sounded as though they expected to win Wednesday — and firmly believe they will win this series.
“Yeah, for sure,” Doncic said. “Any series that we’re going to go into, we’re going to believe, for sure. If you don’t believe it, you’re not supposed to be here, so you’d better believe it.”
Said Porzingis: “We knew after the first game that we were right there and we can compete with probably one of the favorites to win it all.”
Doncic led the Mavericks with 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists Wednesday night. Combined with his 42 points in Game 1, his 70 points in his opening two playoff games are the second-most in NBA history, behind George Mikan’s 75 in 1949.
But it was the efforts of players like Kristaps Porzingis (23 points, seven rebounds), Trey Burke (16 points), Tim Hardaway Jr. (17 points) and Seth Curry (15 points) while Doncic sat out long stretches of the second half with foul trouble that enabled Dallas to put away the favored Clippers.
“It’s a group that’s had some time together during the year during some stretches when Luka was out, so they know how to play together,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “The other thing was, we were scoring but we were also scrappy defensively.”
Doncic was whistled for his third four with four seconds left in the first half, his fourth foul just 52 seconds into the third quarter, and his fifth only 23 seconds into the fourth quarter.
“I was frustrated for like 15 seconds,” Doncic said of his fifth foul and having to leave the game. “But then I was focusing on supporting my teammates. They did a great, great job.”
Said Clippers coach Doc Rivers: “I just thought their bench outplayed our bench and our starters. Between Seth, Bobie and Burke, I think they missed like three shots, four shots. Their percentage was insane.”
Two weeks of close, high-scoring seeding games set the stage for more of the same in the playoffs, with both No. 1 seeds — the Lakers in the West and Milwaukee in the East — losing their openers. The only other time that happened since the NBA went to a 16-team playoff format in 1984 was in 2003.
It’s as if all of the bubble teams returned from the four-month coronavirus hiatus to a virtually level playing field.
“I felt that way coming into the whole thing, really,” Carlisle said. “Look, there’s no travel. You’ve got really the same environment virtually every game, the digital boards look different and stuff like that, but just a great opportunity here for everybody.”
The Clippers are among the title favorites, but had to play Wednesday night without Pat Beverley, one of their best perimeter defenders, who sat out with a strained calf.
In Game 1 the Mavericks fell into an 18-2 ditch, roared back to take the lead and might have won had Porzingis not been ejected early in the third quarter after getting whistled for his second technical foul.
Game 2′s start was a reversal, with Dallas jumping to a 15-2 advantage and eventually taking as much as a 44-27 lead with 7:27 left in the first half. They never trailed.
Had Porzingis not been ejected from Game 1, the Mavericks well could be leading this series 2-0.
“It doesn’t matter,” Carlisle said. “It’s where we are. It’s 1-1. It’s a five-game series. We’re looking forward to this opportunity. It’s really great for our guys.”
The Clippers whittled the margin to 61-56 by halftime, despite Doncic scoring 22 of his points and the Clippers’ Paul George going scoreless and drawing three fouls.
The Mavericks helped the Clippers draw close by missing 5 of 10 first-half free throws, four of the misses by Doncic.
Still, the Mavericks maintained a slim lead throughout the third quarter, even after Doncic was whistled for his fourth foul, setting up a down-to-the-wire fourth quarter between teams that supposedly were mismatched. The drama never materialized, however, with the Mavericks pulling away late.
Rivers cited the amount of practice teams have had since arriving in the bubble on the second week of July as a reason for the close, high-scoring games.
“How many times have you had this much practice time going into the playoffs? Never,” he said. “Usually going into the playoffs your off days you’re resting. We had three weeks of practice time.
“I just think there’s no travel involved, guys aren’t going out, I think all that plays into it. They’re sharp and they’re ready.
“The competition, it’s amazing. You can feel it. I don’t know if it’s more competitive, but it’s competitive out there. I think because everyone in the bubble has confidence right now because they put the work in. So that’s what’s going to make it hard.”
It’s making it harder for teams like the Lakers and Bucks and Clippers to reassert the dominance they thought they had built back in February and March, before the hiatus.
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