May 25, 2024

Luka Dončić isn’t himself, and no Mavericks adjustment will matter if he can’t be

OKLAHOMA CITY — Over there, not too long ago, was Luka Dončić. Strutting with a 30-plus lead in an elimination game, snarling after a postseason game-winner. Visages still burned in our hippocampus. He was atop the world in that instant and knew it.

Now, here’s Luka Dončić, lingering on the floor after self-inflicted tumbles and leaning upon stanchions every chance he gets. Saying, “Who cares, we lost,” when asked about his 6-of-19 shooting night that yielded just 19 points, tied for his second-fewest ever in a playoff game. The man who averaged more points in the playoffs than anyone not named Michael Jordan now looks nothing like the player we have come to expect since he entered the league.

The Dallas Mavericks decisively lost Tuesday’s Western Conference semifinals opener to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the 117-95 margin ballooning in the third quarter after Oklahoma City made necessary adjustments. Dallas has never won a Game 1 in coach Jason Kidd’s three-year tenure, even as the team’s gone on to win three of those four series. The fifth began Tuesday.

“I’ve got to be better (and) we’ve got to be better,” Dončić said after the loss. “We’re known for Game 1 struggles, but we’ve got to focus better.”

Dončić sprained his right knee in Game 3 of the team’s first-round series win over the LA Clippers and has been a recurring feature on the team’s injury report since. Before Game 5 of that series, he admitted he probably wouldn’t be playing if it had been the regular season. He said more recently that the ailment won’t be right until he rests this summer. Both answers were pried out of him in media sessions that began or concluded with him insisting he’s ready and able to play.

Oklahoma City is the antithesis of the team Dallas just beat. The Thunder are the league’s youngest team; the Clippers were the oldest. They use five players who thrive on the perimeter and a new unicorn, Chet Holmgren, still discover his powers. In the opening minutes of the last series, Clippers center Ivica Zubac spent several possessions backing down his defender like bigs did before smartphones were invented. Holmgren doesn’t respect tradition like that.

“We have to adjust to the team we’re playing against,” Kyrie Irving said.



Dallas’ last stand came with a 12-4 run to begin the third quarter that cut the deficit to one. The Thunder reacted with Isaiah Joe replacing Josh Giddey, a shooter taking over for a bet-you-won’t-take-it presence. Dallas had the league’s best defense over the season’s final 20 games. Right before that, the team lost five out of six against several opponents that do play five shooters. The Mavericks benefit when there’s a weak link off which to cheat, and the Thunder removed that player from the game.

Once Joe made his entrance in the third quarter, the Thunder regained momentum and galloped away. Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Mavericks down 22, Kidd threw in the end-of-bench towel.

After the loss, the Mavericks’ players were full of ideas about how they will come back, just like they have in prior series. The team hung tight in the first half by tossing varied defenses at the Thunder’s approach: zones, crossmatches and so many switches. Rookie center Dereck Lively II said the Mavericks’ primary approach was for him to switch onto ballhandlers when Holmgren came up to screen.

There’s danger in this strategy that goes beyond a center trying to guard Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Sometimes, even when you’re ready for the new-school pick-and-pop, a norm-breaking pro like Holmgren wants — and needs! — something as traditional as this roll to the rim.

Irving believed his team didn’t quite have the right attitude.

“I don’t want to dive too deep into it,” he said. “Shoutout to my teammates, they know what I’m talking about.”

That mentality shift from playing old heads to young bucks might take one game. Irving named Holmgren’s drag screen 3s and the Thunder’s overall tempo, accentuated by a rabid and barking home crowd, as specific improvements. There’s no doubt Thunder wing Lu Dort frustrated the Mavericks’ offensive approach, even as he battled foul trouble. But Dallas also felt it could adjust to alleviate his physicality.

Dallas dunked only five times in Tuesday’s game and completed just one alley-oop, with Derrick Jones Jr. serving an unusual role as the passer flinging one up to Daniel Gafford. This had been Dallas’ formula down the regular season stretch, one the Clippers initially prevented before Dallas broke through with more trampoline-esque highlights. Will that happen against a springier Thunder team, with the league’s newly crowned Coach of the Year designing a gameplan to prevent those gimme buckets?

The Thunder conceded attempts for those big men, just tougher ones that came from situations that often looked like this:

Gafford, who shot 12 times but made only five, said that’s fine. Slow down, Gafford said his teammates told afterward. Take another dribble. He agreed, saying, “That’s one of the shots I really work on.”

“I’ve got to be better in that area,” he said at his locker after the game. “But we got shots left and right (that) didn’t fall.”

Gafford was the league’s field goal percentage leader this season, converting 72.5 percent of his shots and at one point making 33 in a row, two shy of a Wilt Chamberlain record. (It ended against the Thunder, actually, which he joked earlier this week was still a sore memory.)

“If I take my time, those shots will definitely be dunks,” he added.

More often than not, Dončić was the player feeding him with threaded passes over the top, pocket deliveries from his hip, conveyances from any angle necessary and more. These are things Dončić can always do.

But more often than not, Dončić can do anything. What’s troubling, and what no adjustment between these two games can fix, is what seems like his limited state brought on by forces he can’t control. He had four days between last series’ conclusion and this opener to reset his health. What can one Oklahoma sunset change that the prior extended hiatus didn’t?

There are more tiny demons than just one sprained knee that Dončić must overcome to turn his accolades turn into actual accomplishments. But there’s diminishing hope, despite Dallas’ confidence in its adjustments, that this will be this year it happens if he’s not right. Dončić’s history suggests doubting him comes at one’s own cost. That’s still true. It’s just on him to show why.

If he can’t, it’s not a long-term calamity. This team has set itself for the immediate future. It’s just the Dončić that the Mavericks desperately need is still over there, somewhere. The rest of the series will tell whether he arrives in time to propel the Mavericks forward.

“One team has get to four wins, right?” he said. “We’d like to have Game 1, but there’s a new one in two days.”

(Top photo: Joshua Gateley / Getty Images)