LOS ANGELES — Sometimes, Luka Doncic faced double-teams. Sometimes, he saw opponents take turns guarding him. Sometimes, they even trapped him at halfcourt.
It did not matter. Most of the time, Doncic dominated anyway.
The Dallas Mavericks finished with a 113-103 Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday at Staples Center, a victory that gave the Mavs home-court advantage because of two developments that first became prevalent during last year’s postseason matchup. While the Clippers have continuously remained vulnerable as an underachiever, Doncic has continued to blossom into stardom.
“This is his time of year,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s one of the smartest basketball players you will ever meet at any age at any level.”
After posting 31 points while shooting 11-of-24 from the field and 5-of-11 from 3-point range along with 11 assists and 10 rebounds, Doncic became only the ninth player in NBA history to record multiple postseason 30-point triple-doubles. Only LeBron James (15), Oscar Robertson (8), Russell Westbrook (6), Charles Barkley (2), Stephen Curry (2), Jimmy Butler (2), Wilt Chamberlain (2) and James Harden (2) have produced similar numbers.
“I hope I’m at my best, but I think that’s far away,” Doncic said. “I’m only in my third season, so I have a lot to learn.”
He already has learned plenty. At only 22 years old, Doncic has already won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, appeared in two All-Star games and became one of the league’s most dangerous players. Doncic finished with two other 30-point games against the Clippers in their six-game first-round series last season. Doncic also buried a game-winning 3-pointer in Game 4, a play that Carlisle likened to something James or Larry Bird would do. Less than a year later, Doncic still gave the Clippers headaches.
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Doncic cross-matched with Clippers center Ivica Zubac at the top of the key in plays that either ended with him finishing at the rim, making a step-back jumper or pulling up from deep. Doncic posted up an undersized Patrick Beverley before driving to the basket. Doncic sized up bigger defender in Paul George and Zubac, and he feasted on them, too. Even when the Clippers switched, Doncic either drove past them or nailed shots from deep.
“Luka has seen virtually every coverage known to mankind, every kind of double-team, every kind of switching scenario and double-teaming 30 feet away from the basket,” Carlisle said. “It’s just a matter of getting to the right spots when he gets double-teamed.”
And for the Clippers, it was a matter of rarely getting to the right spots in any case. It’s fair to question why the Clippers had forward Kawhi Leonard mostly defend Mavs center Kristaps Porzingis, given Doncic’s scoring punch. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue contended that concern “doesn’t matter” in the modern game that calls for positional versatility and switching anyway. Regardless, how the Clippers defended Doncic did not match what Lue had envisioned anyway.
“Just making sure we’re on the same page. We wanted to get the ball out of his hands in the first half, but we didn’t execute the way we wanted to,” Lue said. “We had a lot of breakdowns and a lot of mistakes defensively that we didn’t execute right.”
During their last series, the Clippers executed simply by playing overly physical with Doncic both to limit his looks and increase his frustration. The Mavericks never explicitly described the Clippers as dirty, but they considered their approach to be over the line. It also helped that Doncic nursed a left ankle injury while the Mavs missed Porzingis both because of a Game 1 ejection and a subsequent injury for the series’ final three games.
This time, none of those factors emerged in Game 1. So as Doncic met various defenders, he dominated in both the first quarter (12) and second (nine points) before the Clippers reconsidered their tactics. To open the second half, the Clippers began trapping Doncic at midcourt. Doncic still finished with nine third-quarter points, but the Clippers caught a break when he collected a third foul while the Mavericks nursed a 71-65 lead with 6:05 left. Doncic became visibly agitated on the sideline before sitting on the bench in warm-up clothes. But when the Clippers trimmed Dallas’ lead to 75-73 at the 3:56 mark, Doncic returned to the court.
“He remembers the series last year and some of the chippy things that happened. I thought last year in the series, he did a great job of maintaining his poise,” Carlisle said. “He knows that we got to be a next-play mentality team. He has to be one of the leaders. This series will continue to be extremely challenging because of the physical nature of it and the fact that the Clippers have a bunch of great defenders and are throwing all kinds of things at him as well.”
Therefore, Doncic did not fret that he scored only one point in the fourth quarter. Fatigue may have caught up to him and the Clippers’ defense relatively improved. That development also pointed to Doncic’s willingness to make adjustments. The Clippers’ heavy focus on Doncic eventually led to four other Mavs players crack double figures, including Tim Hardaway Jr. (21 points), Dorian Finney-Smith (18), Jalen Brunson (15) and Porzingis (14).
“When Luka gets going,” Finney-Smith said, “I just try to stay ready because I know they’re about to start trapping him.”
Good thing Doncic and his teammates stayed ready. Doncic set up Porzingis for a dunk before swinging the ball to Hardaway Jr. and Finney Smith for consecutive 3-pointers that gave Dallas a 103-100 lead with 2:50 left. Just over a minute later, Doncic found Hardaway Jr. open for a layup that gave the Mavericks a seven-point cushion.
“I just got to adjust,” Doncic said. “When they don’t double, attack it. When they double, somebody is going to be open. Just read the game.”
Doncic read the game well alright — enough to steal Game 1 and etch his name once again in the NBA record books.