No Moment Is Too Big for Luka Doncic

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2020

Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic (77) celebrates a three point-basket with teammate Dorian Finney-Smith (10) during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)
Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

With just over a minute left in overtime of the Dallas Mavericks' 136-132 win over the Eastern Conference's top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, Luka Doncic had the unmitigated gall to drop a lefty, on-the-run, in-traffic, between-the-legs bounce pass to a cutting Maxi Kleber, who finished off the dime with an and-1 dunk.

Statistically, the Bucks are a powerhouse. The Mavericks came into Saturday's action with just one win in the bubble at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida. The game was in crunch time. And yet, Luka had the fearlessness necessary to throw this pass for his 19th assist:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

This pass by Luka 🤯 https://t.co/B24eQya14S

"I don't know why I did it," Luka said of the pass. "I just did it. I saw it, I don't know. I didn't think about it before—right in the moment."

He did it because that's just the kind of player he is. He feels the game in a way few ever have. He sees angles and openings that are almost indiscernible from the zoomed-out cameras covering the entirety of the possessions.

And he has a confidence that seems impossible for a 21-year-old.

Mere hours after being announced as a finalist for the 2019-20 Most Improved Player award, Luka put up an outlandish 36 points, 19 assists and 14 rebounds while outplaying Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning (and likely repeat) MVP.

No moment is too big for him. Even one of the greatest defenses of all time (which is what Milwaukee has) appears ready to be picked apart.

"If that wasn't the best game Luka Doncic has ever played, it was close," ESPN's Zach Lowe tweeted. "The list of better games than that, if it exists, is really short. Some of the best passing you will ever see—plus 36 points."


👀 all of @luka7doncic's career-high 19 assists from tonight's W! #WholeNewGame https://t.co/wAWH5h2RZC

It was his third career game with at least 30 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds. Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Russell Westbrook are the only players with more.

And Luka is all by his lonesome when you throw age into the equation. His total of three 30-15-10 games is equal to the rest of NBA history combined for players under 22.

He seems to make history on an almost nightly basis.

If he wins MIP, he'll be alone again, as the only player in league history to back up a Rookie of the Year campaign with that award.

There's almost an unspoken rule to eliminate second-year players from consideration. You're supposed to get better as a sophomore. But maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Luka is wildly unconventional.

As mentioned during ESPN's broadcast of Saturday's game, Doncic moved from Slovenia to Spain as a 13-year-old to begin his professional basketball career. Before he ever donned a Mavericks jersey, he'd already won a EuroLeague championship and a EuroLeague MVP.

The level of play there isn't quite on par with the NBA, but it's closer than many realize. And it prepared Luka in an unprecedented way.

This is not typical Year 2 improvement. This is a basketball veteran making a superstar leap.

In five reboot games, Luka is averaging 33.4 points, 11.6 rebounds and 11.6 assists. His season-long marks are up to 29.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.9 assists in just 33.9 minutes per contest.

Yes, an uptick in pace and threes have contributed to some of the gaudy numbers we've seen in 2019-20, but the game still isn't as fast as it was in the 1980s. And Luka, as well as some of the game's other heliocentric stars, deserves credit for ably carrying so much responsibility.

Doncic has largely taken over head coach Rick Carlisle's offense (another convention busted, given Carlisle's typical level of control over his teams' attacks). Saturday's numbers were special, but the way he got them wasn't terribly different from how he's played all season.

He's the conductor of almost every possession. He knows where every teammate is on every play. Opponents almost never speed him up. And he has a way of lulling defenders to sleep that makes him look like James Harden:

Dallas Mavericks @dallasmavs

Luka is so nice with it 🔮✨ #MFFL | @luka7doncic https://t.co/MmfhQXPKdK

This is a player who scores like Harden, passes like Magic Johnson and rebounds like Larry Bird. And lest you think those comparisons are too lofty, here are the top five box plus/minuses for players in an age-20 (or younger) season:

  1. LeBron James (8.6)
  2. Luka Doncic (8.5)
  3. Chris Paul (5.2)
  4. Anthony Davis and Magic Johnson (4.8)

It's early, but this is what the start of a legendary career looks like.

The next step, of course, is approaching this level of play in the postseason.

The Mavs are all but locked into a 2-7 matchup with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers. They're deep, experienced and more talented than Dallas. And they'll almost certainly open as heavy betting favorites.

Individually, Luka will likely be hounded by Leonard and George, two of the game's top perimeter defenders. But he's put up solid numbers (26.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 48.3 percent from the field) against both during his career.

The playoffs will be different. They always are. Intensity ratchets up. Defenders are generally more focused, especially star defenders.

But just like Luka isn't a typical second-year player, he won't be a typical first-time postseason performer. He plays with an audacity emboldened through years of experience.

The Clippers will likely advance to the second round, but not before Luka puts on a show.