May 25, 2024

Luka Dončić’s breakthrough finally came, bringing the Mavericks to the verge of one, too


Luka Dončić has always risen.

Through the ranks of the Real Madrid academy he joined at age 13. To the 2017 EuroBasket final, where he and his countrymen won Slovenia its highest ever honor in the sport, winning the tournament. Up into the NBA’s collective consciousness in his rookie season, making clear he was and is one of its new faces. There have been divots and downticks, just as there are in any NBA star’s career. But so far, those moments have only seemed to spur his higher ascension.

Which is important context for what Dončić did two days ago in Game 5.

Hours before the Dallas Mavericks beat the LA Clippers 123-93 on Wednesday to take a 3-2 series lead, Dončić was asked whether he would be playing if it were the regular season. “Probably not,” he admitted. He had sprained his knee in the first half of Game 3, an injury that briefly forced him to the locker room before he returned to the eventual win. He was visibly hobbled in that game and the next one. Game 3 was the worst shooting performance he’s ever had in the postseason, going 7 for 25 from the floor.

Compounding that, Dončić has had a lingering illness which made him audibly congested in post-game news conferences. “I’ve had it for five or six days,” he said. None of the medication he had taken had yet kicked the congestion in his upper respiratory system.

“I’m good,” he concluded. “I’m ready for the game.”

Dončić was answering questions, not asking for sympathy. There’s none of that in the postseason, anyway. The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard has missed three of the series’ five games with knee inflammation and been ruled out for Friday’s Game 6. LA had won twice in Leonard’s first two absences, including in Game 1, before Dončić’s ailments began. Dončić’s performances had been abnormal all series, lacking decisiveness while missing 3s. He came into Wednesday’s Game 5 averaging 29 points, but on just 38 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent behind the 3-point line. His one standout showcase, Game 2, had come much more on the defensive end.

Dallas’ success stems from Dončić, the otherworldly genius from Ljubljana built for basketball brilliance. And that’s why it had been so strange when he wasn’t that in these series’ opening games. The player who entered this elimination tournament with the highest playoff scoring average for anyone not named Michael Jordan seemed subdued. Credit should be given to the Clippers, who had ingrained his tendencies into their heads not only in film sessions, but from two prior series played against Dončić.

But no defense stops Dončić, not entirely — and certainly not in perpetuity. If the Clippers want any chance to extend this first-round series, they’ll have to find another way to do that in Game 6.

Dončić scored 35 points on 14-of-26 shooting in Wednesday’s Game 5. His unguardability returned. So did the dog in him. This Dallas team doesn’t space the court quite like past iterations, trading in spot-up acumen for defensive physicality. Dončić doesn’t have the driving lanes or the burst he did in 2021, when he was as a spry 21-year-old facing off against the Clippers. His game has evolved into something even more illicit, combining shooting touch, sheer largeness and his own prefrontal cortex to terrorize defenders. Dončić isn’t fast and he no longer dunks. No matter, he’ll get to the rim, like he did for Game 5’s first bucket.

That’s the physical determination, the bruising statement of intent, that Dončić always has available to him. It was strange to see him pass out of drives so often in the series’ first four games — especially so in Games 1 and 2, before his nagging health predicaments. He still led Dallas to two wins against the Clippers even when Leonard played. And Dallas’ two defeats were due as much to LA’s hot 3-point shooting as any other factor.

But even those around the Mavericks were worried on Wednesday morning before Game 5. One team employee, granted anonymity to speak freely, told The Athletic they were concerned with how physically limited Dončić looked during the shootaround. When Dončić spoke to reporters afterwards, he said he hadn’t done anything except shoot. No power, no explosiveness, no testing of this bothersome knee. There was no doubt he would play. How effectively he could do that, though, was genuinely concerning for the team throughout the afternoon.

Early on, Dončić looked only marginally better than he did at shootaround. Dallas ran the first few offensive possessions through Dončić’s co-star, Kyrie Irving, who has a natural tempo to his game faster than Dončić’s more comfortable ground-pounding approach. Dončić got better, though, and Irving’s speed bled into Dončić’s game, too. He sprinted down the floor after defensive rebounds even when obvious transition opportunities weren’t on. Dallas had fallen behind in Games 1 and 4 due to horrendously sluggish offensive starts. Irving, and then Dončić, made sure that wouldn’t happen again.

“I always speak of (Luka’s) resilience,” Irving said afterward. “(That’s) just how much he means to us as a group.”

Perhaps Dončić’s knee reached some healthy nirvana as the game wore on, because he was demonstrative and demonic on the defensive end, too. His feet don’t move at the same speed as some of his peers, but he knows where to put them when he’s engaged. He’s a mountain of a person who appears unscalable when he’s towering over some defender in front of him. That must be what Clippers guard Norman Powell saw on this possession, anyway.

When Dončić’s defensive effort was exposed two seasons ago in a semifinals series against the Phoenix Suns, he responded with locked-in focus and a Game 7 victory that demoralized his opponent. When his emotional outbursts were criticized after he had an opposing fan kicked out of a home game for a benign comment, he scored 73 points in the next game. So when Dončić entered Game 5 with an iffy knee, a persistent cough and a series performance beneath his standards, it’s only fitting he turned in one of his best postseason performances.

He’s not infallible. He hasn’t lifted the Mavericks out of every hole. His career will face moments of descent again. It will probably happen in this very postseason run, whether in Friday’s Game 6 or in future series.

But when faced with it, more often than not, he soon ascends.

(Top photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)





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