After an entertaining, grueling and pandemic-laden season of basketball, the NBA playoffs begin early Saturday at Texas with an enticing 4 vs. 5 match-up between the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz.
And where will the spotlight point? On Luka Doncic’s left calf.
The health of the Mavericks’ young superstar will loom large over the first-round series.
Doncic strained his calf in the regular season finale against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, and it remains to be seen if he will be in Saturday’s starting lineup. On Thursday, multiple reports indicated that Doncic is expected to miss Game 1, but the Dallas medical staff still had not ruled him out as of Friday afternoon.
Doncic and his 28.4-point, 9.1-rebound and 8.7-assist averages are huge for Dallas (52-30), which leapfrogged Utah (49-33) late in the season to earn homecourt advantage in this series.
Mavericks coach Jason Kidd offered optimism but no firm answers on Doncic during his media session following Thursday’s practice.
“He’s progressing. He’s doing good. Didn’t practice, but is in good spirits, and had a good day,” Kidd said. “He’s smiling, and he’s happy. He’s in good spirits, and it looks like he’s improving.”
The Mavericks went 8-9 during the regular seasons without Doncic. That includes winning five of their most recent six games with him sidelined. Utah defeated a Doncic-less Dallas squad at home on Christmas Day 120-116.
The Jazz, who come into the postseason mostly healthy, are ready for the Mavericks with or without their MVP-level player. They know Dallas will be a challenge either way.
“We prepared for Luka for this whole series and we’ve prepared for what it would look like without him,” Jazz point guard Mike Conley said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to come into the game any less focused than we were had Luka played. It’ll be a dogfight regardless.”
The Jazz won both meetings played at Salt Lake City this season, and the Mavericks were victorious in the two games in Dallas.
The Jazz, who boast the dynamic duo of elite scorer Donovan Mitchell and elite defender Rudy Gobert, are looking to redeem themselves after being eliminated in the second round last postseason by a different team that was without one of its star players. Utah went up 2-0 against the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals, only to be throttled in the next four games after Clippers star Kawhi Leonard was injured.
Utah has not gotten past the second round since 2007, when they advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost 4-1 to San Antonio. There have been reports of potential personnel changes ahead if the team doesn’t have a successful postseason run this spring.
“We’ve got to prove it, we’ve got to earn it,” Gobert said. “I don’t blame people for overlooking us until we accomplish something.”
The Mavericks haven’t gotten beyond even the first round since Dirk Nowitzki led them to the 2011 NBA championship. Dallas has been eliminated in the first round the past two years by the Clippers — after a three-year postseason drought.
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