Mavericks blow out Suns, forcing Game 7 — and with Luka Doncic as the series’ clear best player, they have a chance

Luka Doncic actually made his postseason debut not during the 2020 bubble, but in May 2015. He was a 16-year-old academy prospect called upon to play 11 minutes in a blowout Real Madrid win against Gran Canaria in the opening game of the Liga ACB playoffs, a best-of-three first-round series in an eight-team competition.

He played his first professional elimination game — scoring nine points in 19 minutes coming off the bench in another best-of-three series — the following season against UCAM Murcia. He was 16, an established rotational player for Los Blancos, and they won that game 93-72. Real Madrid went on to beat FC Barcelona three games to one in the finals, although Doncic only played 12 total minutes in that series. He was still one season away from fully becoming an undisputed generational talent for them; two seasons away from being named the league MVP.

He played dozens more postseason games in the years that followed 2016, and several more elimination games, not to mention Slovenia’s 2017 EuroBasket run, in which his national team faced elimination in all four games after the group stage. (They beat Serbia in the final.) In 2020, his second season in the NBA, Doncic faced the L.A. Clippers in the playoffs and scored 38 points in the season-ending Game 6 defeat. One year later, he went for 46 points and 14 assists in a Game 7 loss against the same opponent. On Thursday, Doncic won his first elimination game in the NBA, scoring 33 points to sustain the Mavericks’ season at least one more game. But make no mistake: He’s been here before, so many times before. For any other 23-year-old galactico with a more typical basketball origin story, this first would carry more weight. But not with Doncic, not really. He’s been here too many times before.

On Thursday, the Mavericks beat the Suns 113-86 in Game 6. What will potentially be this postseason’s first Game 7 will occur Sunday. Devin Booker hasn’t ever played in one; most of the Suns have only been to the postseason once, during last season’s Finals run. Doncic, though, has been raised in postseason elimination games since his formative years: real ones against Europe’s best teams, weighty ones bearing his country’s insignia upon his chest, ones which he’s won and lost, ones in which he’s played miserably but mostly magnificently. He’s the best player in this series, with the real possibility he’s the best in the world sometime soon. One more win-or-go-home matchup does not faze him.

It’s more than Dallas could’ve ever expected six months ago when this team toiled through bad shooting performances and a dreadful start. It’s more than was anticipated even on the season’s final day, when Doncic limped off the court with a muscle injury that cost him three games in the first round. But the Mavericks now have a chance to beat the league’s best team in a do-or-die series finale, and they know without question they’ll have the most transcendent player on the court representing them in this upcoming battle. It’s against the league’s best team, but trust me: Doncic has been here before.

There are two ways to look at this impending Game 7, the first being an obvious assessment of this series. The home team has dominated every matchup, to the extent that there hasn’t been a single minute of clutch basketball played throughout these six blowout wins. In Dallas, sure, the Mavericks have dominated this series. But Game 7 will be played in Phoenix, on a day literally named after their home team, in an arena where the 64-win juggernaut has consistently looked as such. Why shouldn’t the Suns win this closeout game?

Then again, the Mavericks have won three of the past four games in this series. Sure, they played awfully in Game 5, but it was really only one disastrous quarter in which they were worse. Dallas soundly lost Games 1 and 2, shellshocked by the opening salvos of a team it had lost nine straight regular-season games to, but this team adapted in the games that followed. Jason Kidd continued his superb coaching of this team to make the appropriate adjustments: to better hide Doncic’s subpar defense; to eliminate how Phoenix created its preferred shots; to replace struggling bench players with impactful ones; to control this series’ math advantage in 3s and turnovers like the Mavericks did last round against Utah.

In Game 5, Phoenix reacted to Dallas’ defensive adjustments by having Devin Booker instantly attack downhill when Doncic was a screen defender. Kidd reacted in Game 6 by having his team blitz every single pick-and-roll involving Booker, throwing him so out of rhythm that he often looked uncomfortable even dribbling on Thursday. Through Game 5, you could legitimately argue Booker had been better than Doncic in this series. (He’s clearly a brilliant player, to be clear.) But while Doncic dictated his team’s winning performance, Booker struggled on his way to 19 points on 6-of-17 shooting.

Again, the Suns haven’t reacted well to Dallas’ adjustments in three of the past four games. This is the league’s best team, sure, just by its deserved regular-season record. They also had the most wins (37) in the NBA since Jan. 1. But Dallas, you should know, had the second-most wins (35) in that same time period. Are we really sure Phoenix is simply better? Has this team proven that over the past four games? Are there legitimate reasons to believe Dallas should lose Game 7 just because its players aren’t playing within the proximity of Reunion Tower? Or are there narrative reasons to think, well, the home teams just won all the games and will continue doing so?

Look, Game 7s are bizarre. They’re almost always a tense facsimile, both teams trying their best and often still failing to be truly themselves. They are played with different energy and tempo than any other 48 minutes you’ve ever seen. They’re literally must-win games, a rare instance where the tired cliche can be deployed with literalism. Dallas could hit its 3s and walk away in a blowout victory, or it could miss them all, the team’s heavy minutes since January finally grinding them down, and return home with the season having ended. Nobody knows what can or will happen in Game 7. It’s the most accurate truism in this entire damn sport.

Dallas has this series’ best player, one who has been here many times before. It has adjustments and strategy that the Suns have barely cracked in four straight games. It doesn’t have home-court advantage, but it has relatively little pressure. If the Mavericks lose, this has still been a successful season that pushes this franchise one step further within the grand vision to build a title contender around Doncic.

But, look, if you have to fly to Phoenix one more time, you might as make that trip worthwhile. And if there’s ever one player you should never bet against, it’s the one who’s been here before. That’s Luka Doncic.

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(Photo of Luka Doncic: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)


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