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Luka Doncic and the Mavs show growth, live down Game 4 collapse

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A lot of growth transpired Wednesday night in Oklahoma City. For the home-team Thunder, it was growing pains. For the Dallas Mavericks, it was growing up — and together.

Led by Luka Doncic, who adopted a strikingly more mature approach to the referees and magnanimous attitude toward his teammates, the Mavericks were even-keeled in every way as they secured a 104-92 win for a 3-2 best-of-seven lead in the Western Conference semifinals. Game 6, and the opportunity to punch their ticket to a second Western Conference finals in three years, is Saturday in Dallas.

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The Thunder, making their first appearance in the playoffs in four years, and having swept New Orleans 4-0 in the first round, looked like a group playing in its first pivotal Game 5 of a playoff series. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the most seasoned postseason performer they have, was the exception, providing 30 points and eight assists. He would have had more of the latter had his less experienced teammates knocked down the open shots he created for them. SGA made 12 of his 22 shots (54.5%) and two of his four 3-pointers (50%), while the rest of the Thunder shot 25-for-65 (38%) overall and 8-for-36 on 3-pointers (22%). 

“We got a lot of good looks,” Gilgeous-Alexander said diplomatically. “They just didn’t go in.”

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The poise by Doncic in particular, and the Mavs in general, was markedly different from Game 4 on Monday. Doncic spent nearly that entire night giving the officials disgusted looks or dismissive waves after every call and non-call, clearly unhappy with their performance. The referees did not respond in kind even though they could have, Doncic having more turnovers (7) than made shots (6) and missing a crucial free throw in the final seconds that sealed a comeback win for OKC.  

“Intentional, 100 percent,” said Doncic about his more respectful demeanor toward the referees in Game 5. “To just focus on basketball. To remember the thing I love — to play basketball. Have fun. The old Luka.” Not only did he refrain from complaining, when called for a foul he raised his hand to acknowledge it, and several times during a stop in play, he engaged the referees in amiable conversation, ending it with a pat on the arm or back.

“As soon as we see Ky and Luka locked in, we want to lock in that much more,” said rookie center Dereck Lively. A 50.6% free-throw shooter, the Thunder intentionally fouled him down the stretch in hopes of stalling the Dallas offense and staging another comeback. But the strategy failed, as Lively stepped to the line and calmly made five of his six attempts.

“We’re just trying to be the best team we can possibly be,” he said.

How Luka Dončić ‘screams selfish’ after Game 4 struggles

Doncic finished with a triple-double — 31 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists — but the win was far from a one-man production. Five Mavs scored in double figures, eight registered at least one assist, three had double-digit rebounds (Doncic, Lively and PJ Washington), five had at least one steal and five had at least one blocked shot.

“The energy was at a high and being unselfish was at a high, too,” said head coach Jason Kidd. “Everyone did their part as a team.”

The difference from Game 4: they did it from start to finish. As in Game 4, they grabbed the lead in the early minutes Wednesday night. But whereas Doncic’s inefficiency in Game 4 kept the Thunder within striking distance and then allowed them to pull ahead in the final minutes for a 100-96 lead, his sharp execution in Game 5 prevented the Thunder from gaining any momentum, and it kept the Dallas’ lead in double digits for most of the game; OKC never got closer than seven in the second half.

Doncic, whose defense is his biggest liability, even blocked a Gilgeous-Alexander driving layup in the final minute. 

“Next year, NBA All-Defensive team,” Doncic joked, smiling.

Now that would be some growth. 

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a weekly podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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