Rare Doncic Absence Allows 2 Mavericks Guards to Seize the Moment

Frank Ntilikina

Getty Frank Ntilikina, Dallas Mavericks

Last season, despite registering the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA, Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic missed only six games.

What’s more, according to NBA.com, of 2020-21’s top 12 scorers by average — of which Doncic was sixth (27.7) — the point guard’s 66 appearances put him second behind Portland’s Damian Lillard, who played in one more game. All told, over his first three seasons, Doncic did not take the floor just 30 times.

But while Doncic’s usage, durability and unwillingness to take nights off are impressive, particularly in an age when teams are inclined to periodically rest their stars, his good attendance record means the Mavs rarely get the chance to see how they’d perform without him.

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Like it or not, a month into the new season, they are getting that chance. Doncic sprained his left knee and ankle in the waning moments of Dallas’ Monday night victory over the Nuggets, and though the team was quick to describe the injury as not serious and reports indicate he could play as early as Friday, Doncic was in street clothes for Wednesday night’s matchup with the Phoenix Suns, a 105-98 defeat that the Mavericks led for much of the way and was tied with 2:42 remaining in the fourth.

“It was weird also playing without Luka,” said big man Kristaps Porzingis (21 points on 7-for-20) after telling reporters he and the team could have played a lot better. “He’s normally orchestrating all the offense, and now we’re kind of out there looking at each other like what are we going to run?”

But as discombobulated as they may have been at times, Dallas’ strong showing sans Luka was undoubtedly encouraging, particularly at the guard position off the bench.

Trey Burke

Prior to Wednesday night, eighth-year guard Trey Burke had seen time in only four games this season. Burke had been a DNP or Inactive in seven of the previous eight games, and, in the one outlier, he played just a little under two minutes.

Against Phoenix, though, Burke logged 15 minutes and staked a claim for more time going forward (particularly if Doncic continues to sit) scoring 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting and connecting on both his 3-point attempts.

Burke has had an up and down ride with the Mavericks over the past couple years. Signed by Dallas to a substitution contract in July of 2020 — just six months after being cut by Philadelphia prior to the COVID-19 stoppage — Burke’s was electric in the Orlando bubble, playing real minutes in each of the Mavericks’ six playoff games, and he was rewarded with a three-year, $9.7 million contract from Dallas in December.

However, Burke’s inconsistent shooting last season eventually put him out of favor with then head coach Rick Carlisle, resulting in next to no exposure during the Mavericks first-round playoff loss to the Clippers (the same team Burke had lit up in Orlando). Then, this summer, Burke raised the ire of owner Mark Cuban with his continued refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine, leading to some speculation that the 29-year-old would be cut before the season, despite his guaranteed money.

Obviously, Burke was not waived but he has yet to return to his bubble usage. It remains to be seen if he earned himself more run with his performance against the Suns, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Frank Ntilikina

6-foot-4 guard Frank Ntikilina also did much with the extra playing time he was afforded with Doncic being out Wednesday. Since arriving in Dallas this offseason, after four years with the Knicks, the eighth overall pick of 2017 (by way of France) has played in all but one of the Mavericks games this season. But Ntilikina’s minutes have been erratic nonetheless, and his 18 minutes against the Suns were the most he’s seen in two weeks.

Ntilikina went 5-for-8 from the floor, including a perfect 3-for-3 from long distance. His 13 points were a season high and he also chipped in three rebounds.

Though valued far more for his perimeter defense than anything he’s ever shown offensively, over the last three games Ntilikina is 6-for-8 from three and could be giving hope to the notion that he can become for Dallas what Alex Caruso is for the Chicago Bulls — a defensive juggernaut who can at least hold serve on offense, if not a be reliable perimeter asset.

Ntilikina still needs to improve his playmaking — just 1.2 assists per game so far — but he takes care of the ball and brings a ton of energy to the court.

Head coach Jason Kidd didn’t heap praise on Burke or Ntilikina specifically in his postgame comments Wednesday, and it’s unlikely that one game will quiet the din around the Mavericks upgrading their bench backcourt with a trade. But it’s not hard to imagine that Kidd had those guys in mind, at least in part, when discussing Dallas’ effort and competitiveness.

“If Luka was in, we don’t know what position we would have been in,” Kidd said, referring to a few missed opportunities in the final minutes. “But the guys who played, they played their heart out. And we just came up short.

“And I think it’s a great lesson. Because Luka could be in foul trouble, or Luka isn’t playing due to an injury. It hopefully gives these guys confidence that they can compete at the highest level.”

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