CLEVELAND – If you can’t beat ‘em, beat ‘em up.
That appears to be the next challenge in the evolution and education of Luka Doncic as the 20-year-old star’s growth curve continues to beat all expectations.
Doncic took knock after knock from the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday in a physical game in which a gash on the back of his head required three stitches to close after the game. He got popped in the chops at least once. He hit the deck several other times.
Big-boy basketball. And it left Doncic moving a little slowly after the game.
But he knows he might as well get used to it. And that opponents are going to do whatever they can to throw him off his game. If he needs advice on dealing with it, he can seek out Dirk Nowitzki, who got roughed up his share of times early in his career. The big difference is nobody has called Doncic soft as they did Nowitzki in his first few seasons (a tag he outgrew with authority).
“He’s a tough player,” coach Rick Carlisle said of Doncic.
You don’t turn pro when you’re 13 and play for the EuroLeague’s best franchise when you’re 16 without being able to withstand the physical part of the game.
So Doncic will adjust as he has done so well so far in his still-embryonic career. He’s been questioned about NBA pressure and said he’s had it since he was 15, so what’s new? Nothing seems to have fazed him so far, so why should this be any different?
The 3-2 Mavericks will try to put the overtime loss to the Lakers behind them Sunday evening against the 2-3 Cavaliers in Cleveland (6:30 p.m. tip, Dallas time on Fox Sports Southwest). It’s a quick, up-and-back trip, but an opportunity to run their road record to 3-0 against a Cleveland team led by second-year point guard Collin Sexton, but also possessing quality veterans like Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova.
On Saturday, when the “Last Two Minute” report for the Mavericks-Lakers game came out, it really didn’t contain anything that everybody didn’t already know. The league said the Dwight Howard grab of Seth Curry was an incorrect non-call. If the whistle blew, the game likely would have turned out different.
But it didn’t, so the Mavericks are licking their wounds, literally and figuratively. It was another game they felt like was in their control. A missed free throw, failure to foul in the waning seconds, a couple of close whistles that went the other way – if any of those things go the Mavericks’ way, they would have won.
None of them did, and the task of learning how to win continues to be a hard lesson for them.
Don’t underestimate how difficult that is. The Lakers had LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Danny Green and others who have been playing deep into the playoffs much of their careers.
The Maverick have a slew of younger players in their rotation, many of whom have never experienced the playoffs. Learning how to close out games is one of the most difficult things for young players.
“We feel good,” forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “We’re two plays away from being 5-0. A couple more free throws and we’d be 5-0 and everybody would be high-fiving and stuff. But we just got to learn from these experiences and grow as a team.”
And it’s going to be painful at times, sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically.
Of course, not every team will have James, Davis and Howard to act as enforcers. When Friday’s game ended just before midnight, James gave Doncic a big hug and said the kid is a “bad” dude, although he used a far more colorful and hyphenated word instead of dude.
“He’s a great young talent,” James said of Doncic. “I love his game, his ability to not only create shots for himself, but . . . I love the fact that he can get great looks for his teammates.”
Doncic appreciated the commentary: “The words he said after the game were something that were very special to me.”
It would have been even more special after a Mavericks’ win. But in this season of growth, you can’t skip steps. It’s a slow process learning how to be great.
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