DALLAS — After a second-quarter stoppage in play, Luka Doncic of the Mavericks rose from one leg and tossed up a meaningless shot from beyond the 3-point line whose sole purpose seemed to be to entertain Doncic himself. It was a skyscraper, the ball hurtling toward the rafters before plummeting to Earth. It took one hard bounce off the court and then rattled through the hoop.
As they waded into Tuesday’s playoff game against the Golden State Warriors, the Mavericks had to be wondering whether they could make shots with any consistency. Their season depended on it.
While Doncic’s circus shot didn’t count, the degree of difficulty was outrageous. (Welcome to Luka’s World.) The crowd roared. And for a team on the ropes, it was a sign of good things to come.
A major comeback can only begin with a modest first step, and Dallas is banking on the hope — however remote — that its 119-109 win over Golden State on Tuesday night in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals is a building block for a miracle.
“We’re going to believe until the end,” said Doncic, who made several more conventional shots as the game moved along, finishing with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 9 assists. “We got more to do, you know. This is nothing.”
You may have heard this before, but no team has overcome a three-games-to-none deficit in N.B.A. history. After avoiding elimination, Dallas, which now trails in the series, 3-1, wants to become the first. Game 5 is on Thursday in San Francisco.
“We want to do something special,” the Mavericks’ Dorian Finney-Smith said. “It’s going to be very hard, but we can do it. We just got to stick together.”
If nothing else, Tuesday’s win was a credit to the Mavericks and their resilient young core. They could have folded up for the season after polluting Game 3 with a buffet of ugly jump shots. In the loss, they went 13 of 45 from 3-point range. Reggie Bullock missed all 10 of his field-goal attempts.
On Tuesday, the Mavericks shot 20 of 43 from 3-point range, assisted on 30 of their 41 field goals and unboxed a new-and-improved version of Bullock, who made 6 of his 10 3-point attempts.
“It was almost like an ego win,” Golden State’s Stephen Curry said, referring to the Mavericks. “You come out and you really have nothing to lose, so that confidence started early. We didn’t really do nothing to slow it down, and that’s when the avalanche starts. So it’s a good lesson learned. You tip your hat to them because they made a lot of shots.”
After scuffling through a couple of injury-marred, playoff-free seasons, Golden State remains one win from its first conference championship since 2019. But throughout the postseason, the team has faltered — at least momentarily — when it has come to eliminating its opponents.
In the first round, the Denver Nuggets avoided a sweep by defeating Golden State in Game 4. In the conference semifinals, the Memphis Grizzlies prolonged their series with a 39-point win. For both the Nuggets and the Grizzlies, the reprieve was temporary: Golden State closed out each series in the subsequent game.
The Mavericks present a different type of challenge. For long stretches of Tuesday’s game, Golden State went to a zone defense, which Dallas Coach Jason Kidd took as a compliment.
“Because they can’t play us one-on-one,” he said.
It was an odd game, both somber and then celebratory in its own muted way. It was played hours after at least 19 children and two adults were killed by a gunman at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, about 350 miles southwest of Dallas. At his pregame news conference, Golden State Coach Steve Kerr made an emotional plea for gun control legislation, while Kidd declined to answer questions about basketball.
“We’re going to try to play the game,” Kidd said. “We have no choice.”
Afterward, Kerr struggled to put the night into any sort of palatable context.
“It’s too much to fathom, too much to comprehend,” he said. “We move on and we hope that someone actually decides to value our citizens’ lives more than they value money and power.”
On a rainy evening, the start of the second half was delayed by leaks in the roof. By then, the Mavericks had a 15-point lead and were looking to build their momentum.
It was not going to be easy: Golden State has a well-deserved reputation for pulverizing teams coming out of halftime. In fact, through the first three games of the series, the Warriors had outscored the Mavericks by a total of 31 points in the third quarter. Kidd was not overly concerned.
“This group doesn’t let anything faze them,” he said.
Sure enough, Dallas shot 8 of 13 from 3-point range in the third quarter to extend its lead to 29. Golden State made a late run with its reserves, but fell short.
It is an obvious observation, but Doncic cannot do it alone — not against Golden State. He certainly tried to do his part in Game 2, when he scored 42, and in Game 3, when he scored 40. The Mavericks lost both.
On Tuesday, he got help from lesser lights like Bullock and Finney-Smith, and even from Maxi Kleber, who came off the bench to snap his series-long nightmare by shooting 5 of 6 from the field.
“If they make shots,” Doncic said, “I think it’s tough to beat us.”
The Mavericks just need to do more of the same three more times. No circus shots required.