DALLAS (AP) — Asked about the decade without a playoff series victory since coaching the Dallas Mavericks to their only championship, Rick Carlisle quickly mentioned the rebuilding phase that accompanied the drought.
When a similar question came up a day later, the Dallas coach showed he might be ready to quit answering them.
“I keep getting asked about is there pressure to advance, hell yeah there’s pressure to advance!” Carlisle said, his voice rising. “But we’re a championship organization. We’re not just looking to advance one round in the playoffs.”
Luka Doncic and the Mavericks will seek the franchise’s elusive series victory starting Saturday at the Los Angeles Clippers in a first-round rematch from the Florida bubble last year, when Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and company won in six games.
Dirk Nowitzki, Doncic’s predecessor as the Euro superstar in Dallas, led a six-game series victory over Miami’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the 2011 NBA Finals. Nobody could have imagined the franchise would go this long without at least returning to the second round.
First, owner Mark Cuban changed the makeup of the title-winning team significantly in the name of salary cap flexibility after the 2011 lockout. Three years later, a trade with Boston for Rajon Rondo blew up on the Mavericks.
It took a year, but the ill-fated Rondo deal triggered the rebuild. Dallas missed the playoffs three straight seasons after qualifying 15 of the previous 16. Hopes brightened after the Mavericks traded up two spots to get Doncic in the 2018 draft.
Dallas missed the playoffs with the 2019 Rookie of the Year, but his dazzling Game 4 buzzer-beater against the Clippers last August was the most tangible sign that playoff success might be near.
Now comes the rematch, with the fifth-seeded Mavericks as underdogs again.
“It helps carry that momentum moving forward, not only in that playoffs,” said Tim Hardaway Jr., one of four players on the roster to play for a team that won a playoff series. “If you end up losing, carries that momentum into next season, knowing that your guys have expectations to move forward and be better.”
If Doncic can get Dallas past the Clippers this time, he will match Nowitzki by getting his first playoff series victory in his third season. The comparisons will only grow from there.
Nowitzki’s postseason debut with a first-round win over Utah in 2001 was the first of 12 straight playoff trips. Two years later, Dallas lost to San Antonio in the Western Conference finals before going the distance in 2006, losing in six games to Wade and the Heat.
“When you’re part of an organization like the Dallas Mavericks and there’s a game scheduled, there’s pressure to win that game,” said Carlisle, in his 13th season with Dallas. “When you come to work for this organization and you work for Mark Cuban, you’ve got to be somebody that loves pressure.”
Dallas hasn’t had home-court advantage in the first round since winning the title. This year’s seeding is the highest since the Mavericks were third in 2011. They’ve had five first-round losses: 2012, 2014-16 and last year.
The Mavericks missed out on the home court this season after a 9-14 start that included a COVID-19 outbreak sidelining four players at the same time.
By the time Dallas finally found momentum, the gap behind the top four in the West was too wide. The Mavericks finished five games behind the Clippers and Denver, which got the third seed on a tiebreaker.
“Regardless of what happened in the past, just to be able to battle through some of the adversity we’ve had and the adversity we all shared collectively as a league, it’s huge for us to be in the position we are now,” Dwight Powell said. “It’s doubly important for us to show up and compete at the highest possible level.”
Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, his European sidekick, made their playoff debuts together last year. Porzingis missed the final three games of the series with a right knee injury sustained in the opener.
If they’re going to build something similar to what Nowitzki started 20 years ago, beating the Clippers would be a solid foundation.
“That would be huge step forward for us, especially against an experienced team like the Clippers,” Porzingis said. “We have the tools. We just don’t have the experience yet. It’s good that we had that first taste of defeat last season and we’re looking forward to taking a step forward.”
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