Had the result been different, Friday’s Game 3 would have been a crowning achievement on every level: of the Mavericks’ unexpected success against the favored Clippers, of Luka Doncic’s brilliance setting yet another postseason career-high, of the effectiveness and availability of the COVID-19 vaccines that allowed 17,705 fans to cram into the American Airlines Center, of the raucous and reverberating arena atmosphere that has been completely absent from sports for well over a year.
But the results weren’t. The Clippers beat the Mavericks 118-108, and the bated celebration was instead focused in another direction, one perhaps best summarized by a departing fan who shouted at the media section as he walked by: “Make sure you write about Kristaps, man!”
I very nearly replied: “Oh, I am.”
Kristaps Porzingis must be the conversation point after the Mavericks lost Friday, regardless of which aspect of his poor performance you focus on from Game 3. It’s natural to focus on his offensive output: nine points on 3-of-10 shooting with a particularly horrid fourth quarter. But Rick Carlisle believed the focus after Game 3 should be on the team’s defensive production.
“The bigger problem tonight was the defense, let’s be clear,” he said afterward when asked about Porzingis’ offensive production. “We’re not going to make this about missed shots or opportunities to post up KP or anybody else (because) we’ve got to defend better.”
Let’s start there, then, because Porzingis was equally culpable for the poor showing.
When the Mavericks traded for Porzingis in 2019 and soon after signed him to a five-year, $158-million contract, they did so believing he was the perfect modern center to pair with Doncic. Their belief stemmed both from his unique offensive talent but also his shot-blocking prowess and overall defensive impact, something crucial in the modern NBA. In his first season playing with the team, it took Porzingis months to adjust to the expectations Dallas had for him on the offensive end — where his favored post-up touches and isolation-heavy approach initially didn’t mesh within a spread pick-and-roll offense that set a league record. But Porzingis almost immediately proved them right defensively. Even as the overall team struggled throughout the 2019-20 season, Porzingis was often the lone dominant force on that end.
But Porzingis had another knee surgery in 2020, one which caused his first-ever playoff series to end prematurely and this season’s start to be delayed. Since returning, he’s often looked immobile guarding players outside of the paint and much less effective snuffing out opponents who do get to the rim. His block and steal percentages this season were both career-lows; a player once known for being a 7-foot-3 defensive terror simply hasn’t shown that side of himself much at all. But for the second half of Game 2, where there were possessions where he forced perimeter players into contested jumpers, Porzingis hasn’t just been a defensive non-factor but a liability begging to be attacked. There’s little room for such players at the highest level of NBA basketball.
I’m slightly more sympathetic to Porzingis on the offensive end. His nine-point outing on Friday was miserable, to be sure, and the two open 3s missed in the fourth quarter caused the shoulders of fans all around me to collectively slump. There was another moment where he started cutting to the lane right as Doncic passed to him in the corner, resulting in a comical turnover that can only inadvertently add to the perception that the two players don’t like each other. But I don’t fault him for his inability to score 20 feet from the basket when Doncic left the floor early in the fourth quarter and the team force-fed him post-ups far from the hoop. I know many fans will gravitate toward that moment, sending tweets saying things like, Why can’t our max player score needed buckets when Doncic rests? But we’ve known Porzingis isn’t that post-up player, nor is almost any player in the league. (Only Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid are players who regularly deserve post-ups regardless of the matchup.) He deserves credit for twice passing out of those situations to Brunson, who converted open 3s. That was as good as those possessions got, and the team really should’ve known better.