Two years after Doc Rivers became an NBA coach in 1999, a former Boston Celtics guard Rivers had played against in the 1980s was given his first command.
In their two decades on the sideline since, Rivers and Rick Carlisle have gone from among the NBA’s youngest head coaches to two of its most established. Rivers’ voice has grown raspy, Carlisle’s mop of brown hair disappeared, and each man won a championship. Their careers have not necessarily been intertwined, but each has a deep familiarity with the other.
In Detroit, Indiana and Dallas, Carlisle’s philosophies have proven malleable to his available talent, Rivers said. That meant tailoring everything around Dirk Nowitzki during Carlisle's first 10 years in Dallas. And for the last two, it has meant maximizing the wunderkind talent of 6-foot-7 Luka Doncic, the initiator of an offense that has scored 115.9 points per 100 possessions and set an NBA record for efficiency.
By the time Doncic turned 21 in February, he’d already recorded 21 triple-doubles — more than Magic Johnson (seven) and LeBron James (five) combined at the same age — to tie Jason Kidd’s Dallas record in more than 300 fewer games.
Doncic now has 25 triple-doubles, including a 36-point, 19-assist, 14-rebound performance one week ago against Milwaukee that Doncic sealed with a between-the-legs assist to a cutting Maxi Kleber for a dunk.
“He has the passing of Jason Kidd, but has the scoring ability of Larry Bird,” Rivers said. “That's what makes him such a difficult cover. ”
But if few players compare to Doncic, few opponents have covered him as well as the Clippers, whose first-round postseason series against seventh-seeded Dallas begins Monday.
In three losses to the Clippers this season, the Slovenian guard has averaged 29.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists but shot 27% on three-pointers and turned the ball over five times per game against physical, long-armed defenders. After a November defeat in which he missed all eight of his three-pointers and was harassed by Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, Doncic was frustrated enough to leave the arena in Dallas without speaking to reporters.
“We've got to play defense to win games, can't just let guys score every possession down the court,” Leonard said. “So I guess it's just a collective mindset of wanting to win.”
Even with Kristaps Porzingis relieving pressure on Doncic — the 7-3 center scored 30 points with five assists against the Clippers on Aug. 6 — the Mavericks’ offense has dipped to 106 points per 100 possessions when facing L.A. Generating a more consistent attack has led Carlisle to consider playing Doncic — who has used the third-highest percentage of possessions in the NBA this season — away from the ball.
“We just have to sometimes initiate with other people and keep the game flowing,” Carlisle said. “And sometimes you get a great player like Luka, even when they don’t have the ball they can have a great impact on the game with off-ball screening and cutting.”
The series marks Doncic’s NBA postseason debut, but he is already playoff-tested. At only 19, he was named the most valuable player of EuroLeague, widely regarded as the world’s second-best league, after leading Real Madrid to the 2018 championship. It was from experience, then, that he said he was prepared to play through more physical defenses and fewer called fouls.
“They’re going to be talking but they have Patrick Beverley and then they have Paul George and Kawhi, which are amazing defenders too,” Doncic said. “They have [center Ivica] Zubac, which is I think very underrated inside defender too, and it’s going to be tough.”
Doncic’s praise for Zubac echoed the Clippers’ own for their 23-year-old 7-footer, whose presence will be a key factor not only because of his success against the Mavericks but also because of how he will be used.
Zubac has averaged more points (13.7) against Dallas than any other opponent this season, in addition to 10.3 rebounds. Among all centers who have played at least 30 minutes against the Mavericks this season, Zubac’s defensive rating of 98 ranks third, behind only All-Stars Anthony Davis of the Lakers and Joel Embiid of Philadelphia.
“He’s catching everything that's thrown his way,” said teammate JaMychal Green, who usurped Zubac’s starting role during the playoffs last year. “He's finishing with his right and left hook. He's unstoppable right now, and we're going to need him to continue to play that way .”
Backup center Montrezl Harrell is expected to clear quarantine Monday in time to participate in his first game of the NBA restart. Harrell has played the majority of the team’s fourth-quarter minutes at center, but his role could be different in the early games of the series as he regains his conditioning after spending the last month away from the team.
“It's amazing the confidence that our other guys have in Zu compared to this time last year ,” Rivers said.
Yet in their point guard prodigy, and Carlisle’s experience, the Mavericks trust too.
"They are one of the top defensive teams, if not the best defensive team out there," Dallas guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "... It’s going to be a long fight. But you know, I’m taking my offense and our team over anybody.”
When: 6 p.m. PST, Monday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket, ESPN; Radio: 570, 1330
Update: The Clippers listed Beverley (left calf strain), Landry Shamet (left foot strain) and Harrell as questionable to play in Game 1. Harrell is expected to clear a seven-day quarantine Monday morning. If Beverley cannot play, Reggie Jackson is likely to start in his place at point guard. Jackson has averaged 9.5 points and 3.2 assists since joining the team in late February.