DALLAS — You see it when Jason Kidd has to turn to Maxi Kleber, knowing that every minute the score doesn’t stray from his Mavericks is a win.
You’ll hear it as the oversized speakers on American Airlines Center’s rims confirm what’s on the stat sheet, with the clanging sounding increasingly painful as the game progresses.
It’s obvious when Luka Doncic has to be a star Super Mario for his team to have a chance and the second his strength wanes he’s drained, tired and seeks refuge with the referees.
The Dallas Mavericks have gone further than they expected, which is both an indictment of the Phoenix Suns and a compliment to Kidd’s team. But they’re not ready for this stage, not against these Golden State Warriors.
And when they are, many key pieces likely won’t be around or as prominent.
The Warriors clinched their game with a 109-100 win in Game 3 in a game of the NBA Finals Sunday night.
Consider this: The Warriors’ fifth-best player, and sixth or seventh on some nights, would be Doncic’s No. 1 running mate this series — and he’s a former No. 1 pick who doesn’t have to play like a franchise savior to be effective be.
All Andrew Wiggins has to do is guard Doncic – and occasionally dive in on him. He’s every bit as talented as his pedigree suggests, even if his career hasn’t gone that way.
And he’s a player the Warriors don’t need to have every night. His playoff consistency, 27 with 11 rebounds that night, is taking the Warriors to a new level. One where they not only play in June, but also face off against the winner of the Miami-Boston slugfest and feel comfortable with him against Jayson Tatum or Jimmy Butler.
“Wiggins is a talented player, he’s an all-star,” Kidd said. “And if you look at what they’re asking of him, at a high level.”
The Warriors are a team full of, excuse the expression, grown men. Hardened and even encouraged by championship experience. The Mavericks are still in their infancy by comparison.
“And that was a great lesson that we learned from ourselves,” Kidd said. “This is not the end. That was just the beginning, and I said that in the Phoenix series, if you remember. You have good memories.”
The Warriors have vivid memories of the team they saw in Game 2, the team that played a damn good game for a road team but came away deflated. The emphasis was on winning this game, quelling any remaining confidence and capitalizing on any doubts that have crept up over the last 48 hours.
“You can basically knock out a team tonight,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green, who caught a technical error but sparked a crucial third-quarter run shortly after. “We brought out a certain level of intensity, a level of focus that it takes to get on the road and steal one. We definitely wanted to go all-in anyway.”
It was the 26th straight playoff series with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green that the Warriors won at least one away game, an NBA record. If the Mavericks win a road game that series, it means they avoided elimination in back-to-back games and turned that streak on its head to bring them back to Dallas for a Game 6.
Anything is possible with Doncic, but it’s like asking him to defend Wiggins on the sidelines – expecting it to only end in embarrassing and entertaining replays.
“That was impressive, I don’t want to lie,” said Doncic. “I watched the video again, I thought Oh. That was pretty amazing. I wish I had these bunnies.”
Doncic’s greatness was on display throughout this postseason, his production placing him on these cute basketball ghost visual displays. It suggested that maybe in his fourth year, he could lead the upstarts to an unlikely NBA Finals appearance while beating a championship-winning team.
But that’s not LeBron James in 2007, and it’s no small feat for Doncic. The only distinction this team has is its sideline antics, which have drawn the ire of the NBA’s league bureau with multiple fines.
His showmanship — a shimmy in Curry’s direction after a superpowered triple late in the first quarter — was more artistic and impactful than anything he’d done that night, and this was his third 40-point loss game of the postseason.
He takes on the scoring load, and one wonders how he’ll fare when there’s a talent demanding the ball at all-star fare. Only Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie have the runway to do their own thing, and everyone else has to eat from what Doncic hunts.
“I think there’s a combination, we just didn’t shoot the ball well,” Kidd said. “Look at the three guys scoring, that’s just not enough. Against the Warriors you need guys who play offensively, but we look good.”
Doncic’s nightly shows obscure the flaws in his game, which he needs to improve before becoming Slovenian Harden: outplaying teammates, playing through inevitable frustration and, of course, individual defence.
But staring at Luka on every switch is the greatest shooter of all time, a top 5 shooter of all time, a rising top player… and then the guy who made him a playoff poster for all the wrong reasons, Wiggins.
It’s easy to see why Dallas is infatuated with Wiggins’ former teammate, a high-achiever from Chicago named Zach LaVine, who will be a free agent in July. A player with that athleticism, that one-on-one excellence that brings stretch marks to defense would make you forget about Doncic’s own stretch marks when he’s not playing on defense.
Or a player running through the arena in the aftermath, another potential summer target the Mavericks are familiar with because he played for them a few years ago, Suns center JaVale McGee.
The discrepancy is wide, and the Warriors’ team formation has lasted nearly 10 years.
“Like Draymond, for example. He’s a max player. He’s one of the greatest role players of all time,” said Dinwiddie. “But he’s not a traditional Max guy in his own right, right? You won’t put him on the phone, hey, get 30. Right. They have great team makeup, great chemistry, they’re basically a dynasty.”
The Mavericks have essentially gone as far as their talent will allow, and players who performed over their heads every other night for three weeks caught up with them, with Reggie Bullock winning 0-for-10 (seven missed triples) and Kleber and missed all five of his attempts.
The Clankers totaled 13 to 45 out of three, with well over half of their shots coming from long range.
Changing their style to take fewer threes this late in the game seems pretty silly to ask considering it has served them well in streak wins against arguably their toughest opponents, Utah and Phoenix.
“We can certainly attack the rim. But we’re built the way we’re built,” Dinwiddie said. “You get to the Western Conference Finals and you start missing shots, but you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
The baby is cold and the Warriors just threw another unforgiving cold blanket over it – plans for June are on the horizon and the Mavericks have work to do.