Amick: Luka Dončić seeking a career first, Jazz suffering identity crisis and other playoff musings

Amick: Luka Dončić seeking a career first, Jazz suffering identity crisis and other playoff musings

Luka Dončić is on the verge of winning a first-round playoff series for the first time.

Given the well-deserved magnitude of the 23-year-old Dallas Mavericks star’s reputation, that’s such an odd declaration to make for newsworthiness purposes. Yet despite all he’s done, from the three All-Star appearances to the two first-team All-NBA selections and a career stat line from his four regular seasons that is just bonkers (26.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and eight assists per game), Dončić has yet to make any kind of playoff run in his illustrious young career.

There was the 33-49 rookie campaign in which the Mavs fell short of the postseason, the six-game bubble loss to the Clippers in his second season and the seven-game loss to the Clippers last season in which his Game 7 performance — 46 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds — left little room for him to be considered the fall guy. Still, while Trae Young was leading Atlanta to the Eastern Conference finals last season and changing the not-as-good-as-Luka-narrative around him at Dončić’s expense, the slow start to his playoff career remained.

But by the looks of the Utah Jazz’s broken spirit in Dallas’ 102-77 win in Game 5 on Monday that gave the Mavs the 3-2 series lead, this superstar oddity is about to change. And no, for those wondering, there won’t be any sort of asterisk by this series just because Dončić missed the first three games with a calf strain. His last two games were reminder enough that he’s as special as they come among today’s young stars.

Game 4: 30 points (11-of-21 shooting), 10 rebounds, four assists and a plus-7 mark that somehow wasn’t enough in Utah’s 100-99 win.

Game 5: 33 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, a plus-33 rating and this nasty 3 over Bojan Bogdanović midway through the third quarter that pushed the lead to 28 and inspired a Steph Curry-esque sort of shoulder shimmy from Luka.

Here’s the funny part about Dončić’s lackluster playoff resume: It’s not as if there was anything for him to be ashamed of here. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Even before Monday night’s game, he had averaged 33.3 points, 9.1 assists and 8.9 rebounds in his 14 playoff games and thus, statistically speaking, was the best postseason performer of all time! No, not really. But it’s still impressive.

In terms of an individual player’s postseason history, no one has ever come anywhere close to averaging those kinds of numbers. According to Stathead.com, LeBron James — with his all-time high of 266 playoff games and an incredible series record of 39-11 — comes closest to the Dončić marks with averages of 28.7 points, nine rebounds and 7.2 assists.

Barring a revival of this Jazz mojo that made a rare appearance in Game 4, Dončić and his Mavs are about to finally be on their merry playoff way against the winner of the riveting Phoenix-New Orleans series.

All that (awful) Jazz

Talk about an identity crisis.

One minute, Jazz center Rudy Gobert is talking about how his team’s Game 4 win is a sign that this was the “team we want to be.” And the next, with their uncertain offseason looming so large yet again as this Jazz era teeters on the brink, they turn in the kind of embarrassing effort that makes it virtually impossible to see them surviving this series.

Along the way, a troubling trend continued: Donovan Mitchell just can’t seem to play well on a consistent basis lately. Considering the stakes here, with all signs pointing to second-year Jazz owner Ryan Smith prioritizing Mitchell above all else when it comes to his organization’s future, this is … less than ideal.

After Mitchell’s 4-of-15 outing in Game 5 in which he missed all seven of his 3-pointers, he’s shooting just 37.1 percent for the series from the field and 19.2 percent from beyond the arc (on 8.2 attempts per). Overall, he’s averaging 26 points, five assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.2 turnovers. And remember, this all comes after a second-half regular-season stretch in which Mitchell’s fourth-quarter struggles were a major issue as Utah developed that brutal habit of blowing late leads.

For those who weren’t watching, Mitchell suffered a left hamstring injury late against Dallas but insisted afterward that he’d “be fine” for Game 6 in Utah on Thursday. He’ll need to be even better than that if they have any hope here.

Here’s to the Pels…

No matter what happens next, these New Orleans Pelicans have laid the kind of foundation that should serve them very well in the years to come. Especially if Zion Williamson starts wearing that Pels jersey again at some point.

Brandon Ingram has been elite in his first playoffs, against the league’s most dominant regular-season team in Phoenix, averaging 29.8 points (fourth among all players), 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists. CJ McCollum just keeps making Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin look smart for bringing him to town at the trade deadline — no small feat considering how brutal the first half of New Orleans’ season had gone. And Jonas Valančiūnas, whose slicked-back hair keeps reminding me to catch up on HBO’s “Winning Time” because of the Pat Riley likeness, picked a great time to have the best playoff game of his life by finishing with 26 points, 15 rebounds and four assists in New Orleans’ Game 4 win over the Suns on Sunday.

Raise your hand if you had this series tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 tonight in Phoenix. Now stop lying.

The Devin Booker absence (hamstring) is certainly massive for the Suns, but they spent the entire regular season winning games with key players out. This daunting challenge goes much deeper than that.

As our talented Pelicans beat writer, Will Guillory, discussed in his Game 4 breakdown, Chris Paul looked flustered in ways we almost never see against this Pelicans defense. The eight-second violation Jose Alvarado forced proved that as much as any other play, but it was Paul’s pummeling of Herb Jones’ head just a few minutes later on his mid-fourth quarter drive that seemed to expose the level of his frustration.

And how about Jones’ unspoken message of discontent shortly thereafter, when Paul tried to help him up off the floor and the 23-year-old rookie wasn’t having it.

If you haven’t been watching to this point, Jones’ defense is worth your time all on its own. The draft will always be the land of woulda-coulda picks, but it’s still staggering to think the Alabama product was taken 35th overall after winning the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards as a senior last season.

Last but nowhere close to least, first-year Pelicans coach Willie Green deserves all sorts of credit for pushing this group through a 3-16 start that left it looking doomed before the turnaround began. The fact that he’s facing his close friend and mentor, the Suns’ Monty Williams, adds another human layer to the matchup that has been another highlight (our Jason Quick wrote a great piece on that relationship here).

You won’t hear any complaints from me if this series goes seven.

A Boston Beatdown

Speaking of special young stars, I left a fascinating Jayson Tatum note out of my Saturday story discussing Boston’s dynamic defense against Kevin Durant. According to one of the rival scouts with whom I spoke, his team’s defensive analytics of opposing players indicate that Tatum is the best defender on this Celtics squad that is chock full of them.

That means two things — one obvious and the other not so much…

  1. Tatum graded out even better than recently named Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart … or big man Robert Williams … or Jaylen Brown … or Grant Williams. You get the idea.
  2. I’m vindicated(ish) in my own home, as my youngest son’s classmate recently learned I didn’t have Smart in my top three for DPOY and took great exception to this. I voted Jaren Jackson Jr. first, Mikal Bridges second and Gobert third.

After finishing the sweep of Brooklyn on Monday night, Boston will now wait to face the winner of the Bucks-Bulls series. But that didn’t keep Smart from reminding the masses that the Celtics — in stark contrast to Milwaukee — made the bold decision to keep winning games at the end of the regular season even if it meant they faced the Durant-Kyrie Irving-led Nets in the first round.

“It’s funny to us, because we don’t duck or dodge nobody,” Smart told reporters after the 116-112 closeout win in Brooklyn. “That’s part of the game. We were going to have to play them eventually, so you might as well get it out the way now.”

Did they ever. If only Irving and these Nets could have figured out why they didn’t have time to jell during the regular season (insert facepalm emoji here).


(Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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