Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press
Luka Doncic dropped 42 points and nine assists in his first NBA playoff game. And coughed up 11 turnovers. And left the game, briefly, in the first quarter after suffering a left ankle injury, leaving an entire fanbase—and viewership, really—in angsty lurch.
Dallas and Los Angeles also exchanged double-digit leads…in the opening frame. And Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hit two—two—three-pointers. And Kawhi Leonard exuded a particular command over the game, like only he can. And the Mavs caught fire from deep in the first half.
And Montrezl Harrell made his bubble debut. And Doc Rivers questioned the resolve of his team even after it allowed just 13 points in the third quarter only to then roll out a bonkers lineup—Harrell, Reggie Jackson, Patrick Beverley, Paul George, JaMychal Green—three minutes into the fourth.
Oh, and then there’s the outcome itself. The game was close. The Mavs scrapped until crunch time. Maybe their role players can give Doncic more help down the stretch. Maybe Tim Hardaway Jr. spending so much time on PG13 isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. Maybe Luka will be less exhausted and banged up.
Maybe, just maybe, the Mavs can make this a series—not just a thrilling, good-job-good-effort five- or six-game attaboy but an actual series.
Game 1 could be about any number of things. And it is. But it is first and foremost about Kristaps Porzingis’ ejection less than three minutes into the third quarter of his own playoff debut. And that is kind of, sort of, definitely awful.
The play on which Porzingis received his second tech didn’t initially include him. Doncic and Marcus Morris Sr. got into a little post-whistle, ahem, entanglement following a drive by the former. Tensions escalated, slightly, which is when Porzingis entered the fold:
Upon further review, double technicals were assessed to Morris and Porzingis. This marked the second T of the game for the latter—his first came for an angry air-punch following a foul call he didn’t like—so he was gone, with a little over nine minutes left in the third and Dallas leading Los Angeles by five:
Criticism for the referees was swift and unrelenting. LeBron James led the charge:
So, too, did Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki:
Kevin Love weighed in from outside the bubble:
Ditto for Spencer Dinwiddie:
Kansas City resident Patrick Mahomes didn’t much like the officials’ decision:
Even Clippers head coach Doc Rivers was against it:
The sentiment verged on consensus.
Why eject someone in a tightly contested playoff game? And not just someone but the Mavs’ second-best player? For what amounted to less than a harmless kerfuffle?
Why let the outcome of a postseason tilt be even hypothetically impacted by a call, any call? Isn’t it on the refs—in this case, Mark Ayotte, Eric Lewis and Kane Fitzgerald, who relayed the decision—to show some discretion? To be more in tune with what’s at stake?
That Porzingis’ first technical was so questionable didn’t help matters. For one, he had a point:
More than that, his reaction to that first call was miles from egregious. Punching the air with no one in the vicinity is entirely innocuous.
Yes, it’s still worth a technical by letter of the law. But the playoffs aren’t a time for intransigent enforcement…are they? They should be more interpretative, more flexible, more committed to ensuring the basketball portion of the program shapes the outcome in full…shouldn’t they? At the bare minimum, technicals are closer to last resorts than formulaic implementations…are they not?
The validity of Porzingis’ two technicals is worth a discussion. And the idea that this game was decided by his absence is terrible. He was a minus-six and 3-of-9 from the floor but absolutely having an impact. If nothing else, he always represents one of Doncic’s two best offensive outlets in the half court and his unequivocal best pick-and-roll partner, particularly when it meant getting Ivica Zubac to switch onto Dallas’ point man.
On the flip side, Porzingis’ first technical wasn’t an issue at the time of his second. He knew he had one already. He has to be more self-aware in that situation. He’s too important to his team.
And please, spare us from the “He was just protecting Doncic” slant. That’s not untrue. He was getting involved on behalf of his teammate. But Doncic wasn’t in any imminent danger. The face-off with Morris was never at risk of scaling into a brawl. He and Doncic gave each other all-good pats before play resumed.
This doesn’t let the refs off the hook, even in a game that seemed suboptimally officiated. The Mavs had some no-calls to gripe about it. I’d also like to take this opportunity to note that it feels like big men are never officiated properly. They’re supposed to take a beating and tolerate well-built human beings hanging on to their arms and shoulders because they’re, well, big.
Still, Porzingis had to play under the circumstances of the moment. And in that moment, he already had one technical. And he knew, based on the questionable nature of the first one, this wasn’t necessarily a game in which they’d let things go and that he couldn’t count on a make-up non-whistle or the benefit of the doubt.
His motives as a teammate may have been pure. His judgment was off.
That happens. The throes of competition are intense. And again: That scuffle was essentially a non-scuffle. It didn’t warrant the ax that was swung, and it definitely didn’t deserve to become the billboard for this game.
Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press
What comes next is…everything else. There’s basically an entire series left to play. And this moment, while pivotal to the game itself, cannot be seen as a turning point.
The Mavs made other mistakes. Doncic took ownership of his turnovers, and though overburdened on offense, he needs to provide more resistance on defense. Dallas enjoyed stretches of cold shooting from Los Angeles and questionable decision-making down the stretch by its role players, namely Beverley and Lou Williams.
This was a helluva game, enthralling and highly competitive almost despite itself. The Mavs were robbed of 15 to 20 minutes of All-Star play and, maybe, a victory. It’s on to the next anyway. Harping is useless, even if it turns out the refs messed up. And to the Mavericks’ credit, they didn’t sound like a team that will wallow in this defeat, however unfair it seems.
Not that they have a choice.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into Wednesday’s games. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.