You know life is going good for Luka Dončić when he’s heading into Sunday’s All-Star Game and people want to talk about his defense.

Especially on a night when he doesn’t play.

The Mavericks’ superstar sat out Wednesday’s first-half finale against Oklahoma City, but the point guard is expected to participate in all of his All-Star responsibilities on Sunday – the Taco Bell Skills Challenge as well as the All-Star Game itself.

But a stiff back that has bothered Dončić for the past couple weeks, limiting in practices, coach Rick Carlisle said, isn’t enough to stop the Luka Express.

He’ll be heading to Atlanta Saturday for Sunday’s All-Star festivities. He and a small traveling group from the Mavericks will return after the game on Sunday.

It will be a weekend to celebrate his immense skill level.

As usual, there will be no defense allowed during the All-Star Game.

But that doesn’t mean Dončić hasn’t recognized the need for him to improve at the defensive end of the court. He may never be a lockdown defender. But he has accepted Carlisle’s pleas for a more consistent effort at that end of the floor.

“He’s gotten better in, really, virtually every aspect of the game,” Carlisle said of Dončić. “You look at the tangible stats, the free-throw shooting, the 3-point shooting. I think field-goal percentage is probably up, too.

“As a player gets into his third and fourth year, you really start to learn what it’s all about to consistently win in this league. And defense is a major part of it.”

And, it’s a little different for a superstar player. They all have to go through the learning curve of opponents testing them. There are times when Luka has been exposed defensively. But those incidents are becoming rarer as he goes along.

“Great players are targeted defensively early and often in games,” Carlisle said. “His ability to hold the fort at his position takes people out of that strategy.”

Dončić knows exactly what is at stake when it comes to his defense.

“The way you win championships,” he said, “is to play defense.”

And it’s not easy. Not in this era of the NBA, when rules have been tailored to give offensive players the advantage so that the athleticism and scoring skills of great players can be featured.

It works in Dončić’s favor at the offensive end, of course.

“Defense is an ongoing challenge for everybody in this league with the way that offense has evolved,” Carlisle said. “The tendency to want to just outscore the other team is something that we all have to resist because it’s clear that when we defend better, we play better and our chances of winning are much greater.”

New rules might not impact NBA: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made the announcement on Tuesday that mask mandates will be eased next week.

The Mavericks will resume the second half of their season next Wednesday, when the new rules making masks optional in public settings.

It may not make much of an impact in the NBA, which likely will continue to keep stringent rules on COVID-19 safety protocols.

Still, Abbott’s announcement surprised Carlisle.

“The only reason I have my mask off right now is because I think it’s easier to communicate and everybody’s socially distanced,” Carlisle said at his pregame news conference. “I’ve been doing it the last couple games, but it’s in no way linked to that decision.

“I don’t know enough about the reasoning that went into it to comment any further. But I do think people in the state of Texas are very smart. And I think there will still be a high level of discretion when it comes to wearing a mask in public.”

Upcoming schedule: The Mavericks do not have any team responsibilities until Monday night, when players must return from wherever they are spending the All-Star break.

They are not required to stay in Dallas, Carlisle said.

And while the Mavericks will go into the break having won nine of 11 games, it’s still a good thing to be getting a break, he said.

“I haven’t taken a poll, but I would have to believe that, league-wide, people are ready for a break,” Carlisle said. “It’s not a simple set of circumstances with the need to continue testing and people going out of market. They’re going to have to continue to test and so forth.

“But with everything that’s gone on the last 11 months, from social justice to COVID to major power outages and weather issues the likes of which we haven’t seen before, I think a break is welcomed at this point in time if you were to take a poll.”

Tim Hardaway Jr., who had 19 points and six rebounds against the Thunder. Afterward, he echoed sentiments from all players that they are, indeed, ready for a break. And he stressed the need to be careful while getting a mental and physical break.

“Just relax, make sure you take care of your body, be around family for the most part,” he said. “And just try to be sure you wear a mask wherever you go. Those are the key things. Just make sure yo stay out of trouble and situations that get you seen without a mask or in places where they can take pictures. Just be aware of your surroundings.”

Twitter: @ESefko

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