Like the Mavericks for most of the night, Luka Dončić was stumbling.
The final milliseconds were draining off the clock. The Mavericks were trailing by two points. The superstar point guard couldn’t remember if he could see the basket or not. And he was as close to horizontal as he was vertical.
Yes, all the components of Luka Magic were there.
And it struck again.
An off-balance, one-handed, buzzer-beating push shot that left Dončić’s hand 24 feet from the basket on the left wing but didn’t splash into the net until he was well into the paint delivered the Mavericks an improbable 114-113 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night at FedEx Forum.
Facing what would have been a gut-punch loss with major playoff implications, Dončić supplied another frozen moment in his still-young, but already historic, career.
“This is one of those joyous nights where we escaped,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We had Houdini. And he got us out of here alive.”
Against odds that were stacked heavily against the Mavericks. It was a game in which they trailed most of the night and were five points down with barely a minute left.
And yet, they celebrated like it was a huge playoff win. And, frankly, it was a game of playoff-level importance.
The shot meant a 2½ game lead for the Mavericks over the Grizzlies instead of a half-game lead. Instead of falling perilously close to the eighth playoff spot, the 30-24 Mavericks instead are only a game behind No. 6 Portland.
And they stopped a slide of three losses in four games while adding fuel to the hope that the NBA’s play-in tournament might not have to be in their future.
It wasn’t the first buzzer-beater for Dončić. His most famous one before this was in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers last season. As a rookie, he hit one from the corner at Portland.
This one had as high a degree of difficulty as either of those.
“Honestly, I don’t remember,” Dončić said about 30 minutes after his heroics when asked if he could actually see the basket when he let the shot go. “I was just looking if it was going in. I was kind of falling down. So it was kind of lucky. But we’ll take it.”
The Slovenian point guard has made enough of these miraculous shots now that it clearly isn’t coincidental. As he said: “Sometimes you’re going to make it. Sometimes, you’re going to miss it, too. So you got to take that, too. That’s the most important part. But my team trusts me in that moment. I keep working on it.”
And, yes, his teammates keep believing, for sure.
“He’s not afraid of those big moments – at all,” said Dwight Powell, who had one of his most effective games of the season to give Luka a chance for the winner. “He embraces that. We’ve seen him make shots like that all the time in practice. He’s not afraid of the moment. That’s the biggest thing.”
So what did Powell think when he saw Dončić stumbling head first as he let go of the shot?
“Watch this, that’s what I’m thinking, because I have full faith that that’s going to at least have a chance,” Powell said. “But I’m putting my money on it going in.”
There were several elements of the final moments that had to go perfectly for the Mavericks to pull out this win. First, they needed Grizzlies’ second-year guard Grayson Allen, a 90.6 percent free-throw shooter this season, had to miss at least one from the stripe with 2 seconds left. He missed both shots, leaving Memphis ahead 113-111.
After a timeout, the Mavericks inbounded and Dončić not only had to get the ball out of his hands quickly, he had to make sure he took off for his shot behind the 3-point arc. If his foot had been on the arc, it would have been an overtime-forcing swish instead of a game-winner.
Dončić finished with 29 points, 25 of them in the second half, to go with nine assists as he, Powell, Jalen Brunson and Kristaps Porzingis willed the Mavericks to the win.
“The last play was amazing,” Carlisle said. “If you look at the last minute or so, you pull off a miracle in a game like that about once in a blue moon. It just doesn’t happen. But we got fortunate with Luka missing the second free throw, sending a guy to the line that’s a very good free-throw shooter who happened to miss two.
“And Luka made one of the signature, special shots that you’re going to see for a long time. Very fortunate. And a special win.”
It was far from a smooth night. The Mavericks were down most of the way and Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas were giving the Grizzlies everything they needed. And, Dillon Brooks had done a solid job defensively against Luka, holding him to four first-half points.
But Dončić found a way.
“You expect him to make these shots,” Carlisle said. “The fact that it was running and off the wrong foot, in the context of Luka and what he’s capable of, these are shots he makes all the time. I saw the one where he’s walking off (the court) and he throws it in from a 45-degree angle behind the backboard. Get the ball in his hands and he believes that anything is possible.
“It’s just an amazing shot. What a feeling.”
And, Carlisle, who admitted he’s lost a few bets on shots that he didn’t think Luka could make, continued:
““He expects to make these shots. He expects to make half-court shots. He expects to make 60-footers . . . If Luka ever takes up golf, he’s going to be a guy who makes amazing putts when you least expect it.”
That’s a fitting analogy. When Tiger Woods holed out a shot from the fairway while playing in the Byron Nelson two decades ago, his coach at the time, Butch Harmon famously said: “That’s the difference with him. He honestly expects to make those shots.”
At the rate Luka is going, he’s on track to join the ranks of the most clutch shotmakers in the history of the game.
And he captured the emotion perfectly afterward.
“I was really surprised when it went in,” he said. “Those are the best feelings ever.”