Phil Jackson, apparently back in power in LA, reportedly whispers in the ear of his old flame that it’s time to break up the band. Joel Embiid laments how James Harden ain’t what he used to be. And, even as you’re reading this, surely Kevin Durant plots his escape from Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, the Mavs — who more closely resemble their history-making title team with each passing win — once again provide a blue-collar alternative to the superteam model.
No matter what happens in Sunday’s Game 7, the Mavs have already bamboozled NBA cognoscenti, not to mention Phoenix fans still hoarse from screaming “Suns in four!” only a few days ago.
Basically, the Mavs’ success has suggested, maybe you really don’t need three stars to win a title.
Maybe you don’t even need two.
Like the 2010-11 Mavs starring Dirk Nowitzki, backed by a different co-star almost every night, Luka Doncic’s teammates also rotate around their solar nexus. Any given game, the better part of the offensive help might come from Jalen Brunson or Dorian Finney-Smith or Reggie Bullock or Maxi Kleber. Even Davis Bertans, for crying out loud. And, like the ’11 Mavs, they rely on defense every night.
The title team and the one still chasing glory at this late date don’t have a lot else in common. For instance, these Mavs could use Tyson Chandler around the rim and to grab a rebound or 10. But it’s safe to say both teams were/are greater than the sum of their parts.
The characterization was, in fact, the motivation for breaking up the champs even before the echoes of Dirk’s Freddie Mercury imitation had died out in Uptown.
Should their exhilarating journey end Sunday at Footprint Center or run through mid-June, the Mavs’ efforts won’t be characterized this time as “lightning in a bottle,” as a team executive put it 10 years ago.
The Mavs certainly seem to be onto something that might not just endure here in Dallas; it could change the way teams build rosters going forward. Because let’s face it: The Mavs aren’t as talented as the Suns. They weren’t as talented as the Jazz.
And yet here they are, on the verge of the postseason’s biggest upset after going down 0-2.
The Mavs provided a blueprint on beating Phoenix, just as they did vs. Utah: get in the paint quickly; rain 3s; wear down Chris Paul; and slow Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Since that embarrassing 129-109 loss in Game 2, when the Suns shot an astounding 64.5% from the field, the Mavs have held Phoenix to 44.7%, 46.4%, 49.4% and 39.7%. No small accomplishment, either. The Suns owned the league’s best offense, one that’s sustainable because it’s based on reliable mid-range shots from one of the league’s best scorers and a point god.
But, since Game 2, the Mavs have pretty much lived rent-free in Paul’s head. The look on his face of him in the waning moments of Game 6 said it all. He looked like someone thinking maybe a title just isn’t in the cards.
The progression of Mavs revelations in these playoffs — from Brunson to Finney-Smith to Bullock — has been startling. Frankly, I’m not even sure how I’d rank them. But, after the way Bullock bottled up Paul, then flummoxed Booker in Game 6it’s clear who’s running the jail.
Then again, everyone has bought into Sean Sweeney’s defense. Even Luka, who, for all his brilliance, remains a work in progress.
Occasionally in this series, especially in the losses, Luka has forgotten the formula and reverted to the sort of ball-dominance that led Donnie Nelson to say, after last year’s elimination by the Clippers, that the wunderkind needed to work on including his teammates in the fun. You could say the criticism didn’t go over big with the masses. What Luka needed, so the consensus went, was help, not a lecture.
Like him or not, and I like him more than most, Donnie was correct. Unlike the former administration, though, this one got its point across with Luka. Quietly, subtly, Jason Kidd has tutored his superstar in the art of playing point guard.
Kidd hinted at the process after Game 6 when he referred to Luka’s “maturity,” implying growth.
Before some of you that have written me about Luka’s usage rate can get to your emails, let me remind you that he’s still just 23. When Dirk was 23, the Mavs lost in the conference finals. Even so, as great as Dirk was, the Mavs’ sudden rise didn’t keep critics from suggesting the Mavs would never win a title as long as he was their best player. The complaints raged pretty much right up until the Mavs took the Heat in six.
Of course, Dirk was a far different player at 32 than he was at 23. He was tougher, at least mentally. He also accepted what his role demanded of him as the Mavs built a team around him.
Luka’s personality is the polar opposite of Dirk’s. He loves the big stage. He loves his part of him in the play. But it doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t improve. Doesn’t mean he can’t grow, as Dirk did.
As it turned out, Dirk didn’t need a co-star to win a title. The Mavs are leaning in the same direction now. Doesn’t mean they can’t improve their personnel. Could they use a better center? Sure. Give me Bobby Portis or Mitchell Robinson or even Isaiah Hartenstein. But do they need another superstar or two? The moral this season is that it might be overkill, if not downright passe.