ORLANDO, Fla. — He is just two years into his NBA career and still paying dues, so it’s too premature to say Luka Doncic is a legend. But it’s accurate to declare what he just did was legendary.
Once you apply the context of a throbbing left ankle he badly sprained 40 hours earlier, and the absence of his Mavericks co-star, and the constant hounding from defenders who yapped in his ear and poked his body, does anyone dare question this?
It was a basketball composition beautifully scripted and performed and finished. It was the full and total picture of brilliance, right down to the final buzzer in overtime, when the winning jumper fell softly through the net and teammates rushed at full sprint for a hard embrace.
Luka Doncic, on Aug. 23, 2020, against the Clippers is worthy and deserving of your historical consideration: 43 points, 17 rebounds, 13 assists and one cold-blooded dagger straight through the heart of a title contender.
“Just a very, very special player,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, “and this game today was from another planet.”
With 3.7 seconds left and the Mavericks needing to inbounds the ball, the most important task was getting it to Doncic. Once that was done, the success rate for Dallas soared immediately.
Doncic is only 21 but brings the wisdom of a basketball Buddha. Before getting the ball, Doncic managed to get the switch he wanted, shaking free of Kawhi Leonard on the screen and seeing Reggie Jackson instead. The importance of that cannot be overstated; Kawhi is a supreme defender and Jackson is … Jackson.
“He reads those situations well,” said Carlisle. “He’s such a smart player. He sees things before other people see them. That’s one of the reasons he’s so special. He’s got the skill set, the strength and size but it’s also the way he computes the game. He sees the game in 6G, not 5G. It’s another level beyond what most people see.”
So Doncic isolated, calmly took took a few crossover dribbles, had Jackson shook on his heels and then let it fly. Just moments before, Marcus Morris put the Clippers up a point and that threatened to spoil a remarkable Mavericks rally from 21 points down, in a second half they totally controlled. The walk to the huddle was sluggish for Dallas.
“Everybody was a little down,” said guard Trey Burke. “We didn’t want to go down to the last shot, but big time players make big time plays. And he’s already a great player.”
Doncic has the Clippers, now tied 2-2, befuddled and bamboozled. He’s breaking down his man, forcing fouls, drawing double teams and mismatches, finding teammates with zip passes for open looks, getting inside for layups, stepping back for threes and forcing the Clippers to rewrite their strategy report on the fly. He averaged 30 points in the first two games, and the Clippers are now feeling fortunate his third game was cut short.
He’s unraveling them mentally as well. Some Clippers are trying to throw him off by getting physical and discreetly taunting him, hoping to take advantage of his youth and lack of playoff experience.
In the previous game, Montrezl Harrell was so overjoyed to score against Doncic that the Clippers’ forward screamed at Doncic, calling him “white boy” and peppering the comment with an expletive. It was playground talk made inappropriate and off-message given what the NBA is pushing right now: Racial equality, understanding and togetherness. Just a poor look.
Harrell tried to make peace with Doncic before tipoff. Doncic brushed the comment aside, refusing to make it an issue, but Burke said Doncic definitely bites on the challenge.
“He don’t back down from nobody,” Burke said. “Don’t matter who’s talking to him. It kind of raises his level of play. Tonight that’s what happened. Luka raised his level, like a star should, and we followed behind him.”
After that apology, Harrell mustered two points and one rebound in 17 minutes.
“Just basketball motivates me,” Doncic said. “I know they’re going to be talking to me and trying to take me out of my game. It’s going to be this every game.”
The Mavericks were without Kristaps Porzingis, who sat because of soreness in his non-surgically-repaired knee, and with only one day’s rest between playoff games is uncertain for Game 4. When the Clippers seized control early — Doncic appeared tentative on the ankle — this game had the makings of a rout.
About that ankle: When it folded Friday night, Doncic limped off the floor, then returned, yet was clearly limping and unable to pivot before he removed himself for good from Game 3. The turnaround time between games was short, and Carlisle was leery.
“He’s got such a great heart,” Carlisle said. “If he was able to feel anything close to decent I thought he’d probably play. Guys like him, Jason Kidd, Larry Bird, these kind of guys are such great competitors. Not much will keep them from competing. They’re from the same fabric in terms of their ability to impact the game in unique forms. It’s not just about putting the ball in the basket. It’s about giving teammates confidence.”
Doncic became springy and gained confidence as the game progressed and the Clipper lead vaporized. He said: “Obviously it wasn’t 100-percent.”
Then he smiled: “But I think it was good.”
In such a short time, Doncic has flourished to meet the demands of the NBA game, learned the nuances, embraced the culture and after this will certainly demand respect from perhaps the two or three people on the planet who are still withholding judgment.
He can excel in the half court game that dominates in the playoffs. He has floor vision and understands the flow and rhythm of the game and the weaknesses of the team he’s playing against. He’s 6-foot-7 and uses his body well.
Mainly, Doncic doesn’t sense fear or urgency and is unimpressed by pressure situations.