Home FitnessOutdoors Clippers-Mavericks: Luka Doncics free-throw woes have become elephant in room, and Dallas has lost its way – CBS Sports

Clippers-Mavericks: Luka Doncics free-throw woes have become elephant in room, and Dallas has lost its way – CBS Sports


Had you asked the Dallas Mavericks, prior to the start of their first-round series vs. the Clippers, if they’d be happy with a 2-2 tie heading into Game 5, they almost certainly would’ve said yes. On paper, as a lower-seeded team going against a top-tier championship contender, they’re in about as good a spot as one could reasonably expect. But it’s the way they got to this point that stings. 

Dallas was up 2-0 in this series and had a 19-point lead in Game 3. You could feel the Clippers about to snap. All the pressure they were feeling after blowing that 3-1 lead vs. Denver in the bubble, the Paul George critics circling like vultures, Luka Doncic playing out of his mind — to whatever extent momentum matters, the Mavericks had all of it. 

Now here we are, with the Clippers having completely flipped the script, stripping Dallas of its brimming confidence while reclaiming home-court advantage with a 106-81 win on Sunday. Credit the Clippers. The obits on their failed super-team experiment were already being written. Odds on Kawhi Leonard’s next team were being calculated. It was all going to hell. Less resilient squads would’ve been booking vacations two days ago. 

But the Clippers fought back, and now it’s the Mavericks on the ropes. Leonard — who has sunk 38 of his 53 shots (72 percent) over the last three games, including 9 for 15 from 3-point range — is suddenly on a refuse-to-lose crusade. George, who has quietly been really good this whole series, is right there with him. The Clippers have dialed all the way in defensively. 

Meanwhile, Doncic (neck strain) appears strained to hold his head up straight. He grimaced his way to 19 points on Sunday, shanking six of his seven 3-point attempts and all five of his free throws. That latter stat has become an elephant in the room. Doncic, who shot 73 percent from the free-throw line this season and 76 percent last season, is 13 for 32 (40 percent) from the stripe in this series. 

If anyone deserves some slack, it’s Doncic. Again, he’s playing hurt, and his level of responsibility for carrying this Mavericks team is appreciably higher than any other player in these playoffs. He averaged 38 points through the first three games. Shot 46 percent from 3. Made every play the Mavericks needed. 

Still, they need more than this at the free-throw line. If Dallas is lucky, the last two, or possibly three, games in this series are going to be tight, and we’re not talking about a few misses here. Luka cannot hit anything. The free-throw line looks like the last place on earth he wants to be. A pitcher in Yankee Stadium who has lost his control. It’s emblematic of the Mavericks as a whole. Their confidence has been visibly sapped. 

If a cold streak like this could be explained, perhaps you could look to Luka’s 41-percent mark on off-the-dribble jumpers (typically highly contested) against his 36-percent mark on unguarded catch-and-shoots, per Synergy. Something in there might suggest a certain level of discomfort the more time he has to think. More and more, primary ball-handlers prefer to generate their shooting rhythm off the dribble. Thin as it is, it’s the only explanation I can imagine. 

In light of his neck injury, it’s too bad that Doncic’s supposed co-star, Kristaps Porzingis, can’t launch an emergency rescue mission, but that ship has seemingly sailed. Some decent numbers notwithstanding, Porzingis has been a non-factor in this series. I don’t know why Dallas is posting him up so much; he’s about as sturdy in there as a three-legged chair. Defensively, he’s a minus. He doesn’t deter anything at the rim. He struggles to guard the perimeter. He loses guys off the ball for easy cuts. 

Honestly, Porzingis’ place on this Dallas team is another story for another day. There are a lot of factors, his bloated contract chief among them. For now, Dallas just has to hope for one wild-card game from Porzingis. If not for that, Luka is on his own as the sole star provider. 

If Doncic can regain his dominance, he has help. Tim Hardaway Jr. was lights out from beyond the arc in the first three games before going 0 for 4 in Game 4. Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Jalen Brunson, all these guys have hit shots this series. They’ll have to get hot. It’s not over yet. But considering where they were with a 2-0 series lead and a 30-11 Game 3 lead, this sure is starting to feel like a series the Mavericks have let get away from them. 

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