You won’t find five more meaningless words in sports than “I’m not a doctor, but …” They’re an outsider’s hedge against insider knowledge, the justification for decisions based on expertise that shouldn’t be needed. It doesn’t take a doctor to conduct a risk-reward analysis. It doesn’t take a doctor to apply common sense.
And it didn’t take a doctor to see that Luka Doncic was struggling to make it up and down the court in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Game 3 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. The second-year sensation sprained his left ankle late in the third quarter, limped off the court without showing any ability to put weight on the affected foot, and somehow made it back onto the floor less than four minutes of game time later. Predictably, he lasted only around two minutes before shuffling off the floor for the remainder of the night. The pain was too great to play through, which begs the question: Why even try?
The easy answer is that Doncic, and the Mavs, wanted to win the game. A victory would have pushed them up 2-1 in the series, taking them halfway to one of the biggest upsets in NBA history. But that probably wasn’t happening, Luka or not. Dallas trailed Los Angeles by 17 points when Doncic returned to the game, and ESPN’s win probability metric gave the Mavericks only a 1.6 percent chance of winning at that moment.
Even if they’d managed the comeback, they’d still be underdogs in the series. The Clippers have been without starting point guard Patrick Beverley for two games. Montrezl Harrell is still getting back into shape after leaving the bubble. They are only going to get stronger as the series progresses. And taking the Clippers down would hardly position Dallas as championship favorites. They’d likely enter the Western Conference finals and the NBA Finals as heavy underdogs, thanks to their No. 7 seed. The overall stakes here were low. Sitting Doncic only meant punting away a game, a series, and a season they were probably losing anyway.
Playing him offered the meager possibility of an upset that likely wouldn’t have changed the team’s overall trajectory, but created the risk of a further injury that would have torpedoed it. Doncic already had a history of ankle issues (albeit on the right side rather than the left). He is also 21 years old, an MVP candidate and the key to unlocking a decade or more of contention for Dallas. The Mavericks gambled that on a 1.6 percent chance to win the third game of a first-round series.
They can justify that decision because they have doctors. They know Luka’s overall medical picture better than the outsiders who’d prefer to see it protected. But Golden State’s medical staff knew Kevin Durant’s body just as well. How’d that one work out?
Health hasn’t exactly been a guarantee in the bubble. Jumping from five months of rest into the playoffs in a matter of weeks put players in danger. Soft-tissue injuries are typically the result of overtaxing the body. Imagine a scenario in which Doncic, unable to put weight on his left leg, suffered a more debilitating injury by overcompensating on the right. A potential Dallas dynasty could have disappeared over 1.6 percent in the first round.
Maybe the Dallas medical staff decided such a risk was minimal, but the reward was inarguably smaller. This wasn’t Game 7 of the Finals. This was the third in what could be hundreds of playoff games Doncic plays for the Mavericks. No team should ever risk that possibility for such a meager prize. Dallas should know that. Nearly two decades ago, it found itself in a very similar situation.
In Game 3 of the 2003 Western Conference finals, Dirk Nowitzki sprained his knee. He sat out for the rest of the series despite the protests of team owner Mark Cuban. Don Nelson refused to risk Dirk’s future on a single series. Nowitzki wound up playing another 110, largely injury-free playoff games for Dallas, and won the franchise the 2011 championship. He might have swung that 2003 series against San Antonio in Dallas’ favor, but one year is almost never worth a decade. Neither, then, is one game.
And it shouldn’t take a doctor to know that. Whether Doncic insisted on playing, the coaching staff grew overzealous in seeking out an ultimately meaningless win or the organization as a whole decided to take the chance, somebody needed to stand up and remind everyone involved what was on the line by putting him back in the game. It doesn’t take a doctor to know a healthy Luka Doncic is the single-most important thing the Mavericks can take out of their bubble experience. That should have taken nothing more than common sense.