The legend of Luka Doncic keeps growing and growing every time he steps on a basketball court. Especially when the stakes are highest.
Doncic ran through the Los Angeles Clippers’ defense with the greatest of ease on Saturday afternoon as his triple-double helped the Dallas Mavericks open their first-round playoff series with a hard-fought 113-103 triumph over the Clippers at Staples Center. The victory marked the first time the Mavs won Game 1 of a playoff series since they opened up the 2011 Western Conference Finals with a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It also means the Mavs now own homecourt advantage in this series and can move on to the second round if they win their home games.
Game 2 will be in Los Angeles on Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. before the best-of-seven series shifts to Dallas for Games 3 and 4 on Friday and May 30, respectively.
The 22-year old Doncic finished Saturday with game highs of 31 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, and now has three triple-doubles in seven playoff games – all against the Clippers. He joins Magic Johnson (11) as the only players to have three or more playoff triple-doubles before turning age 23.
Doncic also is the ninth player in NBA history to have 30-point triple-doubles in multiple playoff series, and is the youngest to have s playoff triple-double on the road.
But it wasn’t as if this was an easy day for Doncic, as the Clippers threw everything at him. Seemingly every Clipper who got in the game took a turn trying to slow down Doncic, who was 11-of-24 from the field and 5-of-11 from 3-point range.
“He’s a very unique player for a 22-year old,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “The level of poise that he has and his ability to slow down the game to see what’s going on even when the (24-second shot) clock is at six or seven seconds, he’s still able to slow it down and hold that ball just long enough to get a teammate a great look. He was great tonight and I thought his defense was very good, too.”
It’s Doncic’s high basketball IQ, Carlisle has often said, that separates him from most players. That was certainly put to the test against a Clipper team with a bunch of top-level perimeter defenders, including Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo.
None of them, however, were a match for Doncic.
“Hey look, this is (Doncic’s) time of the year,” Carlisle said. “And he’s one of the smartest basketball players you will ever meet at any age (and) at any level.
“He knows that we’ve got to be a next-play mentality team and that he’s got to be one of the leaders of that charge. And this series will continue to be extremely challenging in that vein because of the physical nature of it and the fact that the Clippers have a bunch of great defenders and they’re throwing all kinds of different looks at him as well.”
Once Doncic saw the Clippers switch defenses and decided to take the ball out of his hands in the fourth quarter, he knew exactly what to do.
“I think I just got to adjust,” he said. “When they don’t double, attack it. When they double, there’s somebody going to be open.
“I just got to read the game, and that’s the point for me.”
The Mavs’ supporting cast certainly read the game. That includes a key basket at the buzzer by Josh Richardson that gave the Mavs an 86-80 lead entering the fourth quarter.
When the Clippers decided they couldn’t stop Doncic with their legion of defenders – he had 30 points through three quarters – they spent the balance of the fourth quarter trapping him with two players. That strategy didn’t work, either.
In the fourth quarter, Jalen Brunson stepped up with nine of his 15 points, Dorian Finney-Smith scored six of his 18 points, Kristaps Porzingis tossed in six of his 14 points, and Tim Hardaway Jr. poured in five of his 21 points.
“When Luka gets going, me personally I just try to stay ready because I know they’re about to start trapping him,” said Finney-Smith, who was 7-of-9 from the field and 4-of-5 from 3-point land. “That’s when (Doncic) gets to finding people and slinging the ball across the court and finding guys when they’re open. I know they’re going to send guys at Luka. I just got to be ready to shoot.”
Hardaway, who was 8-of-13 from the floor and 5-of-9 from downtown, also felt the Mavs had to make the Clippers pay for doubling Doncic.
“They were starting to double Luka, so we just tried to do a great job with the other guys that were on the floor to be aggressive when that happens and tried to find the open man,” he said. “It should feel good, because you’ve got an opportunity to get an open shot if the ball is moving the correct way.
“Or once you get the ball out of the trap, you are that man that makes the plays and you are a playmaker at that point. When that happens, just be aggressive, make the easy play, hit singles in that aspect and just try to do the best you can to not turn the ball over.”
Rondo gave the Clippers a 98-95 lead with 6:08 remaining when he split a pair of free throws. From there, the Mavs ended the game on an 18-5 run and held LA to just 2-of-12 shooting the remainder of the game.
Finney-Smith snapped a 100-100 tie when he drained a 3-pointer with 2:48 remaining. A couple of free throws by Porzingis stretched the lead to 105-100 with 1:41 left.
After that, a scoring drive by Hardaway, a dunk from Porzingis and four free throws by Brunson slammed the door shut as the Mavs quickly snatched home court advantage away from the Clippers in this series.
“We’re a strength in numbers operation,” Carlisle said. “Luka is a great, great player and KP is a great player.
“But as a team we know that everybody has got to be ready and everybody has got to pull their weight when called upon, and today we were able to do that, which was great. The challenge going forward is going to be to maintain the edge and keep the fight.”
Make no mistake about it, Saturday was a dogfight as the Mavs try to avenge last year’s playoffs when they lost to the Clippers in the first round in six games. But this time it was the Mavs who rolled up their sleeves and flipped the script and left an indelible defensive mark on the Clippers.
“We knew they were going to make their run at some point in the game,” Hardaway said. “We just had to make sure we weathered the storm and made sure that once we got stops, capitalize, and we did that at the end the fourth.”
Meanwhile, in the first three quarters, Doncic had the Clippers running in circles and scratching their heads wondering what was it going to take to slow him down. He had the step-back 3-pointer going, the mid-range, the drives, the floaters.
“Luka has seen virtually every coverage known to mankind,” Carlisle said. “Every kind of double-team, every kind of switching scenario, switching and then double-teaming him 30 feet away from the basket. It’s just a matter of getting to the right spots when he gets double-team.
“He’s obviously very good against switches, he mixed up the step-backs and the drives. I thought there were a couple of times he could have gotten to the free throw line down the stretch, but were unlucky – he didn’t get the whistle. But he’s got to keep giving them a different dose of looks with a mixture of drives and shots and drives to passes.”
The opener of the playoffs left Luka smiling.
“Especially they’re more fun if you win, obviously,” he said. “But it’s fun basketball, I think it’s fun for the fans to watch it.
“I’m hoping that I’m at my best, but I think that’s far away. I’m only in my third season, so I’ve still got a lot to learn. We just go out there and have fun and try to win the game.”
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