In the end, Luka Doncic had the game right where he wanted it and where Rick Carlisle prayed it could be after nearly 53 minutes: Doncic’s hands.
The first chapter in the book of Luka Legend was written on a Sunday afternoon, when Doncic capped off an all-time playoff performance with an overtime buzzer-beating triple to tie the Mavericks’ first-round series with the Los Angeles Clippers at two games apiece.
Doncic took the shot defenses want him to take at this time in his short NBA career, a leaning, step-back three. But moments often transcend numbers, and sometimes it takes only a sliver of daylight to turn a ho-hum, go-home-in-five series into a dogfight.
Even more than putting a scare into the favored Clippers, Doncic has put the NBA on notice: This feels like Tiger’s “Hello world” or Jordan at the Boston Garden in 1986, a moment when you know something special is on the way.
Doncic’s historic performance puts him in a room entered only by Oscar Robertson and Charles Barkley — at least 40 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in a playoff game — with a jaw-dropping 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist showing — all while being a game-time decision on a sprained ankle he sustained in Game 3.
He hunted the matchups he wanted — even though Kawhi Leonard was assigned to him and did a better job than anyone else on the Clippers’ roster — and got Reggie Jackson switched on him in the last seconds, exploiting the defensive strategy that seemed to invite Doncic to seek out defenders.
“He understands the game very well,” Carlisle said. “The Clippers, they put the ball in Kawhi’s hands. You try to help create a situation where a guy gets a clean shot. It’s a player’s league. It’s all about what they do on the floor.”
He’s not Larry Bird, a lazy comparison for obvious reasons. You see a little LeBron James in Doncic, you see a more offensively inclined Jason Kidd because of his size and ability to take the space you give him and press until you say, “Uncle.”
Doncic is a one-man pressure cooker, a player who administers the beating as well as takes one. His mere presence makes you feel like you have a chance to win a game, a series, a championship.
These playoffs were prime real estate for someone new to emerge, to take this bubble as an opportunity to crash LeBron’s, Giannis’ and Kawhi’s party, and Doncic has been as subtle as a sledgehammer.
There are only a few players with that one-name distinction in today’s NBA, and just as LeBron announced his candidacy for the throne on a spring night in Auburn Hills, Michigan, in 2007 — when he scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points in a double-overtime Game 5 East Finals win over the Detroit Pistons — Doncic confirmed his superstardom Sunday in Florida.
It’s worth more than a single win for Doncic, as the doors will open for players who’ll salivate over the open shots he’ll create, the ones who would love to be a third star or even a second depending on where you put Kristaps Porzingis on your superstar pyramid.
On this afternoon, his second-best player was a former lottery pick who’s bounced around named Trey Burke, and yet, Dallas’ offense looked every bit as potent as the advanced stats said it was during the regular season.
There was one route for Dallas to tie the series, a virtuoso performance combined with some mental errors from the Clippers. Doncic’s vet-like savvy kept the Mavericks from panicking when faced with an early 20-point deficit.
“He’s from another planet,” Carlisle said. “Guys like him, Jason Kidd, Larry Bird, there’s not much you can do to keep him from competing.”
More than at any time in modern basketball history, such leads are more invitations to comebacks than death knells, and Doncic’s ability to control the pace of a game means his team will rarely be out of it as long as he has it going.
“I mentioned Kidd and Bird, they’re from the same fabric,” Carlisle said. “The way they impact the game in unique forms. It’s about giving teams confidence, knowing how to channel your emotions.”
You can’t rattle him, and at 220 pounds, you’re not beating him up like the average, underdeveloped 21-year-old. You can’t trash talk him, and even if you do, there’s a greater chance it bothers the outrage crowd more than it does him — as he brushed off Montrezl Harrell’s remarks during the heat of Game 3 competition.
The only hope is he turns the ball over a little too much, or his jump shot plays to the percentages thus far. But as Carlisle noted, his rapid improvement from a Rookie of the Year to Most Improved Player candidate bears recognition.
He’s picking up the game quicker, having been a professional long before stepping to the NBA. His improvement looks so strong because his palette is wider — today’s game is made for his skillset and wizardry — and he can definitely become a better long-range shooter than the 32 percent mark he’s hovered around in his two NBA seasons.
He kept pressing the expansion of his game and kept pressing on the Clippers, which kept his own teammates engaged.
Carlisle said keeping Doncic out of Game 4 would’ve caused a fistfight, and that mentality carried over against a Clippers team that claims it wants that type of competition.
Instead, the Clippers’ concentration ebbed at times, enabling Doncic to engineer something utterly remarkable that even he couldn’t describe.
He didn’t even seem interested in bathing in the moment by the time of his news conference, unable to recall his favorite playoff moments because “games came on at 3 a.m. [overseas] and I had school in the morning.”
So while his performances are compared to the incomparable, it’s best to put Doncic in a category of his own.
As he proved Sunday, he’s different, and that’s a scary thought.
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