After such a long and bewildering layoff, I had become so sports starved that if someone had simply decided to trot out caffeinated gerbils in tiny domestic rodent-sized jerseys onto miniature courts, piped in canned crowd noise, and had deep-voiced announcer guys call the action on some random Midwestern public access TV channel, I would have watched with the unwavering attention of eyelid-pried Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Come to think of it, I would absolutely watch such a thing under any circumstances. Point being, I was beyond ready for the return of any actual, real, live team sports entertainment.
Quite prepared as I was to settle for whatever pandemic-maligned product the NBA and NHL could manage to cobble together, I’ve been completely dumbfounded by what I’ve witnessed so far in the bubbles. Not only is it amazing what both leagues have been able to accomplish in regards to presenting their respective sports in a fairly convincing and relatively natural way — a feat that really can’t be overstated — but I’ve also been gobsmacked by the quality of play. This includes both of our little hometown teams who have been running with the best of them, consistently putting on incredible, elating, heart-pounding showings.
Going into the resumption of their seasons, not much was expected from either the Mavericks or the Stars. Simply being in the playoffs again for either club was largely considered a pure house-money bonus. The two teams, however, have cast off those expectations like so many discarded COVID face coverings littering a Burleson Walmart parking lot. (Don’t @ me, Burleytowners.) As of this writing, the Mavs have knotted their first-round playoff series against the L.A. Clippers at two games apiece, and the Stars have a bewildering 2-0 on the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference semis.
Prior to the three-game round robin to start the playoffs, the Stars were in complete offensive shambles. Their top line of Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, and Tyler Seguin had been cold going back to basically mid-February. Since then and despite a shutout in Game 3 against the Calgary Flames, the Stars now sit as the top scoring team in all the playoffs. Including potting a staggering seven unanswered goals after falling down 0-3 to Calgary in Game 6, the Stars have put up 17 goals in just the last three games. With their 5-2 comeback against the Avs in Game 2 on Monday, the Stars have scored five or more goals in five of their eight playoff games.
The Avs could be reeling from the loss of starting goalie Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Erik Johnson, each out indefinitely to injuries suffered in Game 1, but with Nate MacKinnon, Colorado still has to be considered one of the top teams remaining. They will no doubt continue to be a tough challenge for the boys in Victory Green, despite the 2-0 series lead. I don’t want to be the mouse to “eat the cheese,” as Bill Parcells would famously say, but with the way defensemen Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg have been dominating from the point, buttressed by the newly found offensive prowess of Joe “Captain America” Pavelski and rookie Denis Guryanov — along with a reawakened Seguin line — I no longer have the doubts I did going into Round 1. If they continue to play like this, they’re as good or better than any team still in the bubble. It’s actually possible Benn and Seguin could skate the first Stanley Cup for Dallas in 21 years. (We’ll ignore that they’d do it 2,000 miles from Big D.)
More impressive than the Stars, perhaps, is the way the Little Mavericks have hung with the Clippers. L.A.’s NBA second sons were the odds-on favorites to win the Larry O’Brien trophy heading into the bubble. Led by Kawhi Leonard — maybe the league’s best all-around player — the Clippers’ defensive acumen was a terrible mismatch for the offense-dependent Mavs (the most efficient offense in NBA history, no less). Though Leonard has had the amazing series one would expect from him, one player has been even better. L.A. just doesn’t have an answer for 21-year-old phenom Luka Dončić.
In Sunday’s matinee Game 4, the Clippers were dominating Dallas for most of the first half, pushing a 21-point lead at one point. It appeared inevitable L.A. was headed for an insurmountable 3-1 series lead. The Mavs were short one Unicorn in the missing Kristaps Porzingis. Though Dončić was forced out of Game 3 with his own injury — a particularly nasty-looking ankle sprain — the second-year Slovenian superstar was able to play. He somehow picked the rest of the Dallas squad up and placed them square upon the No. 77 on the back of his jersey and brought them all the way back to force overtime. Then, in what is already a Top 5 personal favorite sports moment, Luka hit a to win the game and tie the series.
It’s been a long time since I’ve sports cried, but as the entire Maverick organization mobbed Luka at half-court after the shot dropped, I had to explain to my wife that I had something in my eye. I’ve watched the highlight only about 35 times, and I get chills every time. With that shot and his 43-17-13 triple-double, the kid has become an instant local sports legend. I’d put money that one day Nowitzki Way will intersect with Dončić Drive outside the AAC.
With the way the heroes from Dallas keep saving my sports heart from breaking, it’s already been a year to remember and finally for a good reason. No matter where either team goes from here, there’s no doubt bubble play has been worth the wait.