We used to hear about Luka Doncic making grown men look like fools. Now, we see it ourselves.
Doncic scored 42 points on 28 shots in the Dallas Mavericks’ win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, drilling six threes, dishing nine assists, grabbing six rebounds, picking three pockets and blocking two attempts.
Watch Doncic in the first quarter, dribbling to his left, pump-faking and breaking the discipline of one of the NBA’s most-disciplined defenders. He makes Kawhi Leonard lurch out like a leopard before nailing the triple, as though he wasn’t stepping back 30 feet from the rim, as though Leonard’s giant hands — their strength the source of the legendary “Klaw” moniker — didn’t clip Doncic’s elbow.
Doncic nailed three more threes from the left and two stepbacks from the left inside the arc. After the game, Leonard admitted the Clippers “let him get to his left stepback too much.”
When the Clippers forced him right, Doncic drove to the rim with the force of a brick and finished with the finesse of a feather. He got everything he wanted, exactly how he wanted it, despite some of the NBA’s best defenders in Paul George and Leonard being keyed in on taking it away.
Take a look at Doncic’s shot chart this season. It looks a lot like the shots he made against the Clippers.
Doncic can’t seem to stop taking stepback jumpers, despite calling the shot “terrible” after Monday’s loss to the Clippers, when his touch wasn’t on his side, and “bad” again after they went in on Wednesday.
A well-executed stepback jumper creates enough space for the shooter to almost exist in a silo. Often, a defender can do little but dance with his opponent, until jumping and pirouetting away to avoid fouling, and then praying hard as all eyes follow the trajectory of the shot. Stepbacks are the ultimate isolation shot. They exist independent of the flow of the offense, a break-in-case-of-emergency move for play-saving scorers, a dagger for defenses when they go in and a vexing frustration for coaches when they do not.
“Sometimes they’re gonna go in,” Doncic said on Wednesday. “Sometimes, no.”
“He got comfortable,” said Leonard, “and he got hot and made shots. It’s hard to turn off the water when a great player like that gets rolling.”
What Leonard is talking about here is the confidence and repetition that leads players into a flow state. Doncic enters this plane often because his game exists in a perpetual silo. He is strong enough to create space and disregard any man in front of him, to spoon his back into the likes of Leonard and George and make them follow him where he wants to go.
Doncic can do whatever he wants, and when it goes well, his escalating confidence takes him into a dance with the purported hand. Sometimes, he skids and falls and combusts.
When he succeeds, he becomes “Luka Magic” — a viewing experience unlike any other in the NBA, a game that communicates sacred lessons.
Luka Magic makes you realize they call him Wonder Boy not because he was a boy wonder but because he plays with the wonder of a boy, “play” being the operative word. More than 400 NBA players “play” basketball. Few are gifted with the talent and carefree guile of children, the privilege to fail enough to create new things.
He makes you realize that to make magic, we must try things we shouldn’t, that there’s a recklessness inherent to invention, to seeing things that other people don’t. Paul McCartney called it the fine line between chaos and creation. Doncic dribbles on it.
Doncic, just 22 years old, has had plenty of cracks at the Clippers. The sense you get from every meeting is that Doncic is in control of his successes and failures. The defense is somewhat relevant, but only marginally compared to his own concentration.
He can dribble circles around the court. He can dribble himself into circles — and turnovers. That was unlikely to happen twice in a row (Doncic coughed up the ball seven times on Monday), but even on Wednesday, there were moments his looseness slipped from effective nonchalance to frustrating silliness.
He pump-faked Ivica Zubac at the free-throw line, and instead of taking the window he created, Doncic tried to squeeze a pass between two defenders to a cutting Josh Richardson and turned it over.
Doncic also got to the rim and short-armed easy (for him) floaters multiple times, in a fashion reminiscent of careless circus shots players take after dead whistles. The problem wasn’t the shot but the seeming break in focus.
These are the moments where the ease that allows Doncic to make magic tricks him into thinking that basketball is actually easy. It’s akin to typing instead of writing, flailing instead of dancing. Doncic makes you wonder if you can have one without the other. He makes you wonder if self-deception is the source of all creativity. He makes you wonder.
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