Top-seeded Thunder on the verge of series loss to Mavs

The Associated Press - May 18, 2024 7:34 am

By SCHUYLER DIXON AP Sports Writer

DALLAS (AP) — A kinder, gentler Luka Doncic has the Dallas Mavericks in the same place they were in the first round, headed home with a chance to clinch a playoff series in Game 6.

The difference is the smile on the face of the 25-year-old superstar, replacing the scowl that often accompanies his complaints toward officials over their calls, or non-calls.

Doncic focused on other things in his third career 30-point playoff triple-double, leading the Mavericks to a 104-92 victory in Game 5 that put Western Conference No. 1 seed Oklahoma City on the brink of elimination.

Dallas can advance to the West finals for the second time in three seasons with a victory Saturday night at home, where the fifth-seeded Mavs beat the Los Angeles Clippers for a 4-2 series win two weeks ago.

Now, the Mavs will see if Doncic can keep his focus off the officials again.

“I’m not going to sit up here and complain about him when you get on the refs, like the refs are perfect. I got to give my brother a little benefit of the doubt,” co-star Kyrie Irving said. “But I think he found a healthy balance where he was just really focused on getting us going offensively and making the right plays and making sure we kept our foot on the gas pedal. That’s one of the things he’s done as an engine on this team.”

It’s been a rough series offensively for Doncic and Irving, who have made up for it defensively.

The same could be said of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s supporting cast with the Thunder.

While the runner-up for NBA MVP has numbers similar to those he posted as the league’s No. 3 scorer from the regular season at 30 points per game, Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams have been hit and miss.

The Mavericks focused on challenging Gilgeous-Alexander in the lane in Game 5, while Holmgren and Williams combined to go 1 of 8 from 3-point range as the Thunder shot 25% from deep (10 of 40).

“It’s our first playoff run, it’s their first playoff run,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “So everything’s a learning experience for everybody. Those guys are going to bounce back. They’re really good players that we have a ton of confidence in.”

Dallas is a victory from advancing despite Irving being nearly 10 points below his career playoff scoring average. The eight-time All-Star scored in single digits twice in his first 80 playoff games. Irving has less than 10 points that many times in this series.

“He’s taking the double teams, he’s accepting them, and trusting that his teammates are going to make the right play,” coach Jason Kidd said. “He’s giving everything he has on the defensive end. I’ve never seen him play defense like this in the playoffs.”

Daigneault said the Thunder felt bottled up on offense in the second, third, and fourth games, although Oklahoma City made enough shots in the fourth quarter of Game 4 to rally for a victory in Dallas.

Even with a second consecutive loss at home in the series, the Thunder will be back on the road feeling they’re on the right track with their offense.

“It’s probably going to sound crazy because we didn’t shoot it well, but I thought our offense was really good,” Williams said. “I thought we tried to do the right thing the whole game. Didn’t make shots.”

THUNDER AT MAVERICKS
Dallas leads 3-2. Game 6, Saturday, 8 p.m. EDT, ESPN

— NEED TO KNOW: The Mavericks might have had their best defensive effort of the season in Game 4. The offense wasn’t good enough to turn that into a victory. But Game 5 was the first time the Mavs have held the Thunder to less than 100 points in the series. Dallas is 13-0 this season when doing that. Four of the victories have been in the playoffs.

— KEEP AN EYE ON: Lu Dort’s primary job for the Thunder is defending Doncic. However, with the offense struggling, Oklahoma City could use his 3-point game. Dort is 9 of 29 (31%) from deep in the series after shooting 52% (12 of 23) in the first-round sweep of New Orleans.

— INJURY WATCH: Doncic has an extra day of rest in his playoff-long struggle with a sprained right knee and a sore left ankle. He also had a hard fall onto his back in Game 3. “I think an extra day can help with the bumps and bruises and give you a little bit more gas in the tank,” Kidd said. “But once the game starts, the nagging injuries will pop up.”

— PRESSURE IS ON: The Thunder have to think about how they’re defending the corner 3, although they believe it’s a pick-your-poison situation with trying to slow Doncic and Irving along with Dallas’ pick-and-roll game. P.J. Washington Jr. did most of his damage there in three consecutive games of at least 20 points. Derrick Jones Jr. used the corner 3 to spark a playoff career best of 19 points in Game 5.

 

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