‘One of the toughest players I’ve ever seen’

LOS ANGELES — Instead of wincing, Luka Doncic smiled.

The Dallas Mavericks star had labored through neck and shoulder pain in the past week. But as he kept making shot after shot, Doncic frequently flashed a smile as he became a pain in the neck for the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Mavs finished with a 105-100 Game 5 win over the Clippers on Wednesday at Staples Center, which gave Dallas a 3-2 series lead and renewed confidence it could close out its first-round series primarily for one reason. Doncic provided another memorable performance to add to his postseason résumé that grows by the game. By finishing with 42 points on 17-of-37 shooting from the field and 6-of-12 from 3-point range along with 14 assists, Doncic nearly topped the playoff career-high 45 points he posted less than a week ago in Game 3.

“Luka Doncic is one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen and have ever been around,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s just a warrior-type guy that happens to be one of the very best players in the world.”

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Incidentally, Doncic reported feeling pain in his neck and shoulders during the Mavs’ Game 3 loss last Friday. Though that did significantly impact his play then, Doncic admitted the injuries limited his effectiveness in Game 4 on Sunday. So for the next two days, Doncic said he spent most of his time either resting, receiving massages or icing his body. By the time the Mavericks began Game 5, Doncic said he “was feeling way better.”

Doncic sure looked better, too.

He set a career-high for most first-quarter points (19 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field and 5-of-6 from 3-point range). He became just the second player in NBA history, along with LeBron James, to have at least 42 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds in a playoff game. And he became the first NBA player in the past 25 postseasons to have at least 40 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds through three quarters.

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“I guess his neck collar feels great now,” Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. quipped. “That’s our guy. We’ll do whatever we can to back him up in any situation and any given moment. With the performance he had today, it would’ve sucked if we didn’t come out with a victory.”

If the Mavericks didn’t come out with a win, Doncic would have blamed himself. He did anyway despite playing a large factor in offsetting the Clippers’ depth that included Paul George (23 points), Kawhi Leonard (20), Reggie Jackson (20), Marcus Morris Sr. (16) and Nicolas Batum (10). The Mavericks also survived because Leonard air-balled a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left.

Doncic criticized his high volume shooting (37 shots) and his fourth-quarter performance (two points on 1-of-8 shooting). But the Mavericks are well aware of their predicament. Their fortunes rest on how well Doncic plays. But as much as he has carried the Mavericks, Doncic’s presence alone helps elevate his teammates around him. As Carlisle said, “everyone that went into the game tonight did something important.”

Doncic singled out clutch shots from Hardaway Jr. (20 points) and Kristaps Porzingis (nine) in crunch time. He praised Dorian Finney-Smith (eight points). And he touted how Carlisle’s decision to start Boban Marjanovic gave the Mavericks a noticeable size advantage.

“I could’ve played way better. I missed a lot of shots and some layups I should’ve made,” Doncic said. “But it wasn’t just me, it was this whole team and this whole energy.”

Luka Doncic winces after falling on his left arm during the first half.

Still, Carlisle remains mindful of Doncic’s value. He sat Doncic to open the fourth quarter in hopes that Dallas could maintain its 89-75 lead. During that time, Doncic stood nervously on the end baseline in sweats while biting his fingernails. Once the Clippers trimmed the Mavericks’ lead to 91-80 with 9:41 left, Carlisle motioned for Doncic to check into the game. He then played the rest of the game and logged 43 minutes.

“I just saw him calling me,” Doncic said. “I was ready anytime.”

Doncic wasn’t lying.

“It was my decision to put him back in,” Carlisle said. “He was not asking back in, but he always wants to play. You know that. We have to watch this thing very closely.”

Carlisle justified the decision for a few reasons. A nationally televised playoff game has longer TV timeouts (three minutes, 30 seconds) than in regular-season telecasts (three minutes, 15 seconds), which Carlisle argued is still significant. Carlisle noted the multiple replay reviews that he considered the equivalent “extra timeouts.” And Carlisle remains well aware that the Mavericks’ fortunes rest on their star player.

“He’s the engine that drives our offense,” Carlisle said. “That’s no secret there. But this is a responsibility that he covets. I believe he views it as a privilege. The challenge is to manage the minutes and try to make sure we can keep him fresh and do everything possible to lighten the load when we can.”

That time will come another day. Instead, Doncic cemented another memorable playoff performance, while showing he can fight both through mistakes and ailments to keep the Mavericks’ season alive.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mavericks’ Luka Doncic shines vs. Clippers despite injuries

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