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USA TODAY

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Less than 24 hours after Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic sprained his left ankle in Game 3 of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Mavericks do not have clarity on if he can play Sunday in Game 4.

Dallas lacks so much clarity that coach Rick Carlisle even said “this is going to be most likely a game-time decision type of situation.” The reason for the uncertainty? First, Carlisle said Doncic had yet to receive an MRI as of Saturday afternoon partly because of “there was an issue with the MRI machine here and they’re trying to get that resolved.” Secondly, the scheduled 3:30 ET tip-off time gives the Mavericks a shorter turnaround after playing the first three playoff games at around 9 ET.

Though the MRI results will certainly influence the Mavericks’ decision, they will then have to wrestle with two variables. To what extent do they simply rely on their medical staff? To what extent do they allow Doncic to make the call himself?

“He plays hurt on a pretty regular basis. We do not want him to play injured, though,” Carlisle said. “That’s a different situation. You’re bringing greater risk to it.”

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle on the difference between Luka Doncic playing hurt and playing injured pic.twitter.com/nF5ykSNTCG

— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) August 22, 2020

Each decision carries its own risk.

The short-term risk of sitting out? The Mavericks trail the Clippers 2-1 in their best-of-seven series. Even if the Clippers have dealt with an injured Patrick Beverley and an inconsistent Paul George, the Mavericks would no longer have a counter-punch to Kawhi Leonard.

Yes, the Mavs won Game 2 despite Doncic sitting for seven minutes in the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul. Carlisle has raved about Kristaps Porzingis’ star potential, and the emerging growth in Trey Burke, Seth Curry and Boban Marjanovic. But as Carlisle said, “we have the ability to play without him, but he’s one of the best players in the world.” After all, Doncic has averaged 27.7 points, 8.7 assists and 8.3 rebounds in the first three games of the series.

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“We’re playing for our lives here and we’re playing to tie the series tomorrow,” Carlisle said. “It’s a tough series against a very physical team. We need as many of our weapons as we can have available.”

The long-term risk of playing Doncic? He already tried to play in the fourth quarter of Game 2 after injuring his left ankle, and the approach did not work. For nearly three minutes to open the fourth quarter, Doncic moved gingerly on the court and lacked the same aggressiveness that has defined his game. So the Mavs yanked him quickly.

They may have spared themselves future long-term damage to the 21-year-old star who has already starred professionally in his native Slovenia, won last season’s Rookie of the Year award and logged a league-leading 17 triple doubles this season. So why roll the dice again?

“We want him to play, but we have to make sure that he’s healthy and we want him to be healthy,” Dallas center Maxi Kleber said. “He’s going to be a future player for this franchise for a long time, so you want to make sure that you don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

Still, Carlisle stressed it is “not a simple open-closed type thing.” The Mavericks will surely lean on Dallas trainer Casey Smith’s advice to handle Doncic’s workload. But Carlisle said the decision will “mostly will have to do with how he’s feeling and if he’s feeling he can play effectively” because of his track record with how he has played through pain.

Doncic missed 11 games during the season because of a sprained right ankle and an additional game after feeling soreness. But during the other games he has played, Doncic has played through minor injuries and absorbed physical contact with ease. In the Clippers series alone, Doncic has both absorbed and stood up to Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. trying to intimidate him in Game 1. Doncic stood up for himself in Game 3 by accusing Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell of flopping after the he pushed him around in the post.

Trey Burke on how Mavs have adjusted this season in games Luka Doncic was out with injury pic.twitter.com/5ZLF0eQBwb

— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) August 22, 2020

After Doncic rolled his ankle with 4:04 left in the third quarter in Game 3, he impressed the Mavericks with how he tried to remedy his pain. Doncic quickly had his left ankle re-taped. When he returned to the bench area, Doncic repeatedly tested out the ankle’s strength. The Mavericks gave him clearance to return because they determined he would not expose his ankle to any additional structural damage. Though Doncic ultimately could not play through his injury, he had enough self-awareness to indicate to the Mavericks’ coaching and training staff to take him out of the game.

“He’s a very tough person,” Carlisle said of Doncic. “He has a high pain tolerance. I believe he has played hurt a lot in his young career. I sense that he did it pretty frequently in Europe. He plays hurt a lot. He is constantly hitting the floor, getting wacked, getting hit across the head and getting poked in the eye.”

Should Doncic step on the court in Game 4, it seems inevitable those things would happen to him again. The Clippers have played like that with him all series. Doncic and the Mavericks appear willing to accept those circumstances. That is playoff basketball, after all.

Are they willing to accept, however, that Doncic’s left ankle could become further compromised? After studying the MRI results, they will then have to determine if it’s best to defer to their star or protect him from himself.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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