The NBA restart means Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are all but assured of making their playoff debuts in their first season on the court together with the Dallas Mavericks.
While they have a few veterans to give them an idea of what’s ahead, and some postseason experience overseas, nobody’s kidding themselves over whether these young European stars are in for something they haven’t seen before.
“I’m just telling them this is going to be the real deal,” said J.J. Barea, the last remaining player from the Mavericks’ 2011 championship team now in his 14th NBA season.
“When we start playing playoff games, the level is going to go up. The physical play is going to go up. There’s going to be more attention especially on them two from everywhere, from the TV to all the players on the other team,” he said. “I just try to get their mindset ready for another level of basketball, a better level, a harder level.”
The Mavericks are seventh in the Western Conference, seven games ahead of Memphis going into the eight-game restart in Florida. So while the focus is on finishing what appears to be the inevitable, Porzingis has one eye on the postseason after three woeful seasons with New York, the last of which ended with a knee injury that sidelined him for 20 months.
The 7-foot-3 Latvian joined Doncic in a blockbuster deal before the 2019 trading deadline. He then sat the rest of that season as the Mavericks missed the playoffs for the third straight year, the club’s longest postseason dry spell in 20 years.
“I had some experience in Europe and I know it’s a different atmosphere, it’s a different energy when playoffs are happening, even more so probably here in the NBA,” said Porzingis, who dealt with some knee soreness before the shutdown. “We look forward to finishing the regular season first and see where we end up and just play the hardest basketball we’ve ever played and aim as high as we can.”
Assuming Dallas gets in, it will be the franchise’s first playoff appearance without Dirk Nowitzki since 1990. Then the Mavericks will look to Doncic, the 2019 Rookie of the Year, as the catalyst in pursuit of another long playoff streak similar to the Nowitzki-led 12-year run that ended in 2013.
“It’s important that our players feel what that next level of intensity is all about,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “A lot of guys have experienced it on our team in certain segments. But NBA playoff basketball is really one of the more amazing experiences in sport.”
Center Dwight Powell (torn Achilles tendon) and point guard Jalen Brunson (shoulder surgery) are well on their way to recovery, but Carlisle has already ruled both out no matter how far the Mavericks advance. Center Willie Cauley-Stein, a trading deadline pickup from Golden State, opted out in anticipation of the birth of his daughter, who was born July 7.
The Mavericks and Denver were the last teams playing after the NBA announced the coronavirus shutdown on March 11. An important win over the Nuggets was totally overshadowed that night. So now the challenge will be trying to establish some quick momentum in the first restart game July 31 against Houston, which fancies itself a title contender with James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
The 21-year-old Doncic went home to Slovenia during the shutdown but made a timely return to the U.S. once the timeline for the league’s return was in place. Opting out was never an issue for the 2020 All-Star.
“I always wanted to play,” said Doncic, who had the advantage of recovering from ankle and thumb injuries during the hiatus. “I miss basketball a lot, so I just want to play. There was no question about me.”
Boban Marjanovic scored a career-high 31 points with 17 rebounds, his most in three years, in the 113-97 win over the Nuggets as the league was shutting down.
With Cauley-Stein joining Powell in the group not playing, the 7-4 Serbian could end up contributing much the same way he did a year ago with Philadelphia. Marjanovic scored in double figures the first three games to help the 76ers to a five-game win over Brooklyn in the first round.
“He’s very underrated as a playmaker for a guy who’s 7-foot-4,” Carlisle said. “Ever since he’s gotten here, he’s been such a positive personality, such a positive guy in the locker room and on the court. With him, it’s all good.”
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