The list of Mavs rookies to hand out 12 assists in a game doubled in length last night.
Luka Doncic joined Jason Kidd as the only first-year Mavericks in history with 12 dimes, as the Slovenian rookie continued his emergence as one of the league’s best, most entertaining passers. The 19-year-old added 23 points, joining LeBron James as the only other teenager in NBA history to record that line in a game. A few days earlier against Sacramento, he became the fifth teenager ever with 28 points, nine assists, and six rebounds in a game. He’s pretty good, it seems.
Back to last night, though. With Dennis Smith Jr. still out with a wrist injury, Dallas was without one of its key playmakers. (Smith, for what it’s worth, had three 11-assist games as a rookie last season.) Jalen Brunson replaced him in the starting lineup, but Doncic assumed de facto point guard duties. Despite his 6-foot-8 frame suggesting otherwise, and regardless of who else is on the floor, eventually we’re all probably going to call him a point guard.
Doncic recorded five assists in the first quarter alone, but one of his best passes of the night didn’t even go down as a helper. Rather, it was a hockey assist to Harrison Barnes via DeAndre Jordan, in what’s quickly becoming one of Doncic’s favorite plays: the jump pass.
This kind of play is where Doncic’s size gives him such an advantage. Nikola Jokic steps out as the Nuggets ice the pick-and-roll, preventing Doncic from getting into the middle of the floor and forcing him toward the sideline. This is not a problem for him, though; in fact, it’s already game over. He immediately rises to make the pass as Jordan rolls hard into the paint, and this is what he sees.
Juancho Hernangomez tags Jordan on the roll, but Wesley Matthews has already cut to the top of the 3-point arc. At this point, Doncic is just reading what Hernangomez is doing. If he commits to Jordan, he can swing a pass over to Matthews for 3. If he runs back out to Matthews, Jordan will be open. Doncic doesn’t even need this long to make up his mind, though, because even though Hernangomez is in a nice tagging position, there’s still a gaping-wide passing lane to Jordan if he can thread the pass around Torrey Craig and closer toward the rim. He does this, of course, and Jordan makes an excellent catch and pass in one fluid motion out to Barnes in the corner. Ice has been one of the defining defensive coverages of this era, and Doncic has shown he can beat it. In his seven passes out of traps in the pick-and-roll this season, the Mavericks have scored 16 points.
Forty seconds later, the Mavs decided they didn’t want to be iced anymore so they put Doncic and Jordan into a pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor. The Nuggets send two at Doncic anyway, and again he makes the play.
Watch where his eyes are when he makes the pass.
Once again, Doncic is eyeing Hernangomez, who’s slid over from Matthews and into position to make a play should he try slipping another pass to Jordan. But while Hernangomez and Mason Plumlee are fixated on Doncic, neither has realized that Barnes has assumed blocking duties for Matthews. It’s a sneaky play on the weak side by Dallas, and Doncic helps sell it by not even looking in that direction before he makes the pass. If he’d looked over to Matthews before delivering the pass, Plumlee could have side-stepped Barnes and Hernangomez could’ve scrambled over to help out as well.
For the season, the trio of Barnes, Matthews, and Dennis Smith Jr. has combined to shoot 52 of 123 on 3-pointers following a Doncic pass, per NBA Stats, good for an astonishing 42.3 percent.
Ninety seconds later, Doncic and Jordan pair up again on the left side of the floor, and this time it’s point guard Jamal Murray who has to make the decision on whether to step in front of Jordan or stay committed to Jalen Brunson. Doncic makes a pass so on-the-money that it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, and Jordan throws it down. (Bonus points for style.)
It cannot be stressed enough how difficult a position this play puts the Denver defense in. Plumlee would be the perfect candidate to help against a rumbling Jordan, but it’s not his rotation. If he does slide any further from Barnes than he already is, he’d have to close out hard and Barnes could probably take him off the dribble. Instead, Dallas has forced the smallest defender on the floor to help against Jordan, which is a difficult proposition. Point guards are of course not the most ideal candidates to defend centers in any situation, but especially in the midst of such a quick-strike play as this one; point guards are used to defending the ball-handler in an early pick-and-roll, not from the weak-side corner. This is inverted offense at its finest.
A couple times, Nuggets defenders slid over perhaps a little too soon to impede Jordan, and that’s when Doncic made his most advanced passes of the night, and maybe his best with the Mavericks. It makes sense that they would work to stop Jordan first, because dunks are easy and Doncic has delivered more assists to Jordan (41) than he has to any other teammate. Jordan remains a fearsome rim-runner, which opens things up for his 3-point shooting teammates — so long as the ball can find them. That’s where Doncic comes in. The following plays are extremely difficult for anyone regardless of position to make, but they’re based on the simple fact that the ball moves faster than humans do.
He made other pretty passes in this game, but those two crisp beauties topped the list for me. It should be noted, as well, that West-leading Denver has the fourth-best defense in the league, per NBA stats. Last night Dallas finished with a 115.7 offensive rating, the most efficient performance any offense has had in Denver in more than a month. It wasn’t enough to get a win, of course, as the Nuggets prevailed 126-118, but Doncic is quickly blossoming as a playmaker and the offense is beginning to reap the rewards. Last night was something special.