Perhaps the most frightening thing about Luka Doncic is how far the Dallas Mavericks‘ superstar is from a finished product. After Doncic’s spectacular performance in his first taste of the playoffs, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle predicted that the 21-year-old would add an element or two to his game during the offseason, saying the great ones like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird always did. Sure, Doncic returned from Slovenia carrying a few extra pounds, but he also brought a lethal, Dirk-esque one-legged turnaround jumper with him.
Doncic is also developing the maturity necessary to be one of the league’s great closers, a critical facet of the game that was by far his biggest flaw during his All-NBA sophomore season. That growth was on full display Thursday as Doncic dominated the clutch in a thrilling 124-117 overtime road win over the Denver Nuggets.
“Like I said those last two seasons, we’re going to learn from those things. Especially me,” said Doncic, well aware that the Mavs’ historically efficient offense was awful last season in the clutch, ranking 26th in the league in those situations (99.2 points per 100 possessions).
“I’ve got to lead the team in those moments.”
Doncic demonstrated in Denver that he has learned the difference between leading and playing hero ball. Sure, Doncic scored a bunch in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime, recording 12 of his season-high 38 points during that span, including a midrange dagger in the final minute after weaving his way to the free throw line and stepping back to create some space. But Doncic’s most important play was the final of his season-high 13 assists, when he passed out of a double-team, trusting teammate Maxi Kleber to knock down a go-ahead 3 with 3.3 seconds remaining.
That play didn’t win the Mavs the game — Denver’s Nikola Jokic, a proven premier closer, finished his clutch scoring flurry with an OT-forcing jumper over Willie Cauley-Stein at the regulation buzzer — but Dallas definitely would have lost without it.
Luka Doncic bounces a pass to Josh Richardson for a transition slam.
“Everybody [on the Mavs] trusts every teammate,” said Doncic, who was a rebound shy of his second straight triple-double. “I think it was a great shot. Even if he would missed it, it was a great shot. I’ll do it every day.”
But Doncic never did it last season. According to NBA.com/stats, Doncic led the league in field goals attempted in the final 30 seconds of one-possession games during the regular season, going 4-of-15 from the field and 1-of-10 from 3-point range. He had no assists in those situations despite being one of the league’s best passers.
The Mavs went 7-15 in those games, which is why they were a No. 7 seed despite having the Western Conference’s third-best point differential.
Of course, nobody complained when Doncic drilled a buzzer-beating step-back 3 to cap a legendary performance in the Mavs’ Game 5 win over the LA Clippers. But Doncic, as well as everyone else in the Dallas organization, realizes that a steady diet of contested step-back 3s isn’t a reliable clutch recipe.
“He’s still young,” said Kleber, who hit three clutch 3s down the stretch of regulation after going scoreless most of the game, with Doncic getting a hockey assist on the first and delivering dimes on the last two. “I think a lot of times people forget that, but he’s learning every day. He’s already a complete player and has the whole package, but obviously the more and more you play in those type of games and those type of situations, the more you’re going to learn.
“Because defenses are going to adjust. They’re going to throw different options at him every time, and he’s done a great job learning day by day. You can see how he develops his game and gets better and especially gets everybody else better, too.”
Doncic has the talent to thrive in clutch moments. On Thursday, in Denver’s high-altitude against a Nuggets squad coming off a West finals appearance, Doncic displayed the decision-making necessary to control games when the stakes are highest.
“He’s going to calculate situations,” Carlisle said. “He’s going to make sure the ball is in the right place at the right time. He was doing a great job of sharing the ball at the right times but also getting the ball in the basket.
“These games are tough. But if you hang in and hang around and give yourself a chance — if you’ve got guys like Doncic on your team — you can be dangerous.”